Travel Blog: Exploring Bolivia Santa Cruz, Samaipata & Cochabamba

Pumas in Samaipata.

We had unknowingly arrived in Santa Cruz on a May Day Bank Holiday, and, once again (as in Montevideo), as we walked the streets to main square they were deserted.

After a ‘menu del dia’ lunch of chicken kebab and roast potatoes we walked a long way to find Nick’s Adventure Bolivia. Nick’s an Aussie expat married to a Bolivian woman.

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Lunch.

We found his office-slash-house, complete with swimming pool, in a fancy part of town and the only place in Bolivia I have seen a Starbucks. His office was closed, of course.

We had wanted to book a tour for the next day to the Amboro National Park but it simply wasn’t to be. Later while buying flip flops the owner of the store explained that everything was closed because of the holidays and we’d be unlikely to book anything now.

Deflated we headed back to our hotel. At least the internet worked there, a rare thing in Bolivia.

The day picked up when we decided the best thing, and only thing, to do was go out and get pissed. We managed to find a lively late bar, with modern music –another rarity in Bolivia.

The place was full of well-off Bolivians dressed up to the nines, some of the ladies in rather sexy outfits. When Neil was in the toilet I got approached by an old, male expat from I don’t know where, who tried to chat me with the line ‘tu son tristie?’ (You are sad?). No not sad, I said. ‘Feliz?’ (Happy). ‘Si, muy feliz. Yo espero mi esposo, El es in Los Banos’ (yes, very happy. I wait for my husband, he is in the bathroom). He looked at me as if I was lying through my teeth and walked off. We stumbled home at 2am.

The next day there was nothing much to do other than what the locals seem to do on a Sunday; eat a big lunch and go chill in the square for some prime time people watching.

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Sunday Santa Cruz Plaza chilling.

I love watching Bolivians, they fascinate me. Perhaps because their culture is so different to my own. I love watching the Cholitas and younger women talk for hours, babies swung up on their backs in their local embroidered cloth, their brilliantly shiny black hair split perfectly down the middle parting and fashioned into two thick black plats, joined at the bottom by decorative tassels.

In the square on this holiday Sunday families ate ice cream from the many small ice cream carts, or drunk coffee from the man who, dressed in a smart uniform and hat, wheels around flasks of coffee and milk (I tried some and it was the worst coffee I have ever had). In almost all Bolivian plazas I’ve visited, you can spot a young couple canoodling and smooching and usually a child feeding pigeons with glee as they get drowned in dirty pigeons. On this Sunday in Santa Cruz it was no different.

One thing I did notice was, when a young girl, about 10 or 11, came around selling small candy sweets, no more than six individual sweets, every single Bolivian she approached bought one or two from her out of what seemed to be generosity rather than because they wanted a sweet treat. This generosity to those less fortunate is something we’ve seen a lot in Bolivia. In the next town we would visit, an old, frail lady with an optimistic smile came round asking for money as we ate lunch. We gave her some coins, as did every other table that was filled with Bolivians, and one Bolivian women even pulled up a seat for the lady and told her to take her soup starter.

Later in the afternoon we perused a street fair behind the big church that sits on the plaza and when we returned to the Plaza it was full of youths queuing up for some event at the church. Every weekend we have been in Bolivia there has been some kind of communal street event going on, whether it be a festival, a stage constructed in the street where a band plays live or some sort of church related event.

Samaipata

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Inca face in the mountain at El Fuerte de Samaipata.


The next day we decided to head off to Samaipata a small town two hours away from Santa Cruz.

The town is made up of five or six streets, and a mixture of expat and local restaurants and bars. Again, frustratingly, here not much seemed to be open because of the holidays. Still we had a basic dinner and found a bar open late where we stayed up to the early hours drinking very cheap wine while chatting away to a young Canadian women who lived there. She told us about a scheme another fellow expat started rehoming and getting medical treatment for street dogs. All the expats know each other in town and seem to have formed a strong community. She told us how the owner of our guest house – Lynda – had rescued her dog Shadow who was so full of mange that he was completely grey. Under Lynda’s and the local vet’s care he was now completely black, happy and healthy.

Out guest house was lovely, if freezing at night (everywhere we’ve been in Bolivia it gets really cold at night and heating rarely exists).  Lynda seemed to take a very lax view on security leaving the complex completely open during the day ‘so the dog could wander in and out’. I never saw him leave the front lawn. And our room had no lock. I mostly went with it but took the iPad and some other valuables out with me just in case.

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Sun rock temple.

On our second day we booked to visit some Inca ruins and waterfalls. Our guide, a small petite woman, arrived ten minutes early to pick us up. I stepped out in a long pattern dress and flip flops. Both our guide and Lynda looked at me like two mothers who knew better and said ‘oh you do look pretty but don’t you think you should put on some trekking pants and proper shoes’ I tried to argue that it was hot and I didn’t think we were doing any major trekking. I realised I wasn’t going to win this argument so I turned around and resolved to change. ‘That’s better’ they both chirped as I emerged in jeans and trainers, my staple outfit for Bolivia. For the record, flip flops and sandals would have been fine!

We visited the pre-Inca ruin of El Fuerte de Samaipata, a temple inhabited by different ancient settlers, but most famously and for the longest, by the Incas. The main attraction is the ‘sun rock’ carved with a snake through the middle and jaguars and other animals. It was a sacred holy site where important dead people were kept in open tombs, or what looks like upstanding, uncovered graves, a common custom for the Incas. The site is also home to small houses, and a market. You have to use your imagination as to what it might have looked like in Inca times (what is the date?) as the houses look like nothing more than stones in a square formation.

It was just us and our guide so we had the opportunity to ask her lots of questions. She spoke always first in Spanish and then in English just because she found it easier to speak in English this way but it was very helpful for picking up new Spanish words. She also drove incredibly slow, the complete antithesis of every other Bolivian driver we’ve encountered, and apologised every time she drove the car over a particularly deep pothole.

In the afternoon we walked to three waterfalls where we swam in one as the guide waited patiently. The water was so cold but refreshing. It never gets boring swimming in waterfalls.

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On the way back to the car our guide told us to pick a fruit I’ve never heard of before from a tree. It was a ‘Lima’ in Spanish, it looks like a big lemon and smells like one but if you only eat the flesh, not the skin over each segment like you would eat an orange, it doesn’t taste bitter at all but light and fresh.

The next day we left for Cochabamba. After taking some bad advice from Lynda on where to pick up a minibus to Mairana, where we had to get the bus to Cochabamba. We ended up walking around aimlessly for half an hour with heavy luggage until we eventually found the spot where the minibuses leave to Mairana. In order to get the driver to leave swiftly we paid effectively for two seats because the minivans never leave until they are completely full.

Mairana to Cochabamba was another long bus journey that seemed to take forever. At one point during the journey we were stuck on the road for half an hour waiting for a car to move out the way.

Cochabamba

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Cristo de la Concordia (Christ of Peace)

I don’t have much to say about Cochabamba, except that it was my least favourite place in Bolivia. It was a nice enough city but there really wasn’t much to do.

We waited for the tourist bus to take us on a city tour that was listed in the Lonely Planet but it never arrived.

We took an expensive taxi up to the Cristo de la Concordia (Christ of Peace) which is a statue oJesus Christ located atop San Pedro Hill, to the east of Cochabamba. It wasn’t anything special, especially compared to the one we saw in Santiago, which is much more striking. Then I was forced to take a cable car back down. I don’t like cable cars. I think my face says it all.

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I really don’t like cable cars.

Tips for fellow travellers:

Accommodation: We stayed in Casa Lynda in Samaipata. It really is lovely and great value for money. However, the shower in our room, the private room, flooded the floor (this is a reoccurring problem in Bolivia, clearly some plumbing skills are lacking) and the water wasn’t hot.

Things to do: Amboro National Park looks great. You can see sloths. I was quite disappointed I didn’t get to see any as I always joke that my husband will surely be reincarnated as one as they have so many similar traits. 🙂

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