Tornado Tour of South America – Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil
A tour of Santa Cruz de la Sierra with visits to Plaza 24 de Septiembre and Guembe Biocenter.
Santa Cruz de la Sierra
The second largest city and one of the most important for business in Bolivia started as a small settlement in 1561. Currently it is one of the fastest growing cities of the country but also a place where the silver barons built their home after amassing wealth in Potosi.
From the airport I hopped on a bus to the center in the passenger seat next to the driver. Sitting in the best seat of the bus, I witnessed some daring off roading maneuvers to avoid traffic and the bus driver adding water to his engine from in inside of the bus.
The bus driver advised when I should get off for the center square. I had to walk a couple of blocks through Casco Viejo to get there. The area seemed safe enough during the day time, but I’m not sure about the evenings.
Plaza 24 de Septiembre
This square was named for the anniversary of the revolt in which Santa Cruz gained independence from Spain. A statue of Ignacio Warnes, the war hero, stands in the middle.
Arriving at the tree lined plaza, I sat on a bench to relax and take in the scene. A lot of locals were hanging out, on their phones, reading, chatting and people watching. Police causally patrolled the center of the square.
Dominating the square is the Catedral Metropolitana built in 1915 out of brick and lime mortar. Other colonial buildings house government related groups but area ll in line with the architecture of the area.
A pleasant place to spend an afternoon if you have nothing to do.
After vetting several taxis, I selected one to go to my hotel. Twenty minutes later I checked into Aparthotel Premium Suites Santa Cruz.
I was pleasantly surprised by this hotel. Expecting a basic room, I found a full suite with a bedroom, bathroom, lounge and even working kitchen. The area seems quite safe with many upscale homes protected by shotgun wielding guards.
I relaxed in then room before heading out for dinner. A bit wary of the area, I walked a few blocks and found a great lomo restaurant, Lomitos de Hamacas. For around US$10 I got a monstrous steak kebab, full salad bar, fries, and mashed potatoes, paired with a Huari beer. There was no way I could eat it all alone. But I definitely tried.
I watched the local news as I tackled my meal and there were some pretty awful stories like break-ins and murders. I can see why every guard is armed.
After dinner I drifted into a food coma to complete my night.
The next morning I headed downstairs and met up with the driver that was arranged by the hotel.
Raul was a 36 year old with a wife and three kids. He was uncouth but genuine and friendly. We chatted in my broken Spanish on our way to the attraction. He talked about how you can get shot walking around the rich area. Hmm…
This private eco-park is famous for holding the world’s largest butterfly sanctuary about 20 minutes from downtown. It also has a few lagoons, an island with monkeys and a large aviary. Surprisingly the park also has a resort with bungalows and swanky pools mixed.
We arrived at the park and I asked the driver to wait a couple of hours. After purchasing a ticket (150 Bolivianos) I found out there was an English tour at 10 a.m. which I joined.
The guide switched between English and Spanish. We started in the visitor center where we learned about the life cycle of a butterfly.
Then we walked to an area cultivating bee hives which I thought was strange, until I found out all the bees were of two non-stinging species
Next we went to the butterfly enclosure. Inside were hundreds of different butterflies of many species. They fluttered around you and sometimes you had to dodge them or they would fly directly into your face!
We walked on a bridge over the turtle grounds where they had red and yellow paw tortoises.
Then we moved to the large aviary full of tropical birds. One parrot almost bit me when I was trying to take a selfie with it.
Then we went to the orchard farm on a large rock sculpture but due to the season, none were in bloom.
The tour ended near the starting point. From there I went to check out the monkey island, the hotel, and the large pools.
Leaving the park, my driver drove me back to the hotel and then to the airport. There was some traffic, but I wasn’t worried as I would arrive an hour and forty-five minutes before the departure.
Trying to Catch an International Flight 45 mins before Departure
Getting to the airport, I walked over to the check-in desk which was completely empty and then I noticed the sign “closed”. I asked a lady working for TAM and she said the flight closes an hour before departure and silently started typing away at her computer. I only found out later that I didn’t account for the hour time change which completely threw me off schedule. So instead of arriving 45 minutes before the check-in closed, I arrived 15 minutes after the check-in closed.
She explained the flight was closed but after I insisted she called her supervisor. Once she got off the phone she explained that the system was closed and they couldn’t re-open it. She then gave me a slip of paper with information to reschedule my flight for the day after next (as they only had a flight every other to Paraguay).
With my extremely tight schedule I wouldn’t have missed my connection to Brazil and then to the US, as well as an important event. This was not an option.
I pleaded with her but she could not help. And as she was awkwardly walking away to avoid to crazed tourist, I asked a couple of questions and found out that the flight was not overbooked, there were seats, and she told me the gate number, thought she stated I couldn’t get there without a boarding pass.
I ran up to departures and ran through to the security check. There was no line and the ticket checker watching me seemed amused and even clapped for me to hurry. Then he asked for my boarding pass and I waved my passport and the slip of paper (the one to rebook my flight) and pointed inside saying “manager” Seeing that I was in a rush he just waved me through.
Of course I had to go through security being an international flight, I had to go through the immigration. There was a huge disheartening line. As I walked to the side to skip it, a lady with a TAM name tag stopped me. I explained that I was going to speak with the TAM manager. She answered that she was the TAM manager and probably the one that just got off the phone with the lady at the check-in counter. Her first question was “how did I get here”, obviously confused on how I entered a passenger only area after she just refused me a boarding pass.
I started explaining my situation rather franticly and making a bit of a scene as everyone in line for immigration was staring. She led me away from immigration and towards the exit. If she took me outside, game over.
Please, I know I must seem like an awful passenger. I’m sorry. I hate to be like this and I know it must be terrible to deal with me. But I really need to catch this flight.
She then stopped walking maybe sensing my desperation. She explained that the system was closed and that the flight info was already sent to Asuncion. I asked if the pilot could grant me special permission to board his flight, saying I know there is a procedure for this (though I had no idea). She then walked us back to the immigration line and told me to wait. She looked at my passport and asked about onward travel out of Brazil, etc. then told me to wait and that she couldn’t promise anything.
I just stood there, sad and pathetic, with the entire immigration line of people staring at me. The rest of my trip would be determined by this moment.
Eventually another lady from TAM came over and asked to see my ticket for onward travel which I showed her on my iPhone.
She then blurted something into the walkie talkie and once she got a response she gave me a form to fill out. It something about how LAN would not be held responsible for something. Then she told me to get into the immigration line.
Two German business men who witnessed the entire process congratulated me. They were on the same flight and we spoke about travel and bureaucracy in different countries.
As we waited in line a man came up to me from the airport and asked to see my boarding pass. Of course I wasn’t given one yet.
I wasn’t sure if TAM sent him to get rid of me or if he overheard the talking in Spanish and decided to flex his muscles.
He took my passport and led me out passed security. Meanwhile I saw the TAM lady with what looked like a blank boarding pass in her hand. I started explaining that I actually do have a boarding pass that is with the manager. He didn’t understand and forced me outside and was focused on how I got in. I passed by the guy who waved me in to begin with (bless his wee heart) and again explained the situation. After repeating to several people, a girl who spoke some English tried to understand and translated to the rest of the group. The first man then walked back to check my story with the manager.
Eventually he waves me over through the window. The lady I was talking to acknowledges and I pass through security. Then the security people started yelling that I have to go through and I gestured that I just went through and continued through.
Then back in line the lady gives me a blank boarding pass and I fill in my name. First time I created my own boarding pass! I still didn’t have a seat number though.
I went through immigration which was fast, then a pointless police security checkpoint and finally a police security bag check where a lady slowly and ineffectively examined my bag. Thinking that was the end of it, I picked up my bags and started to the gate, only to be stopped and frisked.
Finally I got to the counter, had a seat assigned by the manager, thanked her again and walked onto the plane.
Walking to my seat I saw a lot of familiar faces staring at me. Yeah that’s right I made it.
That was by far the most difficult flight I ever caught. Next stop Paraguay!