Sunburnt in Samaipata
There are several rules to follow when packing your bag for a trip away – the most important being that it is usually not a good idea to leave yourself five minutes for the task and it is always best not to do it when you are under the influence of numerous San Mateos.
Still, I went down to Santa Cruz to spend a weekend with friends before heading off to explore Samaipata. With the partying done, Monday morning approached and it was time for me to get out of town.
Finding the bus to Samaipata was an experience in itself as all the guidebooks that I had consulted had conflicting information. Sadly this confusion was not helped by my asking several tour operators either. Eventually I went to the bus terminal and the kind lady at the desk took pity on me and my appalling Spanish and drew me a helpful map.
To get there you need to go to the junction of Avenida Grigota and 3er Anillo – it’s a bit out of the way so taking a taxi there is your best bet. There are several bus companies there and they all advertise that they go to Samaipata but when you ask them what time the bus is they shake their heads, say ‘not today’ and tell you to go next door. Still I found one company, Transportes Vallegrande, who told me that their buses go every day at 9am and 2pm.
I opted for the 2pm bus, paid my Bs 15 and decided to go to a nearby café to wait, and wait, and wait. When the bus eventually arrived I was pleasantly surprised. I had been preparing myself for three hours crushed against the window of a rackety old camper van with the sun beating in on me but it was quite a large coach and there was plenty of room for everyone. So I kicked off my shoes and prepared myself for a little snooze. No chance of that though – the views are spectacular and it’s almost worth the trip solely for them.
The only slight disconcerting thing about the journey was that I nearly missed Samaipata altogether. The bus stops quite a way out of town on the main road and it was only because I recognized the name of one of the hotels from my guidebook that I managed to leap off my seat to stop the driver again before he sped off at 100 kph.
After successfully messing up the map reading and taking the longest possible route into town, I eventually make it to the Plaza Principal where I stop for a drink and a breather. It is gorgeous. Feeling very smug with my choice of location I decide its time to find some accommodation.
Walking through to the other side of town I notice a sign for a few places with swimming pools. In my haste to pack I didn’t bring any swimwear but I decide this is not going to put me off, so I head out in that direction. It’s all uphill. It’s very hot and I am very tired. But I trudge on.
Sweaty and out of breath, I stumble across Cabañas Traudi and am greeted by the slightly odd Traudi herself and a small boy of about two years old who she refers to as ‘mi amor’. She leads me down the field to my cabin – complete with en-suite bathroom. I am suitably impressed only for this feeling to be replaced by annoyance when the dog decides to jump up on me, covering my last clean T-shirt in mud.
Traudi tells me to knock at the main house if I need anything else and leaves me to explore. The place is huge but quaint. There are a few cabins grouped together but most are spread out amongst a few fields. I seemed miles away from the main house and appeared to be the only guest, which made me feel quite isolated especially during the night with the sounds of dogs howling and strange country noises reverberating around me.
I wake at 6am and step outside to watch the sunrise. I have breakfast at 8am where I meet the other guest: 5 cats and a dog who kindly sit around my table keeping me company.
I decide it's time to pack up and head further into the action. As nice as it is – I think any longer there on my own will bore me to tears. That said though, it would be a great place to spend a few days with some friends. It would certainly make the walk back from town after dark a little less spooky.
I stroll back through town and head over to Café Hamburg and the Roadrunners tour agency for information on the area. They were really helpful and enthusiastic and gave me loads of advice but unfortunately couldn’t help me out that day as they were about to head off on a trek to the Parque Nacional Amboró.
The best advice they gave me was to walk down the road to the Museo Arqueológico first as the entrance fee of Bs 20 also includes the entrance to El Fuerte itself. The museum itself does have some artifacts recovered from the site but I’m afraid that this is quite a disappointingly small amount.
After the museum, I head back to the Plaza Principal to pick up a taxi to take me to the site. You can walk up there – its about 9km - or take a taxi, arrange for them to wait an hour or so for you and then go back to town for about Bs 50. I opted for the taxi and luckily met 3 other people planning to go up there so only paid Bs 12 – a bargain.
Arriving at El Fuerte we decide to take a guided tour for Bs 40, which is well worth it. The tour is in Spanish and I manage to understand most of it but luckily one of my companions speaks English so translates occasionally when I am looking baffled.
The views from El Fuerte are absolutely fantastic, lush green valleys and rugged forested mountains surround us. The site itself is also really striking and there are a lot of excavations taking place. Our guide tells us that they are hoping that in a few years time, El Fuerte will rival Machu Picchu. I doubt it, but it is well worth a visit.
The main part of El Fuerte is a huge sandstone rock outcrop carved with a variety of designs, including jaguars and snakes. The carvings predate the Inca occupation of the region by over 2000 years. Its name, meaning ‘the fort’ is misleading as this is believed to have come from the Spanish Conquistador’s military obsessions rather than the purpose the site was built for: religion and ceremony.
You can’t actually walk on the rock itself as it is quite badly eroded but there are platforms all around it so you can get a good look and take pictures. Be warned though, it is very windy and there are lots of loose pebbles and stones so wearing a pair of flip-flops is likely to result in a twisted ankle. I speak from experience.
Hobbling back to the taxi I am pleased to find that he has actually waited for us and he brings us back to town. Back on the plaza, I find accommodation for the night in the form of Hostel Paola, a clean and friendly place which charges only Bs 20 for the night plus an extra Bs 5 if I want breakfast. I dump my bags and decide to lie in one of the hostel hammocks on the balcony, overlooking the square.
There I meet lots of other backpackers and we have a good chinwag until one of them points out “you need cream to take the sun away”. Baffled, I look in the mirror and see the horror. I am beetroot. I had forgotten to apply sun cream and my Irish complexion is obviously not suited to the gorgeous Samaipata climate. I head off in search of some nivea and come back red-faced, literally, and decide I will have an early night. Unfortunately this is disturbed by my roommate coming in about ten minutes after me and for the next 3 hours attempting to explain Israel’s political history to me. I am already in quite a lot of pain and he does nothing to soothe my misery.
So with no clean clothes, a twisted ankle and severe sunburn I hobble back to the main road the next morning to catch a bus back to Santa Cruz. I am a sight for sore eyes and everyone lets me know it.