Exploring El Fuerte (and why it’s worth paying for a guide)

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Setting off from the little bit of bliss a.k.a. El Jardin in Samaipata

Together with three German backpackers, I set off on foot along the road out of Samaipata through a landscape of mountains and greenery. ‘It could almost be Germany’, said one of the girls, ‘and that could easily be my home town’, she said, pointing at buildings nestled in an arboreous valley.

We turned off on to a dusty road and before long reached a junction. ‘If we want to go to the river, we need to go down here’, I said. I’d forgotten my map but it seemed right.

It wasn’t. After a kilometre of steep climbing a woman stopped us. ‘Go back and continue on the other road’, she told us, so we backtracked and walked a while longer, breath short at times.

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Continuing the climb to El Fuerte

Yesterday’s dull skies and drizzle had made way for a brilliant blue sky. Bright green plants clung to red rock faces and rough emerald coloured stones popped out of the red road dust. Sun and full colour saturation and fresh, mountain air. Stunning.

A little downward respite took us to the Rio El Fuerte. A woman pointed to where we could swim. ‘Dos bolivianos’, she said, hand outstretched. We each dropped two coins into her palm and headed off upstream.

Whether we reached the right place or not, who knows, but the smooth, stone landscape through which the river had carved a course proved to be a perfect stop point. We dipped into plunge pools, dunked our heads under miniature waterfalls and lay out on flat, warm rocks to dry off. We chatted and then were quiet, listening to the gentle rush of water and watching blue and yellow butterflies and little fluffs of cloud and the feint, slim crescent of the moon in a midday sky. Our own private paradise.

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River and plunge pool find before finishing the climb to El Fuerte

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Dip, dry and relax

But it was time to push on and continue the climb until eventually we arrived at the entrance to El Fuerte, no other tourists to be seen.

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The final push to El Fuerte. A flat bit. At last.

A guide approached us and spoke in English. ‘I’m Cecilio’, he said, ‘I can show you the ruins for 70 bolivianos’. The others declined and we all started to walk away, but then I stopped.

A few days earlier I’d chatted to Olaf at Roadrunners and his words were now screaming at me: ‘…get a guide, it’s a much better experience… you get a better understanding…’.

I knew he was right. Without the information I’d be looking at piles of rock, I’d fly around the site and it would only hold my attention momentarily because, well, I just wouldn’t get it.

So I retracted and paid up and for the next hour and a half Cecilio accompanied us around partially reconstructed ruins and the main hunk of rock known as El Fuerte. Regularly he stopped us and drew in the sand to help illustrate his explanations.

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Cecelio’s lessons at El Fuerte

He pointed out the stark, unusual geographical meeting point of mountains and jungle and rolling hills, and he described how cut-out doorways were used as lookouts by the Amazonians whereas the Incas used them to display their dead.

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The main El Fuerte rock

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Reconstructed ruins at El Fuerte

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Ruins at El Fuerte

Cecilio also stopped at various points to show us South American medicinal plants, including the carqueja used for liver treatment. ‘First a few beers’, he said, ‘then carqueja tea. It’s good’.

The echo point was fun, the views spectacular and the walk was varied and definitely not difficult, whilst Cecelio’s talks were enlightening and entertaining. He clearly loved the Incas for their organisation and significant progression of the site into a structured, well-built place where society was carefully managed (including assigning defined roles working the land or weaving or knotting alpaca wool, or sending girls of eighteen to marry into a different tribe or village to avoid inbreeding).

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Views from El Fuerte

And we stifled giggles when not only Incas were praised for the hundredth time, but we left with confident knowledge that it was German archaeologists that had discovered many of the buildings and artefacts. And it was in 1995. It has stuck. Thanks Cecelio.

Whilst we had barely noticed the climb up to El Fuerte due to Cecelio’s regular stops and energetic explanations, the bounce back down was still a relief. We were last out, gates were locked behind us.

We could have walked back to Samaipata but the offer of a ride back to town – 50Bs. (US$7.29/£4.51) for the four of us – was too tempting. We clambered on board a bench seat ride with some of the guides.

The car rattled and bumped down the dirt track. ‘Us poor Bolivianos’, said Lenny, an older woman whose eyes danced mischievously, ‘we can’t even afford a good car’. She grinned and then chatted away, keen to practise her English.

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The wonderfully warm and chatty Lenny and a journey of laughter from El Fuerte to Samaipata

Back in Samaipata we jumped down from the back of the vehicle. ‘Gordo’, said Lenny, ‘I’m fat and old. It’s difficult’. And with another big smile she said goodbye.

Could I have done this without a guide? Sure. There’s a clear route to follow with signposted lookouts. But, there are no information points or plaques and even with the pre-information from the museum, I would have struggled to make sense of the place.

For me it was worth it. For someone simply wanting to tick something off a list, or a history buff with a lot of reading under their belt, maybe not.

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