Parque Arenal, the first of Santa Cruz Bolivia's gorgeous city parks
is a popular stop on city tours
and is much loved by cruceños. The park evokes emotion among cambas who've been around long enough to remember Sunday strolls and paddle boating on the lake along with many traditional festivals
and events, like the annual presentation of Miss Santa Cruz on the lake's island when the city was just a tiny frontier town.
This park underwent complete renovation in 2009 and reopened on 30 May 2010 in full splendour as a gift to the city as Santa Cruz celebrated its bicentennial year. It truly is an important part of the city's history.
When I was small (and Santa Cruz was also small), Parque Arenal was THE family gathering place on Sundays. With its lazy lake and pretty peninsula, dozens of colorful paddleboats, and swollen toborochi trees for shade, it was sort of a family custom to walk across town (this being about 10 blocks in size at the time) to spend the afternoon at the park.
It was one of those long Sunday walks where you cross the central plaza, slow to match the movements of a sloth making its way across the mosaic tile sidewalk, linger to talk with someone you've run into on a doorstep a few blocks further on.
Our walk inevitably included a stop at a corner to buy a glass of fresh orange juice peeled and squeezed on the spot (I loved to watch as the lady turned a lever of her orange peeler and the peel began to curl off the oranges all in one piece). And then just as the kids were about to complain that it was taking too long or their feet hurt and by the way were we there yet?... we'd round a corner and there was the Parque Arenal lake.
Of course, just 25 years ago Santa Cruz had a population of less than 300,000. Now it's nearing 3 million and the city has become the loud, sprawling financial capital of Bolivia. But don't let that keep you from visiting the park. There might be more people hurrying through to work, but the tall toborochis and rustling palm trees I used to play under are still there, like guardians of the lake shading park benches for those who have a moment or two to sit and do some "people watching".
From colorful popcorn and souvenir vendors, to noisy ice cream vendors who squeeze their obnoxious little horns every 15 seconds, to couples and kids leisurely making their way around the lake, there are plenty of people to wonder about.
You can now cross two bridges to walk out onto the small "peninsula" and admire the enormous mural made by Lorgio Vaca, one of Santa Cruz' most famous artists. There is a plaza on the peninsula with shady trees and benches as well - it's peaceful here and quieter.
This is the park where the Museo Etnográfico (Folklore Museum) used to be. The municipality has taken it down due to the renovations. Some of the artifacts that were housed in the museum are in storage and some have been sent to the Centro Cultural in the Villa 1ro. de Mayo neighborhood. This cultural center is located right behind the "Sub-alcaldía Municipal" (that's the sub-section of the Santa Cruz Mayor's Office that operates in this neighborhood).
Parque Arenal is a frequent stop on city tours, but if you want to get a taste of real life in Santa Cruz, walk the park, watch its people, choose a shady bench and "laze" for awhile. And before you leave, say hello to the big fat toborochi tree.