Text and Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
Santa Cruz de la Sierra is history, culture, nature, and faith. This Bolivian city, which developed on the sands of the Piraí River, is home to two million inhabitants. It is now experiencing unprecedented economic and social growth and, according to resident international businessman Santiago Bernal, it is a land of opportunity.
As you walk through the city’s well-conserved old town, made up of mansions with sunny patios, corridors, and cool galleries, you suddenly notice a discordant modernism in the form of two-story buildings called “altillos,” a streetscape that reflects the city’s hectic history.
Below are three routes for approaching this unique city that will give you a more complete sense of this place that is beyond compare.
1. Cultural Tour
Santa Cruz’s cultural scene begins in the “first ring”: the old Plaza de Armas, which has over four hundred years of history and is known today as Plaza 24 de Septiembre. Along Independence Street is the Raúl Otero Reiche Municipal Cultural House (Casa Municipal de Cultura Raúl Otero Reiche), a beautiful Republican building that dates back to 1937 and today is home to the Bicu-Bicu Theater Festival and the Film and Video Festival. On the same street rises the Palace Theatre, an architectural gem built in 1918 that has witnessed celebrations, festivals, and cultural and musical events. Los Panchos, Libertad Lamarque, Luis Aguilar, and Andrés Segovia among others have performed there. On this path you will also come across Manzano Uno, a large, free, open-air cultural space where dancers, painters, craftsmen, jugglers, and storytellers gather to entertain passersby. Lovers also meet here to hang a lock on the pig sculpture as a symbol of eternal love.
On 24 de Septiembre Street, in front of the same square, the Café Lorca Cultural Center operates in an old colonial mansion that was built in 1815. At this cultural center and restaurant you can try a pastry with tea while seeing live theater or listening to music. In the same building, you will also find the Alliance Française and the Goethe Institut, cultural centers that present concerts, conferences, movies, and various exhibitions, giving a cosmopolitan touch to the tour. Another must-see site is the performing arts theater Paraninfo Universitario, a place that promotes and diffuses the city’s artistic and educational activities.
Other cultural areas include the Contemporary Art Museum, which features all the national art trends in a collection of more than three hundred works of art including paintings, sculptures, drawings, and engravings. The Santa Cruz Plurinational Cultural Center (Centro de Cultura Plurinacional Santa Cruz) on René Moreno Street #369 has several permanent and temporary exhibition halls with paintings, handicrafts, and musical concerts where the creators interact with the public in their productions. The Feliciana Rodríguez Cultural Center is a space for young creators and the Kiosko Galería is the scene for emerging artists. You can finish this tour at Plaza 24 de Septiembre with a visit to Café 24, a tourist attraction featuring the bohemia of Santa Cruz, with food, drinks, and live music by the traditional salsa group Acheré.
2. The Path of History
Laura Añez, Deputy Director of the city’s Tourism Board, advises me to begin my historical tour on Plaza 24 de Septiembre, a place that has been witness to many important events that are woven through the history of Santa Cruz. The plaza rests on the sands chosen by Lorenzo Suárez de Figueroa and Gonzalo Solís de Holguín as the final location for the historic conquest of the province.
On one side of the plaza is the ceremonious Cathedral Basilica of San Lorenzo (Catedral Basílica Menor de San Lorenzo), which was built in an eclectic Baroque style. It was built in stages, beginning in 1770, according to the desires and funds of its faithful devotees. Its elaborate wooden vaults, covered in intricate pictorial decoration, and its high altar are of rich cultural value. For ten Bolivian pesos, you can climb one of the Basilica’s lookout towers; don’t forget your camera so you can take a spectacular photo of the city.
On the other side of the plaza is the palace that houses the Parliamentary Brigade of Santa Cruz (Brigada Parlamentaria Cruceña), a classical construction with a pediment and double gallery featuring Tuscan columns and arches. In this building, lime and brick replaced adobe and wood, the traditional materials of the colonial era. This new architecture took off rapidly due to the durability of the materials and because its novelty and elegance reflected the economic wealth generated by rubber production in the Amazon region.
On the northern side of the plaza is the House of the Autonomous Government of the Department (Casa del Gobierno Autónomo Departamental), a work in neocolonial and art deco style that was the first construction made in reinforced concrete. The building is known today as the Prefectural Palace (Palacio Prefectural). Next to it is the Municipal City Hall of the Department (Alcaldía Municipal Departamental), a two-story building erected in 1901, with spacious balconies that give the plaza a touch of yesteryear.
One corner of the plaza is occupied by an iconic 1914 building where Club Social 24 de Septiembre, a Santa Cruz civic institution that is celebrating its 97-year anniversary, now operates. Here you can take a break and have lunch in a beautiful period hall that offers a menu that combines traditional dishes with international cuisine, excellent service, and a good price-quality ratio. One block from the square, the Museum of History and Regional Archive of the Department of Santa Cruz, in a stately building with characteristic early 20th century French architecture, conserves a classic Spanish courtyard in its interior. The house stores the secrets and records of the city and department. The tour ends with a visit to the Altillos de Beni, a one-story building more than 170 years old that provides an excellent example of the city’s 19th century architecture, with wooden posts, capitals, clay tiles, and partition walls. Nearby, the Altillo de la Vaca Diez is a spacious, two-story dwelling built in the 18th century in a typical colonial style. It once served as the governor’s house and today it is part of the heritage of the city.
3. The Route of Faith
Bells ring announcing mass at 6 a.m., an hour at which the faithful of Santa Cruz go to church before work. This faith had its reward, since Pope Francis chose Santa Cruz as one of his destinations on his first tour through South America. That is why this route begins in “the second ring,” with a visit to Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor), where the Holy Father’s Mass was held on Thursday, July 9, 2015. The monument, standing twenty-four and a half feet high with outstretched arms, was carved in bronze by the sculptor Emiliano Luján. It is a symbol of the faith, struggle, and unity of the people of Santa Cruz. The imposing statue, built in 1961 on the occasion of the National Eucharistic Congress, has seen the city grow, and it both welcomes and bids farewell to travelers who arrive to the lands of Gran Grigotá.
The route of faith continues to La Merced Church, the first place of worship founded in Santa Cruz de la Sierra by the Mercedarian friars who accompanied the founders of the town. It has been a cathedral since 1605. On the corner of Aroma Street and Arenales, you can see the Church of San Francisco, a National Heritage site built between 1856 and 1860. This church broke new ground with its false wooden vault and brick bell tower. The Church of San Roque, in the neighborhood of Chaparé in the first ring, is one of the most traditional, founded in 1843. It has hosted the International Festival of American Renaissance and Baroque Music since the year 2000.
Other traditional churches include the 1781 Church of Jesús Nazareno on La Paz Street and the Chapel of the Orphans (Capilla de los Huérfanos) on Manuel Ignacio Salva Tierra Street and René Moreno. The tour ends at the previously mentioned Cathedral of San Lorenzo on Plaza 24 de Septiembre, where you can admire the sunset while enjoying tea with cheese empanadas in the best Santa Cruz style.