Santa Cruz de la Sierra is not part of the typical Bolivian tour. Some tourists might spend a night there before going on to other areas of the country, but it’s definitely not a travel destination. It’s big. It’s flat. It’s dirty in most places. It has a lot of poverty and very few historic or beautiful areas to entice travelers.
But then, our family didn’t come to Santa Cruz to feast our eyes on beautiful things or be the typical tourists. We came to see old friends, make new ones and learn about how life was being lived in this country going through dramatic changes. Bolivia is the fastest growing economy in Latin America, and the city of Santa Cruz has exploded in size in recent years. However, despite the expanding industry and business sectors, poverty remains rampant. NGOs and local nonprofits struggle to support the growing needs of the metropolitan area’s ballooning population. Our family was lucky to meet many of the humanitarians giving their time and talents to improve the quality of life for the people of Bolivia. And that was exactly why we came.
I will admit that Santa Cruz can be a little challenging. We alternated between easygoing fun times with friends and awkward confusing moments trying to navigate the city on our own. Despite having used mass transit of all types throughout our journey (trains, metros, buses, tuk tuks, etc.) the bus system in Santa Cruz seriously intimidated me. No maps, schedules or directional signs of any kind, and I was never quite sure where the buses actually stopped. As a result, we opted for taxis to get us from Point A to Point B.
Sometimes even that was a challenge because the taxi drivers usually expected me to know how to get where I needed to go. “Izquierda aqui?” the driver would ask gesturing to the left as we approached an intersection. I’d think, “Yeah, sure. What the hell. Let’s try it, buddy, and see how it works out for us.” Needless to say, there were some “scenic routes” at times, but I always made it back eventually. Pretty quickly I was directing the taxis like a local…in horribly Americanized Spanish. “I need Quinto Anillo and Radial 16, but take Doble via La Guardia not Cuarto Anillo. It’s a mess this time of day.”
Our typical day in Bolivia usually involved a walk through the neighborhood on both paved and dirt roads to get to the closest taxi stand…and by “taxi stand” I mean a place where it was common to find taxi drivers sleeping in their cars. I was usually able to avoid Santa Cruz’s periodic downpours, but occasionally I wasn’t so lucky. One day it rained so hard some of the streets in our area completely flooded to about 6 inches deep. I’d worn a rain jacket, but had on my sneakers instead of the more appropriate rainy day footwear of flip-flops. (Miraculously my soggy shoes eventually recovered from the trauma.)
Sometimes a friend would drive us through the city and I would sit in awe of the ease with which they glided the vehicle through the sea of honking, swerving metallic beasts. Unlike everywhere else in the world, in Bolivia the cars entering the large roundabouts have the right-of-way. So, while you’re rounding a curve you also have to watch for cars coming in on your right at full-speed. It was nerve-wracking even for me as a passenger, yet my friends would be breezily chatting away as though we were on a slow Sunday drive down a country road. Color me impressed.
I might not have the nerves to drive in Santa Cruz, but before too long I’d gotten pretty good at directing taxis through town, learning the aisles of products at the huge HiperMaxi supermarket and even getting myself to the mall for some birthday shopping.
YAY! A birthday! Our Olivia turned 9 in Bolivia. She was particularly excited about coming to this country for the month of June due to this fun rhyming situation. Although my friend Misty and her family had left for their annual trip to the states, our new friends, the Kozels, came over for a party complete with a treasure hunt, cake and presents.
Before we knew it, it was time to leave Santa Cruz and venture to the western side of Bolivia. In a testament to what an awesome person she is, Julie Kozel, a woman who’d only known us a few short weeks, insisted on taking us to the airport early in the morning. As we said our goodbyes to her outside security, the beautiful truth about Santa Cruz was clear. This city may not boast historic architecture or gorgeous vistas, but it has some of the most amazing people you could ever meet. People who open their hearts and homes to strangers, dedicate their lives to serving others and accept the inconveniences of life in a developing country so they can leave the world better than they found it.
After a short 30-minute flight we were landing in Sucre, a colonial city said to be the most quaint and beautiful in Bolivia. Walkable, clean streets. A city center dotted with little plazas and parks. Within five minutes of being in Sucre we already loved it. As we walked up to the main town square, we bought the best strawberries we’ve ever had from a woman sitting with her fruit laid out on the sidewalk. We fed the pigeons at the plaza and then wandered over to Mercado Central where vendors were selling everything from flowers to electronics. Next we found a green space called Parque Boliviar and next to it a place Liv deemed to be “the best playground in the world!” At one point Emily got this euphoric look on her face and said, “I feel like a ball of sunshine!” When your pre-teen is making statements like that, you know it’s a really fun day.
Everything about Sucre exceeded our expectations. The only minor downside was the elevation. We’d taken off from Santa Cruz at just 1300 feet above sea level and landed in Sucre at 9000. Brian was the only one who suffered from the classic altitude sickness headache, but all of us were definitely feeling a little more winded than normal.
It had me a little worried. The next day we would be traveling to the famous Salar de Uyuni, otherwise known as the Bolivian Salt Flats. We’d be climbing up to 13,000 feet during the drive and then descending to 12,500 feet for our time there. As Brian was in bed writhing in pain that night in Sucre, the thought occurred to me that the next few days could be a nightmare for all of us if severe altitude sickness started setting in. “Yeah…” I thought to myself as I drifted off into a slightly oxygen-deprived sleep. “This part of our trip could be a total bust.”