Carnival, Spanish School and Life Lessons
Trip Start Oct 16, 2010
58Trip End Aug 01, 2011
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Where I stayed
Hotel Milan Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz is not much of a city as you're arriving on a bus at the dirt (and who-knows-what) infested bus terminal. But once you start to walk around you will fall in love with the city and feel at home (understanding that the home has just been built and still working out the kinks). Consider that this city of well over a million people had only gotten streetlights two years ago, and the people have not quite figured out how to use them. The city is made up of "rings" so have a map or you will be lost. February is a strange time to visit because of the "Febrero Loco" with 90 degrees and sunny 1 minute, and pouring big rain drops the next minute.
Santa Cruz day 1
The bus from Cochabamba was
We were finally able to check-in to the LP Hotel and ended up in an amazingly spacious room with a real bed to take a nap on. The LP is listed as the number one hotel in Santa Cruz on Trip Advisor, and besides the Bolivian-ignorant staff, it did not disappoint. We ended up with a suite since that was all they had available and for about $60 per night it was definitely the most relaxing room we have been in.
We had seen some apartments online that we were interested in renting for three weeks so we
Santa Cruz day 2
Definitely the LP Hotel does not have world class customer service but they do have an amazing buffet breakfast with eggs, fresh fruits and breads. Yum! By 10am, the sun was already shining and the temperature was quite hot. We filled our local map with “x's” so that we could spend another day scouring the city for some longer term habitations. This city is seriously in need of lodging options. There is really only one hostel and it is too far from where the action is, leaving all of the hotel options either too dingy or overpriced.
We were moving fast in order to get out of the heat as soon as
The temperature was nearing 100 degrees and we had already seen everywhere in the 1st ring (the city is developed on a ring system spreading outward) so we did some dirt cheap shopping on the street for sunglasses and sandals. After checking out the 7 Calles shopping district and not finding an apartment, we once again needed an air conditioned place to cool off. We found what seemed like another hidden gem off the main square, Margueritas, for margaritas yet it was just a smoky bar with far too expensive drinks. We wanted to try the food some other time, but given all the options and our bad experience this first trip we never made it back.
Finally arriving back to the hotel at 5pm after a long 6 hours of walking in the sun we re-grouped in the comfort of our white on white room, cooling off and cleaning up for the evening’s festivities. For dinner we decided to check out one of the nicest options in Santa Cruz, the Peruvian restaurant, Tanta. It was not really as impressive as our expectations led us to believe it might be, but the service and the fusion food were excellent, just no real Peruvian food and the pricetag is a little suspect. Probably worth being on the regular rotation if you lived in the city.
Santa Cruz day 3
Thank God it was pouring rain since this heat wave has been wiping us out. Since we were stuck in our comfy room surrounded by lavish pillows, floor to ceiling windows, and comfort we decided to relax it out while doing a little work trying to accomplish some future trip planning. We only ventured out of the hotel once, to the Cine Center in order to get a late lunch at Med Resto bar – the wings were really good but the rest of the food was just OK. . Bee was already not feeling good, most likely due to the dramatic change in weather, so we just sat in our gorgeous room watching television and continuing our blogging.
Santa Cruz day 4
This wass our Equipatrol day, a posh district in the second circle. This is supposedly one of the nicer areas for staying and going out but there really is not much beyond the main street, Avenida San Martin. After another nice breakfast we caught a taxi so as to check out the area in the day before returning later that night. We walked the entire strip of half decent stores, restaurants, and pubs. It is very difficult for nicer places to open in Bolivia because there is not a lot of disposable income and foreign investors will not bring in name brands and invest in developing places because the society is so lawless and shaky. For example, there is no need for Hollister or Gap to build a store here because anyone can build the exact same store right next to it and legally sell the exact same brand made with cheap ripoff. The nicer stores even sell ripped DVD’s of movies while they are in the theater for about $1.
We decided to check out a small chain restaurant that appeared to be quite attractive, the Swedish looking Slätkiš. This place turned out to be horrible. It was an overpriced deli case lunch. Given our daytime disappointment with the area we headed back towards the hotel, with a stop at Laguna Arenal, near the center of the city. It appeared as if this could be a nice little park but for some stupid reason they put a fence all the way around it so as to make the whole area unattractive. We think their intention is to keep out the riff raff Bolivians peeing and throwing trash everywhere, but what is the point if the people cannot enjoy it? Maybe they should open it up and uphold some public urination and littering laws? What a concept!
Once back at the hotel, we enjoyed an afternoon of spoiling ourselves in common manner with wine and chocolates. Naturally, the hotel customer service failed us again in not being able to retrieve ice for us, even though there is a restaurant onsite. They told us to go walk to the store so we calmly walked away cursing them under our breath. What is the point of a nice hotel if they cannot take care of the little things, and their slogan is, “It’s all about the details.”
We picked up a pizza at Eli’s which turned out to be pretty decent. DON’T GET THE PIZZA CONO! Yuck. Great concept, poorly executed. After a little rest and a bath in the Jacuzzi tub we prepared for our nighttime exploration of Equipotrol.
A taxi from the center is only a couple dollars. Equipatrol at night is really not what we expected. This is definitely not a “zona rosa”. There was a street closed off but we are not sure why as there were really not a lot of people in the street. There was a fairly extravagant wedding taking place in one building and there are a few more ending the dining scene and starting the dancing scene. We decided to walk up to the second floor of one building and try Freedom. The cover was $4 for Bee and $6 for Raymie which covered free drinks from one of their three tubs of mixed headaches. They claimed the three mixtures were vodka oj, mojito, and jungle, but really they were all straight sweet filth. Of course we tried all three and actually somewhat enjoyed the young vibe that the DJ and crowd were throwing out but we were ready to seek out a little more excitement.
Note – If you are always looking for the nice Sunday afternoon lounge like myself don’t be fooled by Mad Lounge. I thought for sure we stumbled back into the same gem for a Sunday afternoon hoe-down but alas no, they were open only for youngsters (under 18 maybe).The funny thing is we had just been liquor shopping and had a couple bags of alcoholic products in our hands as we talked to the bouncers trying to get in the underage party. In retrospect we were some kind of funny dealers.
Santa Cruz day 5
The Tale of Two Suites
Due to our carefully maintained budget, we had to move hotels, from the LP Hotel to Milan Hotel, from one suite to the next. Our new suite is right across from the Cathedral in the main square, and like the LP it was fairly spacious and had a refrigerator, but that’s where the similarities stop. For about half the price we moved into a somewhat seedier spot. The hotel is actually fairly decent and was definitely good for the price in comparison to the competition, but definitely a big step down from where we were. At least there is a breakfast (not good) and a rooftop terrace overlooking the church at the plaza. And we had constant streams of the oddest wood ants that would build castle-like tunnels out of our walls, every night. Very strange but we stayed.
We were a little run over from the previous evening so we took it easy considering our big day tomorrow, first day of school. We watched a Superbowl rerun, did some Shaggy dancing style, and went to the Pícolo for the first time for soup and big beers (Denny’s food with big children’s playgrounds – very popular concept in Bolivia) with Pooh and Tigre walking around.
After lunch, we went to the supermarket to try on carnival hats and then had a beer in our room during an amazingly thick downpour. We tried to find the Bolivian Culture Center as it was Japan Day but after being misled twice by its location, once we found it they were at capacity and we could not enter. We did have the opportunity to check out the cultural center artwork by Gíldaro Antezana - amazing detail as the artist makes his design look so easy, but that's why it's so good. By the time we went back to the main plaza (100 feet from our hotel) and finding out we were not getting in, we conceded to finding sushi, and did so at Sake Toscano. Outstanding food but a little pricey and for some reason they don't have Sake on Sundays. I asked them why in every way possible but the answer was simply, no sake on Sundays. To make up for the shortcoming, we ordered a warm white wine to simulate sake but it was alas it was more like room temperature and barely satisfied the purpose. If visiting Sake Toscano be aware of the great amount of queso crema they stuff in the sushi rolls, the great spicy jerky-like Ginger, and the nicest waiter ever to put up Raymie's sell-fishness.
After a nice late evening walk around the plaza we stumbled upon YUYPY, a yuppy skybar on the roof overlooking the plaza for some realization> We are Young Urban BackPackerS YUBP'S, Raymie is hil-Larry-ious and don't fa-get about it. We managed to make it home by 11pm so we can be ready for school
Santa Cruz day 6
We woke up too late for breakfast at the hotel and Raymie wanted a fish sandwich so we headed back to the Irish Pub in the plaza. Someone must have tipped off the protestors because they were back with a band and fireworks. The police were also ready with their riot gear but once again it was peaceful. The Irish pub has such amazing food, no fish sandwiches but the fish and chips and the Irish club sandwich were fabulous. Really hit the spot.
It was almost time to meet our Spanish teacher, Hugo, so we gathered our things and grabbed a taxi. The 15 minute taxi ride took 40 minutes because the directions that were sent to us were missing the street for the school and there is no sign on the outside either; just a red door. The infrastructure in Santa Cruz is ridiculous – only half a mile out of the city half of the roads are dirt and everything appears to be chaos. We only found it after the taxi driver called him from a payphone. Hugo from the school was very nice as he assessed our Spanish skills. After an hour we made plans to return the next day to begin our intense classes. It was too hot today to do anything but stay inside and do some blogging. At 6pm we headed out to find Chinese or a pizza place but as we explored a new part of the city it started to pour down rain out of nowhere. We ended up at La Casona Bistro (222 Calle Arenales) with the most amazing authentic bratwurst and delicious melon with Serrano ham. OMG! This is a Must-Go-To place. Wow! We were slightly over our budget so no more adventures tonight but it was worth it.
Santa Cruz day 7
Once again we woke up too late for breakfast (but it’s really not worth waking up for anyways) and the Wi-Fi still doesn’t work so we headed over to Cafe 24 for breakfast and to use the internet. The coffee is so fresh here and they have a real espresso machine. The small ham and cheese croissants are good but small so we had some delicious empanadas at the plaza before heading to Spanish class. Today we learned so much and our sentence structure has already expanded greatly.
Santa Cruz day 8 – 16
This was our all – intensive Spanish school learning so there it is not necessary to give a day-by-day account. We made a good choice with our Spanish school instructor. Although it is extremely difficult to find the place the first time and the lack of city infrastructure along the way might be a bit of an initial shock to western citizens, our instructor, Hugo, was very good. The school appears to be a product of three people who offer outstanding personalized service. We would definitely recommend 1on1spanishaymara.org.
Otherwise, we will list the great, good and bad places we visited during these two study weeks:
Best liquor store south of Mexico, De Licor! When we stumbled across this place on a Sunday afternoon we were just passing through a hot day looking for any excitement. This is the place! This place has an absolutely mesmerizing assortment of beverages and products. Although they were not serving drinks in the back bar on Sunday afternoon, we were told we could drink beer in the store while we shopped and dance in the aisles, which of course we did. We walked up and down every aisle twice. We ended up getting out of there over an hour later with almost $60 in purchases.
If you ever walk down the street and there is a sign pointing to a makeshift restaurant in the back of a clothing store, Almuerzo Familiar, it’s probably the place to go, cheap and good home cooking.
Parque Urbano is a really nice place to take a walk and they even have a decent selection of public exercise equipment. We actually came back here a few times to run around the park and use the equipment. Like all things Bolivia, the park is deteriorating and receives little upkeep
Ichiban is a really nice stop for sushi. The ambiance is cozy, and the food is good (sake available on Sunday), but the great service is really what makes this a good spot. What a refreshing change from the typical service ignorance.
There was a very friendly computer store off the plaza that did nothing to rip us off – about as much as you can ask for in a little computer shop. The shop keepers tried to teach us a little about their culture while we waited for a cord to come and they even allowed us to purchase just half the power cord for our laptop once we knew that only half of it was not functioning.
Bierzo is a really comfortable corner spot for beers and real Spanish tapas. The owner’s accent gives away the authenticity of his Spanish fare.
Brazilian Fast Food is a little chain growing in Bolivia that has really good Brazilian pasteles and nice salads. It is one of the few places you can go to get a yummy change of pace fairly inexpensively. They also provide Wi-Fi.
We managed to run across a very good natural food store between Parque Urbano and the main square. We managed to pick up the supplies for a wonderful Serrano ham, goat cheese, mango and wine dinner. Unfortunately we cannot provide the name for future travelers, but I am sure it can be found with little difficulty and I highly doubt there is more than one store that provides health conscious options.
Zentrum Disco is a bit small but has decent music $1.50 cover each and $3 drinks.
The Urban Lounge seems like a great local spot but the setup also makes it seem a little clicky. The $3 it costs to enter is augmented by a free redbull. All we needed to do was buy a few $3.50 shots of vodka. Not a bad deal really. The music went from nice down-tempo to more rockety house music but naturally shifted into changeover crap. We had to leave eventually.
Bupi was also an OK club to check out. We happened upon a decent live band playing current hits and live salsa. The prices were OK too, $1.50 cover for guys and $3 drinks.
Ikiraus at the plaza is a decent place to stop for a cup of coffee, empanada, and some Wi-Fi but the food is not very good.
Los Herreos was decent for steak and beer. We were somewhat celebrating going to Spanish school and doing something with ourselves. That said, we definitely ordered the wrong thing. It appeared that the way to order in this place is big. Go with the big plates of meat.
Jalepeños is a decent low cost option for Mexican food and beers.
Chifa China was very decent for takeout. It is a huge restaurant but not really worth going out of your way to find.
Victory Italian is an OK spot for pasta, however, like most restaurants, don’t expect everything on the menu. What makes this place is the 2nd floor patio overlooking the street. You get to hear Picolo music too, woo hoo.
The Pub, OK place to have a beer while waiting for a pizza from Elis. The place was filled with both locals and foreigners searching for the rare bar-like atmosphere.
Portofino Café is a stop for Wi-Fi and coffee. We looked at their menu but it seemed a bit pricey. There were a number of locals so maybe we didn’t give it enough of a chance but I think we’ll let the next travellers do that.
The flea markets around town are really full of fleas. Unless you are looking for some low cost Carnival ware, which we happily found, you best flee the area.
We stopped in the Cafe in Equipetrol for a Sunday afternoon beer and slice of lemon pie. It looks like some kind of home cooking, but the service was not warm and the experience did not leave us thinking we needed to come on back y’all.
How can a whole country be out of change? Make more change. Is it that hard to circulate more change into the country? We were denied service at grocery stores because they wouldn’t give us change.
Chifa at 7Calles is not to be remembered
Don’t eat at the Cine Center. We knew this and we ended up going back because we thought we saw Mexican food. Alas, it was not open and we checked out the “Gyros” place for comida La Griega but it turned out to be an absolutely disgusting experience. Don’t do it.
The Not Quite Sure
The jazz place we stepped in for a hot second and checked out their menu and entertainment offerings. This looked like one of the hidden gems of Santa Cruz, although a bit pricey. Unfortunately we never made it back to try the offerings so can’t give it much of a review but we are interested to know more about it.
What a Suprise
Watch the Bolivian movie, ¿Que mata la llamita blanca? It is a very accurate portrayal of Bolivian life.
I don’t know if it is really much of a surprise, but while we were staying in Santa Cruz the bus drivers decided to strike. Rather than solve the problem, the city simply hired people in flatbed trucks to drive around the city and transport people, standing in the back of these trucks. I just cannot imagine such actions in a modern society. The bus drivers complained about not having enough money, but all the buses (privately owned) were sitting outside of bars while the drivers drank during their “strike”. Crazy!
As Carnival neared there was definitely a buzz in the air. We encountered numerous pre-Carnival parties including huge bands and dancers in the main square and behind the cathedral. The Sunday previous we even stumbled across the Little Miss Carnival (Corso de los Chicos) parade. There were about 50 young girls waving and dancing atop elaborate floats. It was a nice family event but kind of eerie to see these young girls all dressed up in sexy carnival dresses and smothered in make up doing Brazilian shakes atop large floats parading down the streets. Something just didn’t feel right.
Santa Cruz day 18
Saturday, was our first day
About 7pm, the parade of course had not even started yet, so we walked back down the parade route and checked to see what other parties we could join,. The prices for the nice parties were about $50 – 80 which included a little food and all the beer you could drink. We decided we couldn’t justify spending that much in Bolivia for beer and changeover DJ’s so we snuck our way in front of a couple parties to view the parade and drank the plentiful $1 beers from the local vendors.
The parade finally started a few hours late (due to the Bolivian government pulling the sponsor plug away from a local television station, which in turn removed any sort of organization it once had). There were some nice sights and sounds and the foam and paint flew everywhere, but by about 10pm things started to get a little out of control .The hours of drinking had definitely worn on the mostly young crowd and the paint turned into punches. We started to make out of the parade zone, but had to be very strategic as it became somewhat of a war zone. We didn’t really want a lot more paint on us, but more so didn’t want to get caught in the middle of these rumbles. It was absolutely ridiculous and the cops that were standing around really didn’t seem to have any care about what was happening in the streets. Needless to say, we slipped out of the “party zone” as quickly as possible (which was kind of a shame because it is supposed to go on until at least 5am). It was a pretty sad representation of Bolivia but at least we made it.
We walked back to our hotel where the centers eight blocks were closed off (due to violence and vandalism). It was extremely quiet but nice in the empty center square. We chatted with the workers at our hotel who were kind enough to offer us a beer. Afterwards, it was back to our favorite club in Santa Cruz, Ganesha, which was mostly dead, but still playing amazing music. We danced the night away.
Santa Cruz day 19
Of course we took a nice long rest and then Raymie ran to Picolo for an absolutely horrible take out lunch. It took a long time for really bad food but at least the service was nice. Then it was time for another day of festivities.
We dressed up in our funny carnival gear (Raymie’s purple coat and Bee’s Orange dress) and headed out to the rambunctious streets. Within one block of entering the festivities, which covered the entire downtown area (except the center 8 or 9 blocks) were inked, squirted with water, sprayed with beer and foamed up. It took about five minutes to go from perfectly clean to colored up and down. Clean gringos are obvious targets. People were spraying everyone with everything imaginable. Some people sat outside their buildings with hoses and buckets of water. While vendors encouraged the debauchery with extremely cheap bottles of ink, squirt guns and cold $1 beers. One unfortunate aspect was that you had to keep your glasses on even when the sun went down to protect your eyes. We only had a few beers as we waded our way through the camaraderie and had to go to Dumbos for dinner because there was nothing else open that was decent. Dumbos is another one of these stupid Denny’s food /playland restaurants that is barely worth the calories they provide. Again, the plaza was closed off but our hotel was in the areas so we were one of the select few with access. We strolled the empty park and made it a relatively early night yet the music outside blared until the wee hours.
Santa Cruz day 20
Given that the carnival action is really
Unfortunately, something happened because the next thing he remembers is getting carried home the next morning. Apparently, while walking back home, amongst the drunk partiers, he was hit in the face and mugged. We know this because he had a cut on his nose, and his money, camera and wedding ring were stolen. Not to mention the cheapest necklace. Very sad and scary situation but the fortunate part is that someone did bring him home the next day in a daze (and wet for some reason). This definitely will leave a bad taste in our mouth about the area but one should not be walking alone at night amongst all of these drunken revelers.The real lesson, however, might be one that we were taught in our time in Parque Machia – Don’t get too comfortable. At the park, working with the animals it was explained to us that most often people get hurt on their last days because they get too comfortable with the animals. Because we had walked this area for three weeks I probably got too comfortable and let my guard down. You have to keep your guard up until the very end.
Santa Cruz finale
After all this, we are done with carnival. It was OK but definitely not the best party in the world. We spent the day recovering, watching TV and picking up pasta from Victory Italian. We were excited to do something good as we are off to volunteer in Villa Tunari, at the Inti Wara Yassi animal rescue.