History and Background
Now it's in the limelight again, as a regional transportation hub, natural gas pipeline link, free trade zone, and eco-tourism magnet. To be fair, it's come a long way from when it was affectionately known as the "armpit of the world", but it's not exactly eye candy. Located 391 miles (631 kms) from Santa Cruz, along the southern edge of Laguna Cáceres and almost at the very end of the railway to Brazil, it is not the final stop, no matter what some guidebooks claim.(That honour belongs to Puerto Quijarro just 9.3 miles - 15 kms - down the line.) Most people coming here make the trip by train, in which case those 391 miles seem more like 3,910 by journey's end.
One also can fly - a favourite mode of the area's seasonal big game hunters - direct from Santa Cruz on TAM (976.2205). And a few hardy souls drive across the Chiquitania (except during the rainy season when the roads are often impassable) to reach Puerto Suárez. Why would anyone come so far? There are no Jesuit missions, no bucolic villages or sweeping, panoramic landscapes. In fact, the place is pretty ugly by most accounts.
For one thing, Puerto Suárez sits at the very the heart of the Bolivian Pantanal, so this is the holy grail for exotic and rare game hunters/poachers, as well as those with more honest eco-tourism agendas. For another, it is still the principal point of entry for a huge percentage of Bolivia's imports (a good portion of them illegal), and conducts a thriving black market trade with Brazil. Commerce is king here. Unfortunately, a lot of it is sub rosa to the extreme.
If your car's been stolen, look for it here first. Wondering where those sketchy looking pills came from? Chances are, some hack pharmaceutical shop here. That guaranteed genuine "gemstone" offered for next to nothing? It was likely manufactured here. That home entertainment centre with instructions in Korean only? It's no accident it wound up here. You get the point.
In a frontier town like this, you can participate in this organised thievery - with ridiculous ease - but if you're caught (and as a gringo you will be, and also singled out for punishment), you'll be sending postcards from a Bolivian gaol, which is not at all where you want to be. So if the urge to plunge into the booming commercial contraband trade gets to you, hike over to Puerto Quijarro's zona franca (free trade zone) instead. Everything is legal there, and still comparatively inexpensive. It beats an interrogation session with the police any day.
Where to Go
As with most of the towns in the Sureste Cruceño, Puerto Suárez also has its fair share of balnearios, which are absolutely necessary to escape the heat. The best is El Salao, 3 miles (5 kms) east of town. A little closer on the southeast side is La Vertiente. Both are free and have snacks, showers, and changing rooms. (On the weekends they are very crowded.) The best is La Represa, 25 miles (40 kms) southeast of town on the way to Mutún.
By the way, a trip to Mutún itself is pointless, although you'll be surprised how many taxistas will want to drive you there. Mutún is a mountain, with mining shacks at its base. Hot, dirty, and dull - unless you enjoy staring at what is rumoured to be the world´s largest manganese deposit. (It isn't, but it makes for good local copy.) Ever since the Indian mining firm Jindal invested billions in winning extraction rights to Mutún - only to lose them thanks to Evo's demagogic pretensions of protecting "national sovereignity" (the same fate that befell Brazil's EBX a few years earlier) - more foreign investors have been beating down the door. Don't hold your breath, however.
On the other hand, if you want the best bolivianite (ametrine), especially uncut, Puerto Suárez has it. A beautiful purplish stone, do not mistake it for amethyst (the better shops will make this clear from the start). On the other hand, if it's amethyst you want, that's here, too. In fact, Puerto Suárez is the country's centre for rare gem production, cutting, and exporting.
The rest of what people come to Puerto Suárez for is found further away from the city, although before heading out, ask at the alcaldía's Oficilia Mayor de Cultura y Turismo (976.2156). As with the Chiquitania in general, events and activities often materialise with no prior notice, and sometimes the best advice comes simply from asking the local grey beards.
The top draw is the Pantanal and all that goes with it: endless waterscapes, rare flora and fauna, and some of the very best eco-tourism anywhere in the world. You will not be disappointed if you're after exotic species. They're literally everywhere you look outside the city, including more than 400 different types of butterflies, 700 reptiles, and 1,200 birds. But note that with the super-abundance of options also comes a deficit of local services. Puerto Suárez is not Samaipata or Buena Vista, much less Rurrenabaque, and the local tourism infrastructure is limited. Consequently, arranging a truly top-notch tour of the Pantanal is usually not done in Puerto Suárez. For this you'll want one of the high-end agencies in La Paz or Santa Cruz, who leave less to chance. All the same, you can see an enormous amount on your own here, or with a local guide. Some of the better known ones are Tours Aguas Tranquilas (976.2468) and the Asociación de Pescadores de Puerto Suárez (976.2778).
You have far more than Laguna Cácerces (rumoured to have the most beautiful sunsets in the country, best seen from El Mirador) and the Río Paraguay from which to choose. There's also Laguna Madioré to the north, two natural canals - Sicurí and Tuyuyú - that are home to some of the world's rarest water lilies, a welter of smaller lakes (La Gaiba and Uberaba, especially) that practically beg the visitor to jump in for a dip, and the Tres Bocas confluence with its spectacular bird-watching opportunities. And the list goes on a long way yet from there.
Further south is the famous Parque Nacional y Área Natural de Manejo Integrado Otuquis, home to the Otuquis tribe, one of the last groups of indigenous peoples who still live largely as they did before the arrival of the Spanish, although their native language is now extinct. You can get a glimpse of the beauty of the park much closer to town, at El Tumbador, a biology station run by Hombre y Naturaleza, a highly regarded Bolivian-Spanish non-profit ecological conservation group. They also arrange local eco-friendly tours and are a reliable source of information for conservation efforts throughout the Pantanal. El Tumbador is on the road towards Puerto Quijarro, and contains a small but intact section of the almost-extinct Chiquitano dry forest.
If the wetlands aren't of interest, you can head west 7 miles (11 kms) to the caverns of Motacusito. These mark the beginning of the Serranía Motacú and have some interesting stalactite formations, underground pools, and plenty of local fauna...including bats. You can easily find tours to here as well.
If you're heading into Brazil - and if you've come this far you'd be crazy not to - there is a consulate in town on Av Raúl Otero Reich (976.2040) where you can ask questions. For more information on the crossing with Brazil, see either the Puerto Quijarro or Pantanal - Getting There pages.
Places to Eat
in Puerto Suárez
Only those restaurants that have either a street address and/or telephone number are included here. All towns in the Chiquitania invariably have additional eateries, especially in or near the market or train station (ideal for travellers with cast-iron stomachs), but this list incorporates only those that one reasonably can expect to locate without trouble.