Tag Archives: Samaipata

Trying for a smile in Samaipata

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Samaipata central plaza

On early impressions I wouldn’t say Bolivians are the friendliest of folk. Before you go get your panties in a twist about me being overly judgemental, hear me out and continue to read my blog. Things change. But, having talked to other travellers, I’m definitely not alone in this judgement.

Don’t get me wrong, along my short stay thus far in Bolivia there have been a few people that have reached out, chatted, laughed and wished me a good stay. But on the whole, connecting with the locals has felt difficult.

I had been staying in Samaipata for a few days. Each day I visited the same little shop to stock up on water and whatever else, and every day I was polite and smiled at the woman who ran the place but she refused to meet my eyes and kept her features hardened.

In the market I walked through an alleyway of vegetables and a stocky lady told me off. ‘You can’t go here’, she said curtly. ‘İLos sientos, perdon!’ I said, smiling apologetically and quickly getting out of the forbidden zone, but she just glared. No understanding, nothing.

And when I later went to buy bread, the young girl behind the counter was equally cold. This time, however, youth gave her confidence to stare me straight in the eye. ‘Un boliviano’, she said. It felt like a confrontation.

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Samaipata streets

Really, I’m isolating some incidents here. Samaipata is a fairly well-trodden stop-off on the gringo trail with a constant flow of travellers passing through. It doesn’t appear to be a desperate place and tourism undoubtedly helps to feed the local economy (hostels, hotels, restaurants, and so forth) – but maybe it’s partly the pride of the locals that creates these feelings of indifference. And possibly some frustration too.

In the taxi on the way over to Samaipata I was sitting next to a man with a computer on his lap.

What’s wrong with the computer?’ I asked him in an attempt to start a conversation. ‘Nothing is wrong’, he said, ‘it’s for my work. I work in Santa Cruz and travel back to Samaipata a lot. Samaipata is my home’. ‘Any other travelling?’ I asked him. ‘In Bolivia, yes’. He was silent for a bit. ‘I would like to go to Europe’, he said a little while later, ‘but it’s expensive’.

Another day in the park, a skinny little lady with greying plaits came and took a pew next to me on the bench. ‘Frio’, she said, pulling in her coat around her frail, ageing body. She told me that she wasn’t well, that she had heart problems. We sat quietly for a while.

Where have you travelled?’ she asked suddenly. I mentioned a couple of places. ‘Have you travelled?’ I asked her. She shook her head.

And Lenny, the tour guide from the ride back down from El Fuerte continued this narrative when I asked her whether she had lived in an English speaking country because her language skills were so honed.

No’, she said, ‘I just learn myself. I have an American friend who lives here and speaks no Spanish, so I must learn English. Then, if my English is good, if I go to America, I won’t get treated like a Mexican.’

Like a Mexican?’ I asked. ‘Yes, my friend told me that in the US they will think I’m a Mexican. I hear that they treat Mexicans bad. I don’t want to be treated like a Mexican.’

Ambitious and educated, Lenny clearly had aspirations to travel (and to be respected). I wondered whether, as an older woman, she’d live to realise that dream.

Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and it didn’t surprise me that travel was an out of reach luxury for many. All conversations highlighted how fortunate I was to be on such a journey whilst making me ponder about whether tourists swanning into these little towns, laying down their money, eating out in restaurants every day and visiting all the local attractions with such ease was generating some resentment.

In a reverse situation I’m sure there’d be moments when it would seriously piss me off, where I’d question how the hell global economies work, why such financial disparities exist.

After a few days in what was realistically a sweet little place, I decided to head on to some other adventures. I loaded up my backpack and as I walked through the town and down to the main avenida to catch the bus from Samaipata to Vallegrande, something happened.

A little girl leaning out of a window smiled and waved. Teenagers on a break from school said ‘hola’ and ‘hello’ and giggled. A woman with a kid on her hip on the way to her garden said ‘buenos tardes’ before continuing a conversation with a friend.

So, go on, shatter my early expectations of you Bolivia. I’ve yet to discover what you’re really about. And thank you, Samaipata, for the smiles. They made my day.

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Outdoor kitchen at El Jardin where I stayed in Samaipata

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Heading into Samaipata from El Jardin Hostel

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Where to eat in Samaipata for 10Bs. with a choice of dishes

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The day a monkey shat on me

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Zoologico, El Refugio near Samaipata in Bolivia

One fine day in March in Samaipata, I joined an American and a Dane for a trip to a local animal refuge. And for some unknown reason I brought along a spare top. Smart move.

It’s nice to support the refuge’, Olaf at Roadrunners had told me earlier in the week, ‘ten bolivianos goes to maintaining the place’.

The boys were a bit tight for time but when a taxi driver wanted 15Bs. for a 2km journey we decided to set off on foot. A dusty, muddy road with a barely a person in sight or a vehicle passing by, this was an easy little hike out into the countryside.

Before too long we spotted a cage but it was a small set-up and I wasn’t convinced that it was the right place. ‘There’s no sign’, I said, ‘surely they’d have a sign’. But then this is Bolivia so who knows. Anything is possible.

When an angry dog nearly bit my face off through the wire fence, I thought about leaving. Thankfully a woman came out to tell us it was the wrong place in any case. Phew.

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Zoologico El Refugio in Samaipata

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Meeting the cheeky monkeys at El Refugio in Samaipata

And literally fifty yards further along was a big sign and a well-marked entrance through a garden of aviaries and coops, and a wild boar running loose, and dogs (much friendlier this time), and all sorts of rescued monkeys; monkeys that clambered all over you and clung on tightly.

And shat down my back. Oh happy day.

I think I’m going off monkeys. Butterflies are so much nicer. Do butterflies poo?

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Just call me Dr. Doolittle

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Why so sad? You’re in a good place now. Relax.

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The animal refuge in Samaipata comes across all Disney’s Lion King. I feel a song coming on…

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Birds at El Refugio near Samaipata

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Entrance to Zoologico el Refugio in Samaipata costs 10Bs. (US$1.46/£0.90) for adults and 5Bs. (US$0.73/£0.45) for children. It is open from 0800-1800 every day. If you want to volunteer at the refuge, you need to contact them at least two months in advance as they only tend to take on two or three volunteers at a time. When I visited, volunteers were Spanish speaking. Volunteering here is free (this might sound like a strange point to raise but much volunteering in South America carries with it a fee).

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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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How to piss off historians

I don’t really care too much for archaeological sites and museum full of excavated relics. In all fairness, it’s probably ignorance, although I also think it’s a lot to do with the lack of interactivity. I like to do stuff, not just see things.

But I was staying two and a half hours from Santa Cruz in the little Bolivian town of Samaipata where their top attraction was the nearby historical site of El Fuerte (The Fortress). To bypass the whole shebang would be wrong.

But first: a trip to the Centro de Investigaciones Arqueológicas y Antropológicas in Samaipata itself where I paid 50Bs. (US$7.29 / £4.50) for joint entry to the museum and the site.

The curator unlocked door after door for me to reveal rooms full of cased cultural artefacts dating from 200-1550AD. Fragrance burners, double handled bowls with faces, drinking vessels used for rituals and a host of ornaments didn’t hold my attention for long. I’m sorry. I really tried to study the pieces, read the accompanying plaques, appreciate the handiwork but overall it was only marginally more interesting than I anticipated.

Am I really just a product of the push buttons, flashy lights and visuals generation? Or is that too easy a cop-out? I want to be interested, I want to discover, I want to learn. So why wasn’t I in love with this experience?

The film screening, again to a solo audience of me, was thankfully subtitled (any curious information in the museum was written in Spanish where I could just about pick out the odd comment but missed the flow of discussion and full meaning).

The film was actually pretty interesting, outlining El Fuerte’s strategic position between Asunción, Paraguay and Lima, Peru, and talking through the different occupations of the site from the Chané people of the Amazonian time through to the Incas and the invading Spaniards.

But it was still a lot of watching and listening and I wanted to be doing.

(Okay, I confess. In truth I was glad to gain a basic understanding before seeing the actual ruins. And actually, I only wish that I’d had a guide with me to translate and retell the stories of the various museum pieces).

I hoped, then, that the site itself would inspire some history love in me. Positioned 8km east of Samaipata, UNESCO certainly thinks El Fuerte is worth the hype having awarded it with World Heritage Site status back in 1998.

Time to get strapped into well-worn walking shoes, hike the rugged hill and find out why the place is so popular.

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Is paradise in Bolivia?

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Are you wearing anti mosquito spray?’ Cris asked suddenly in a curt manner, ‘because we don’t do that here, we’re an organic farm’. I flinched. Yes, it had been one of the occasions that I had used some of the dreaded DEET, but feeling ill and in real need of a hug, this question felt like an attack that put me into a naughty child headspace. This happy, hippy experience was threatening to be a whole lot less healing than I had hoped.

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The red rock face just above Ginger's Paradise

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The shaky bridge over to the start of the path to Ginger's Paradise

Twenty minutes earlier, together with four other travellers, I was dropped off after a two-hour journey on the verge of the Santa Cruz-Cochabamba Highway alongside a lone motorbike and a handcrafted sign set against a backdrop of red rock face mountains. We crossed a rickety wooden bridge that hung lazily across the Bermejo River, the gateway to a scattering of habitations, pretty mud pathways and a little organic idyll known as Ginger’s Paradise.

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The gringo house at Ginger's Paradise

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Downstairs sleeping options at Ginger's Paradise

We dropped our bags at a deserted, colourful house and, following instructions left pinned to the front door, walked deeper into a jungly landscape that started to twinkle with fireflies as dusk set in.

Cristobel, dressed in off-whites dirtied with smudges of soil met us along the path. His work on the land was nearly over for the day and he welcomed us with a smile and a handshake. And that cutting comment. I had to make a conscious decision not to let it affect my stay and my judgements, which was actually fairly easy because I did understand why it mattered.

During my short stay in Ginger’s Paradise I ate great, wholesome food and sung along silently to well-known songs and improvised guitar strums in the evenings. I listened to the chatter of insects and to the stories of my host and other travellers. I bathed in the river, dunked my head in fresh water and watched locals wobble across the bridge on their way to school and work. I got my elbows deep into soapy suds whilst I washed a stack load of sheets to part-pay my stay, and I played dominos with one of the children and a gentle, volunteering French couple.

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The bathroom at Ginger's Paradise

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Part-paying my way at Ginger's Paradise

Before I had decided to go to Ginger’s Paradise I did a little research on the place and most reviews I read were damning.

To clear a few things up, there is a cow that you can milk at the farm and chickens run around the grounds. There are compost toilets on site that are cleaned every day and as electricity is generated by solar and a bike hooked up to a charger, at times it can be temperamental. There isn’t a shower easily available (and it is a bit awkward to ask to use the shower in the main family house) but providing you embrace this rustic lifestyle, the river really is a beautiful place for a refreshing, calm morning wash. Foodwise I really can only be positive: I ate three hearty meals per day with predominantly home-grown and homemade ingredients.

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Hanging out with the chickens at Ginger's Paradise

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Outdoor toilet with views at Ginger's Paradise

Cris and Sol (the couple who run the place) are friendly but I assume that the constant turnaround of visitors has meant that at times they have to be direct, however, once you get involved and show some interest in what’s going on, they are chatty and warm and interested in people’s journeys.

Some people online complained about the constant pushing of products and activities that demanded an additional payment. There are indeed extras that you can buy and do at Ginger’s Paradise, including chocolate, Lulu hairwraps and jewellery lessons, and there is an additional cost for these. If you expect this, it’s less of a surprise or a problem.

Cris himself has come under some criticism. In response: he is undoubtedly a talented musician, he does love his chess, and in many respects he is pro-drugs, possessing a considerable understanding of weed culture.

Being so far from civilisation with a guy who declared his admiration for the serial killer Charles Manson (stating that he understood Manson’s reasons for killing soap stars in an effort to stop the dumbing down of society) was not something that made me particularly comfortable, but I quickly realised that Cris seemed to get a kick out of being controversial.  It certainly stirred up conversation. Really, in my humble opinion, his heart is in the right place, even if he indulged in playing Devil’s advocate. Some critics have been pretty harsh. I say just open your mind to different people and enjoy the eccentricity.

Some people stay a good few weeks or months working and living at Ginger’s Paradise, something Sol and Cris suggested helps one to really experience the spiritual and lifestyle benefits of the place.

A few days was the right amount of time for me. For now.

And the DEET spray didn’t make a reappearance during the rest of my stay there, although I did leave with some fat, raised mystery itches the width of my arm.

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City to hippy: Santa Cruz to Samaipata

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Plaza Principal 12 de Julio, Santa Cruz, Bolivia

On my first day in Santa Cruz I met an American traveller who had lost his friend in the city the previous night. Halfway through an evening of drink and drugs in some third ring Santa Cruz bars – an area where tourists are advised not to venture – both guys were arrested for not carrying identification. They were thrown into a city jail along with a load of other tourists. Following pay offs and promises to return with passports the following day, both boys were released. The partying continued. And then somewhere, somehow, Marc lost his friend to a girl, or to hedonism, or to who knows what.

5:00pm the following day and Marc was worried. His friend hadn’t made a reappearance. If a girl had been involved, motel kicking out times had long passed. Marc started to imagine the worst. Was he back in jail? In hospital? In a gutter? It wasn’t like his friend to be so late, so inconsiderate.

I never found out what happened, how this resolved. It unsettled me a little, but it wasn’t unusual. Most people showed up eventually with a good story.

But it made think: did I really want to stay in a city like this?

Santa Cruz, many told me, is a fun place to party and spend a few days but beyond that doesn’t offer a huge amount to a backpacking crowd. I only spent three days in Santa Cruz and as far as my limited exploring revealed, it is just another South American city with yet another lovely plaza and cathedral.

However, as my taxi driver warned me, despite a warm climate and a modern, Brazilian influence, it also has its dangerous side.

Call me boring, but I’m a bit over dangerous cities. I’m not really a city girl, in all honesty. And maybe because I was also seriously under the weather and on a good dose of antibiotics, I wasn’t really feeling the place. I needed country air. I craved a welcoming, safe environment.

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Views on the way from Santa Cruz to Samaipata

So I squished into a taxi with four Israeli backpackers and wound my way down from Santa Cruz through a mountainous landscape towards the fresh air of Samaipata.

But first, a stop-off at what sounded like a hippy idyll in Bermejo: an organic farmstead that embraced music and creative arts and was working towards self-sufficiency.

Surely this would be the ideal place to recuperate and re-energise?

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