Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia – April 6, 2019
Departing from La Paz, one must always wake up early. Fortunately, when it is a domestic flight, it is not crazy early. Our driver from Mujeres al Volante (Women at the Wheel) was right on time for our 05:00 pick up from home.
When we can, we use Mujeres al Volante to get us around La Paz. As one can tell from the business name, it is an all-female taxi service. We like that idea because it gives women a chance they might not otherwise have. The service operates, in part, via WhatsApp. After arranging for a pickup, the service sends a text message via WhatsApp with the name, photograph, and cellular phone number of the driver. Additionally, one also receives a picture of the vehicle, including the license plate. That allows for confirmation of the ride before getting in the car.
In our experience, each driver is very kind. Each driver is also very conscientious and safe. For example, this morning, our driver stopped at every red light. That may not be all that unusual in La Paz; however, our driver remained stopped until the light turned green. That is a bit unusual. Several other drivers stopped or slowed, only to continue through the intersection. Those few stops did not hamper our progress. We quickly and safely made it to the airport at El Alto by 05:45.
It was quick and easy to check-in for our 07:30 Boliviana de Aviación (BOA) flight. After clearing the security checkpoint, we sat at Uyu café. We both had a coffee. Leslie also had a toasted ham and cheese croissant. She said it was unusually delicious, especially for airport food.
Cloudy conditions did not interfere with the air traffic. We had no problems seeing our BOA airplane arrive at the jet bridge. About 30-minutes after the aircraft arrived, we boarded. Then, right on time, we pushed back from the gate at 07:30.
At roughly 4,115 meters (13,500 feet), there is not an abundance of oxygen. The main runway at El Alto International Airport is 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) long. It seemed our airplane used about 3,990 meters of the runway before finally lifting off the ground. Even jet airplanes have trouble at that altitude. Quite frankly, that is no doubt part of the reason for so many early morning flights. As the air heats up during the day, the lifting capacity of the air diminishes.
La Paz nestles amongst the mountains and cliffs along the west side of the Andes. Santa Cruz de la Sierra, our destination, is about 554 kilometers (344 miles) east and south of La Paz. That meant our flight went directly over the Andes. Seeing some of the highest peaks in Bolivia from the air is beautiful. Two offered some breathtaking views that morning, Illimani (6,438 meters/21,122 feet) and Huayna Potosí (6,088 meters/19,974 feet). Illimani is the second highest peak in Bolivia, Huayna Potosí is the fifth highest.
We landed at Viri Viri International Airport right on time, 08:35. As soon as we deplaned, we both felt like Olympic athletes! There was more oxygen than our bodies had encountered in quite some time! We felt like we could jog to the hotel. A mere 55-minutes later we arrived at the Marriott Hotel…via a van.
The reason for our oxygen “high” was because we were low. In a little over one-hour, we transitioned from 4,115 meters to 416 meters (1,365 feet); about a 90-percent decrease in altitude! We were as giddy as junior high school kids…well maybe not, but we sure felt great!
After brunch at the hotel, we got in a taxi and headed to the Cathedral of Santa Cruz. Our driver let us out on the west side of the Central Plaza. The beautifully landscaped plaza covers one city block, containing many sidewalks. At the center of the square is a statue of Colonel Ignacio Warnes (1770-1816). He famously liberated the city of Santa Cruz in about 1813.
From the moment we exited our taxi, we heard a band playing. As we walked through the plaza, we headed toward the cathedral at the southeast corner of the square. In formation and at the front of the cathedral, was the Banda Intercontinental Poopó (the Poopó Intercontinental Band). The band hails from the Bolivian city of Oruro. The group, formed in 1964, it is famously known for playing Bolivian folk music. Every year the band performs during Carnaval in Oruro.
There were about 50 band members on the steps in front of the cathedral. Their uniforms are distinct, each member wearing a red jacket with gold and yellow accents. The jackets have the name of the band emblazoned diagonally across the chest. Dazzling white slacks offset the red coats. Each side of the pants also carries the name of the group. The white shoes are like none I have ever seen. To top it all off each member wears a brownish hardhat that carries the name of the band.
When we arrived, dozens and dozens of people surrounded the band, enjoying the music. The first song we heard was the Bolivian national anthem. After the anthem, they segued to a Bolivian folk song. We listened and watched for several minutes before entering the cathedral.
The Cathedral of Santa Cruz, completed in 1915, is also known as the Basílica Menor de San Lorenzo Martir (Minor Basilica of St. Lawrence Martyr). St. Lawrence was a Spanish deacon martyred in Rome in 258. Inside, the altar that is opposite the entry point immediately draws one’s attention. The basilica is all brick and concrete except for the beautiful vaulted wooden ceilings. These vaulted ceilings are over the central aisle as well as the two side aisles.
We opted to walk along the right-side aisle toward the front of the basilica. A typical sight in a Catholic church is prayer candles. However, I have never seen them done as they were in the basilica. At strategic points, there are metal tables. Each table is about two-feet by four-feet with upturned edges. On the flat surface, worshipers place candles. The melted wax gathers on the tabletop without harming anything else in the basilica. In front of a crucifix and depictions of Mary and Joseph were two of these tables. Off to one side of the display is a hinged door with a small slot. Many worshipers place money in the slot while admiring the display.
Further along the aisle is a wooden and glass display case. Inside are depictions of Mary, Joseph, and a young Jesus. I am not sure who the depicted person is on the left side of the display. As with the crucifix display, another, albeit smaller, metal table for prayer candles sat in front of the display case. A donation box was also available.
The next display was a life-size statue, possibly depicting St. Lawrence. Just beyond that statue, at the right side of the altar was a depiction of Mary. While we were there, a woman stood in front of the figure the entire time.
When crossing from one side of the basilica to the other, the enormous scale of the altar area is striking. The height and depth make it an expansive space, yet it does seem inviting. Because the Easter Season is approaching, purple draping is behind the altar and tabernacle. That is a pleasing offset to the wood ceilings and the mainly white walls and columns. It also makes the silver tabernacle visually pop from the space.
The base of the altar is unique. It appears to be hand-carved wood bas relief. The scene depicts Jesus among several Latinos. The Latinos are in relatively modern looking clothing, not clothing from their native past. Some of the men sport traditional hats. The lone woman does not appear to have her head covered at all. The painting of the bas relief helps bring the scene to life.
On the left side of the altar is a statue of Peter, complete with the keys to the Kingdom.
Outside the small chapel is another depiction of Mary and one of Jesus. Both have space for worshipers to place prayer candles. The chapel is small and cozy. The tabernacle is the focus of the chapel as it is in most Catholic churches.
Leaving the chapel area, one encounters another bas relief. This bas relief depicts the Holy Trinity. It looks ancient.
We could hear the Poopó Band during our entire visit to the basilica. When we emerged, we saw some dancers performing between the band and the group of onlookers. At one point, a man from the crowd began dancing to the folk song played at that moment.
Departing the basilica area, we opted to walk along the east side of the Central Plaza. Along the way, I spotted the “Barcelona” money exchange. Because of our time in Spain, I just had to take a photograph. We crossed the street and entered a tourist gift shop. After much looking, we spotted a hand-carved depiction of the Holy Family. Carved to appear like native Bolivians, both Mary and Joseph are unique. Even though we have a lot of Nativity scenes already, we could not resist this opportunity. The man that served us was very kind. He also agreed to have his photograph made while he was wrapping our purchase.
Next door was another tourist shop. There we decided we had to have two Bolivian blankets. Much like the other store, the woman serving us was kind and posed for a photograph.
At this point, it was near noon. We saw an Irish Pub on the second level of a shopping mall. It had open windows overlooking the Central Plaza. We decided that was the place to be. We walked upstairs and ordered a couple of beers. Since we had brunch at the hotel, we decided to snack on some French fries. Just as noted above, our server was kind and posed for a photograph. In return, she captured Leslie and me at our very best…
From our vantage point above the plaza, we saw a lot. I think one of the most interesting sights was the two chess tables set up at the side of the square, both occupied by chess players. For the entire time we were in the area, the Poopó Band played. They never took a break. I am sure they were exhausted whenever they finally did stop playing.
After our refreshments, we called for our taxi and returned to the hotel for a well-deserved nap.
Before we departed La Paz, our good friends Joe and Tia told us we needed to eat at the steakhouse, La Cabrera. We made reservations there for our first night in Santa Cruz. Prior to arriving at the steakhouse, we had a glass of wine in the lobby of the hotel. Drinks complete, we got in our taxi and rode to the steakhouse.
The recommendation of the steakhouse was spot-on! The building is two-stories; however, once inside, one can see the steakhouse has three separate levels on which to dine. Our table happened to be on the ground floor. Once seated, the wait staff immediately greeted us and asked for our beverage preference. Oddly enough, we selected a bottle of wine. We had a bottle of Juan Cruz Tannat which was one of the most delicious wines I have experienced.
For our starter, we selected Provoleta al Orégano (grilled provolone cheese with oregano). It was a superb way to begin our meal. We each chose the half-portion Argentinian steak for our main course. Brought to the table on a sizzling serving platter, it is almost like a fajita platter. The server cut a portion for each of us and placed it on our plates. About a dozen small ramekins containing a variety of sauces and dressings accompanied the steak. A fresh green salad came was also part of the fare. The steak, done to perfection, massaged the tongue with each bite.
I am glad we each ordered a half portion. The steaks were huge! Nearly the size of a dinner plate! I do not know what we would have done with the leftovers if we each had ordered a full steak. As it was, we could barely make it through what we had. Based on the previous sentence, one may wonder just why we ordered dessert…because we could!
Our dessert was some enormous chocolate concoction. While it was good, it was not my favorite. It may have lacked the real chocolate punch I expected. I am sure part of the issue is that I am not a big dessert eater anyway. Regardless, we both highly recommend La Cabrera. It is worth the effort to get there.
On Sunday we walked from the hotel to the Ventura Mall. The mall is an easy walk, only about one-half mile. The first store we entered was Supermercado Tia. WOW! What a grocery store! La Paz does not have that supermarket. It seemed we were in a whole different country.
The store has an entry to the mall. When we arrived, the mall was not yet open. That meant we spent our time wandering through the store. On the street side of the store was a small café. We each had a coffee and watched the other shoppers walk through the store. After our coffee, we joined the wanderers. The store had everything under one giant roof. We saw everything for which we usually shop. That is different than the area where we live. When we go shopping at home, it is not unusual to have to go to between two and four different stores to find everything we want. We made some mental notes of what we wanted to get from the store when we walked back to the Marriott.
When we entered the mall, we saw a modern, glistening, three-story structure. We strolled through every inch of the mall. On the upper level is a large movie theater complex. We almost went in to see a movie…almost. We decided not to go in because we did not see a film that we found interesting. So, we walked through a small hallway and discovered a large food court. There were some vendors we did not recognize, but there were many we did know; Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway, and Burger King, to name a few.
We had not eaten at Burger King for a long time, so we decided that day was the day. We each ordered a flame-broiled Whopper, fries, and a drink. Leslie found a place to sit while I waited for our meal. That was when I noticed the flame broiling did not take place there. That appears to have happened elsewhere. A microwave heats the hamburger patties before placing them on the bun. The Whopper was ok, but it was not what we were expecting.
Leaving the food court, we stopped at Supermercado Tia to buy a few things and then walked back to the hotel. We spent the rest of the day lounging.
That evening, we had dinner at the hotel. At the entry to the restaurant, there is a large ametrine crystal, about 18 inches wide by 12 inches tall, a purple and white quartz only found in Bolivia, on display. I have no clue about the value of that piece. The stone contains both citrine and amethyst.
We had an excellent dinner topped off with Flor de Caña 18 rum…my kind of dessert!
On Monday, one of my tasks was to view the local Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) office. APHIS is a part of the United States Department of Agriculture. It was at that office I saw the most unusual wall painting. In the corner of the front garden is a 3-D mural. It depicts the mission of APHIS. The mural focuses on animal husbandry and wildlife from the high mountains to the lowlands, including farming, and then on to the big cities. According to the locally employed staff member, the mural, completed by a local artist, cost only US$200 nearly 15-years ago. I am sure I will never see another wall like that one.
Thursday morning, we boarded a plane to return to La Paz. The BOA Boeing 737 we boarded that morning was unusual. A sign at the front entry to the plan proudly announced, “Pope Francis flew in this aircraft from Quito to La Paz and from La Paz to Santa Cruz on July 8, 2015.”
The flight to La Paz was quick and uneventful. Once we were on the ground, our bodies screamed that we seemed to have left a lot of oxygen behind! Even though we were only absent from La Paz for five nights, our bodies had to reacclimate to the thin air of La Paz. Regardless, it was good to be back home. We like the weather in La Paz much more than Santa Cruz. La Paz is cool and dry. Santa Cruz is hot and humid.