If Santa Cruz was a busy, traffic filled, pollution swamped city, Samaipata was the perfect antidote. I loved Samaipata, a peaceful town in the middle of the beautiful Bolivian countryside. A 3 hour drive from Santa Cruz, it was definitely worth the journey.
You could take a bus or even a taxi from Santa Cruz to Samaipata, but it seemed the best option was by trufi. A strange sounding name, it’s actually a kind of shared taxi that leaves Santa Cruz when full, and drops off at the main square in Samaipata, occasionally stopping to drop passengers along the way as needed. The Santa Cruz – Samaipata route seems to be a popular one so I didn’t have to wait long for my trufi to fill up, and off we went.
I already had experience of Bolivian driving from my two days in Santa Cruz, but this was in a city with paved roads, traffic lights and multi-lane traffic. Driving in the countryside apparently involves a similar disregard for rules and regulations, but this time on winding bumpy roads! The road was paved all the way to Samaipata, but in some parts where the road winds around the mountainside landslides are common, so the smooth paved road is covered in rocks, soil and only partly cleared, so the going can get a little rough. But I had been lucky to bag the front seat, had taken my travel sickness pill, was wearing my acupressure wrist bands and had a supply of polo mints to occupy me, so my tendency to vomit on journeys such as this luckily didn’t surface.
The scenery was stunning, for the first hour or so the road was straight, and we passed through small towns and settlements along the way. It was interesting to see the contrast between city life, the ‘suburbs’ and countryside as we drove. After that, the scenery began to change, the mountains appeared and the road followed the mountainside, winding left, then right, and back again. The landscape grew greener, the air fresher, and we climbed around 1200 metres to reach the lovely village of Samaipata.
I liked Samaipata instantly. The trufi driver gladly accepted his 30 bolivianos fee (around $4.35) for the journey, and pointed me in the direction of my hostel. I chose Andoriña Hostal for its plant-filled patio, views of the countryside and hammocks, and the great reviews. I wasn’t disappointed. I’d booked a private room with an en-suite bathroom for 90 Bs a night (around $13) which didn’t seem bad! I slept well in the peaceful little town, and awoke to beautiful views. Unfortunately you can only book through their website.
I arranged 2 tours during my stay in Samaipata; and used a different agency for each. In the run up to my trip I had been emailing Jaquelin from Samaipata tours, so she was my first stop when I arrived in town. I found her office, painted bright blue, and introduced myself. Jaquelin was super friendly, and I liked her straight away. Unfortunately as I am travelling alone sometimes it can be hard to arrange tours as often they require minimum numbers. I had 2 destinations in mind – the first was a trip to the Amboro national park, and the other to visit el Fuerte, some pre-Inca ruins with a trip to some waterfalls along the way. Sadly there were no tours running the following day, but I could join a tour to El Fuerte and las Cuevas waterfalls on Friday. So I continued my search for a tour the following day, as I didn’t want to ‘waste’ a day in Samaipata. I had walked past another tour office (there are plenty dotted around town) called Chané tours, and I made my way back there. There were already 3 German ladies inside, so I opted for safety in numbers and asked about a tour to the Park tomorrow. I was in luck! The Germans were planning a trip the very next day, and as the costs reduced with a higher number of people they were glad for me to join them. I signed up and went back to Jacquelin to confirm Friday’s trip to el Fuerte as well. Happy as Larry I went back to my hostel room and slept soundly.
We met at Chané tours office just before 9am. As it happened 3 more people had signed up for the tour so we were 7 in total, plus the guide. Our guide Carmelo was instantly likeable, with a wide smile and infectious laugh. He put us all at ease straight away, and we were driven to the top of the nearby hill to begin our trek into the park. We started off gently, and Carmelo pointed out plants and insects along the way, explaining their uses to the indigenous people, from teas & infusions with the plants, to using ants’ heads as stitches to seal wounds. He was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his town and surroundings. The hike got tougher as we entered the forest, and I found some parts very difficult especially at the altitude. But when we started to get to the giant fern forest it became clear why it was worth it! These magnificent plants grow between 1mm and 1cm per year, depending on rainfall, and most were over 4m high – so these plants could be over 2000 years old. (If my maths is correct!!)
We climbed up, sometimes scrambling over fallen trees and branches to reach the fern forest. I felt breathless and my legs were like jelly – mostly due to the altitude, and only partly due to my lack of fitness! Carmelo joked we needed some Bolivian Red Bull, winking that he had a bag of white powder with him if we got too tired! Not sure exactly how to take that, we laughed along until we reached a clearing and he declared a rest break. He pulled out a bag of coca leaves, a small bag of white powder, and a block of dark greeney brown substance he said was hashish – choose what you like he said! We looked nervously at each other. Was he really offering us cocaine and hashish? Was our trusted tour guide, who had led us into the middle of the forest smashed off his tits on coke? That would explain his constant joking and hyperactivity I reasoned….
After giving us enough time to process all this he finally explained – the little baggy of white powder was in fact baking soda, and the solid block was a sweet substance made of honey and sugar – both of which you take in small doses with a big ball of coca leaves to help with the effects of altitude. Visibly relieved, we all took our coca leaves as instructed – a big handful of leaves lightly chewed and pushed into a ball in one cheek, then mixed with half a leaf-full of baking soda and a smidgen of the sweet stuff to take away the bitter taste. Don’t chew too much he advised, it has to release slowly. And it will probably make your face go numb. And numb it went! I’m not sure if it helped me scale the mountain before us, but chewing coca leaves in the forest was certainly an experience I won’t forget soon!
The rest of the trek was still difficult, and by the end I was exhausted. But the views were magnificent and the fern forest spectacular.
The following day I made my way to Jacquelin’s office for 9am, to find that the other people who had reserved the tour had cancelled! However, Samaipata Tours stood by their offer to take me on the tour, so I had a private guide all to myself! We started with Las Cuevas waterfalls, and my guide here was a young guy named Dario. A first I was a little nervous being alone with him and with no clue where we were going but he was friendly & kind and we were soon getting along like a house on fire. We talked about everything from religion to marriage & relationships in our cultures, and found of course some similarities and some differences. He seemed unusual in his ‘Western’ attitude to marriage – i.e not wanting to get married to your first girlfriend and start a family immediately. I liked him, and enjoyed my time with him. He drove carefully to the waterfalls & showed me the best places to take photos. Unfortunately it was too cold to take a dip, but I did paddle my feet in the water! The morning passed swiftly, and then Dario drove me to El Fuerte to meet Jacquelin who would be my guide for the pre-inca ruins there.
Lunch was included in the tour, and Jacquelin had brought bread, cheese, ham & salad to make our own sandwiches, plus fruit and chocolate to keep our energy up! After lunch we walked around El Fuerte complex and she explained the significance of the ruins. The site consists of a huge rock, naturally found in the strategic spot atop the mountain, and various constructions around it, built by the inhabiting people. Archaeologists have found several civilisations lived at at the site at one time or another, beginning with the Mojocoya in 400 – 800 AD. The Chané people followed, from 800 – 1450 AD, they were the ones who carved figures in the rock, then came the Guaraní and the Incas, and even the Spanish colonialists used the site to secure a trade route between Asunción in Paraguay & Lima in Peru.
I was glad to have Jacquelin as my guide, as the signage around the site was sparse, and she really helped to flesh out the ruins so I could better understand its history. As we went around the site, Jacquelin also told me her story, of how she set up her own tour business after being turned away from another company because her husband was a competing guide. She built up Samaipata Tours from scratch, and now she & her husband have around 9 guides working with them – I felt honoured to have Jacquelin herself as my guide! I could tell she truly cared about her company & loved her work – she was even picking up bits of rubbish from around the site! She also explained how the rock is under threat, as the weather, lichen, and man-made influences are gradually eroding the markings in the rock. The measures that have been taken so far to try and save the rock have only made matters worse (like building a pine forest to break the wind, which led to the corrosive sap being blown onto the rock), so it remains to be seen if a suitable plan can be found to protect and preserve the history here.
I really enjoyed my day with her & Dario, and felt sad to catch the trufi back to bonkers Santa Cruz.
Find other activities in Samaipata
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