A new direct flight route from Europe to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia could open up another side to the country writes Neil McQuillian.
Travellers setting off on a South American tour rarely make Bolivia their first port of call. But as non-stop flights between Europe and the county restarted again last November (with Air Europa), it could become a more popular option. The only potential sticking point is the arrival airport: not El Alto near La Paz, but Santa Cruz de la Sierra, a tropical lowland city in the east that relatively few travellers plan to visit.
Bolivia’s largest city in its largest department, Santa Cruz is set awkwardly apart from the usual traveller route that can be traced in a north-south line running from Rurrenabaque (a base for trips into the Bolivian Amazon) through the Lake Titicaca region and La Paz to the high-altitude constellation of Sucre, Potosí and Uyuni.
The off-putting story runs that Santa Cruz is a money-making machine, and that its commercial atmosphere is rivalled for stifling unpleasantness only by the heat, dust and occasional smoke from slash-and-burn forest clearing in the surrounding area. Those in the western highlands – where most travellers spend their time – are hardly itching to dispel this notion, such is the rivalry and cultural difference between the regions. But you could paint an equally grotesque picture of La Paz if you only focused on altitude sickness, car exhaust-induced headaches and party hostel malaise.