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Exploring the past

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A different car with a different driver (part of an excursion package) picks us up from the hotel this morning to take us to Samaipata. Having come from Samaipata, some 123 kms away, the driver is unfamiliar with the roads in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and keeps having to refer to the map on his phone to find his way out of town. It seems rush hour starts early here, it is only 07:30, and the traffic is crazy already.


There's not much legroom in this vehicle either

Once we escape the confines of the city, the road turns into a gravel path and rural life abounds: traditionally-clad women with goats, sheep, and cows, cats slinking off into the undergrowth, and dogs with more swagger than road sense. A well-groomed fluffy white bichon frise – obviously someone’s much-loved pet – runs across the road directly in front of our approaching vehicle. Continuing on, it rushes straight into the front wheel of the car travelling in the opposite direction, before bouncing off. I scream “Nooooooo” as my heart appears to stop, but miraculously it narrowly avoids being turned into road kill by a cat’s whisker. Not literally, of course. Seeing it, apparently unhurt, on the other side of the road, I breathe a huge sigh of relief.


Street dogs often refuse to move out of the road for traffic

We pass villages with colourful roadside stalls, road works and roadblocks, toll booths, and security checks, and ride over numerous speed bumps designed to keep the speed down. Much to my amazement we even see a beautiful Persian cat on the side of this dirt track (not pictured).



At a viewpoint overlooking the green valley, we stop for photos. This area, known as Little Switzerland, gets over 2,000 mm of rain each year, hence the verdant look. In the distance, we see the edge of the Andes mountain range.



As we come to a junction in the road, we pick up our local guide, Tibo, who will be with us as we explore the complexities of Samaipata Fort.

Samaipata Fort

I manage to secure a permit for flying my drone here, at no extra cost.


At the Visitors Centre, a model of the rock (the largest carved rock in the world) is displayed, with Tibo explaining the various areas of the site.

David and Tibo looking at the model

While still called a “fort”, the original purpose of the rock was allegedly an astronomical calendar.

First occupied by diverse ethnic groups as early as 2000 BC, it was the Chané, who inhabited the area around 300 AD, who are believed to have carved the first petroglyphs into the rock.

it wasn’t until AD 1470 that the Incas, the most famous tenants, first arrived. The Spanish later used the rock to block invasions by the ‘jungle people’, hence it gained the moniker ‘fort’.

To reach the fort, we climb a number of steps and slopes cut into the hillside.


Once we reach the first platform, I attempt to fly the drone. It takes me quite a while to get it started (moral of the story: make sure you know your equipment thoroughly before taking it abroad), and once it is airborne, the bright sunshine means that it is almost impossible to make out on the small LCD screen in my hand what the drone camera sees from above.

You can just about make me out in this image

Not knowing which direction I should be flying, nor how far away the rock is, all I end up with is a few photos of the ground below and the path. I panic when I temporarily lose sight of the drone and once I finally manage to return the aircraft to base, I notch it down to 'experience' (in other words: a complete failure). Still, it is good practice.



As more and more people arrive (we haven’t seen anyone else up until this point), my drone causes a fair bit of interest among tourists and locals alike.


The main site is a 100m-long stone slab with a variety of sculpted features: seats, tables, a conference circle, troughs, tanks, conduits, and various niches that are believed to have held idols.



There are no buildings left standing at the site, but the remains of some 500 dwellings have been discovered.


It is believed that offerings of Chicha (fermented corn) and blood were poured into some of the designs to appease Pachamama (Mother Earth).


The people also performed human and animal sacrifices, astrological rituals, as well as idol worshipping of animals, gods, and goddesses.


Samaipata was one of the most isolated and easternmost areas of the Inca Empire.


Samaipata Town

We make our way to the town of the same name, negotiating a couple of fords along the way.



The colonial town of Samaipata is cosmopolitan and diverse, with a number of foreigners who made their home here in the 1800s, including some Arab families, a few Croatians, and Italians. Since the 1970s, several Germans, Dutch, French, Argentines, Swiss, and a few Japanese also moved to Samaipata and made it their home. Juan tells us that its inhabitants include 36 different nationalities. Not bad for a town of around 4,500 people.





La Chakana Restaurant

While this is obviously a popular restaurant with locals, we also see a number of ageing hippies enjoying a drink on the terrace, and hear several languages and accents.

La Chakana Restaurant


We try the local drink of choice: maracuya juice, a refreshing drink, which tastes like a cross between pineapple and mango with a hint of apple.


The ubiquitous quinoa soup

Chicken with vegetables and rice

I seem to have lost my appetite, probably as a result of the cold I picked up on the flight over. Subsequently, I struggle to eat much of the main course, which, while the meat is tender and not at all dry, the flavour is quite bland.

I do, however, enjoy the herb-stuffed bread.


Samaipata Museum

Small enough to hold my interest, and well laid out, the museum has several objects of interest. I am reluctantly permitted to take photos, as long as I promise not to use flash. My camera is not even fitted with a flash gun so that one is easy.

Model and painting of Samaipata Fort

Replica burial urn in the fetal position

Tweezers from the time of the Incas

14th-century flask, used by the Incas

Ceremonial objects

Incan food container

The two most interesting displays, as far as I am concerned are: 1. These small objects that it is believed were used by the Incas to measure time by letting the sun’s rays shine through the openings, and moving the dioptres accordingly (I would love to find out more about how that worked).


And 2: This depiction of Skull Deformation.


Translation from Spanish of description:
Artificial skull deformation, head flattening, or head binding, is a form of body modification in which the skull is intentionally deformed. This is achieved by distorting the normal growth of a child’s skull through the application of force. Flat, elongated (produced by bandaging two wooden plates on the side of the head), round (bandaged with cloth), and cone-shapes are all possible outcomes.

It is typically performed during childhood, as the skull is more malleable at this stage. In a typical case, head bandaging begins ca one month after birth and continues for six months.

The Incas were skilled surgeons, and practised trepanation, which involves drilling a hole in the skull using the primitive tools available. The success rate was remarkably high, reaching an impressive 75-82% long-term survival rate. Considering the Incas were a pre-Enlightenment society, and did not have the use of the wheel, not beasts of burden, this is quite an achievement.

Refugio de Fauna Silvestre Jacha Inti

As we agreed with Juan that we will not be trekking to the waterfall on the way back from Samaipata this afternoon as suggested in the original itinerary, he suggests taking us to a nature place he knows of.



The dilapidated wooden gate is closed when we arrive, but Tibo opens it and we walk through. There is no-one in sight, just a lazy dog.

A caterpillar on a plant just inside the gate

Guira cuckoos in a field opposite

I have been feeling progressively more ill as the day has gone on, and after a few minutes in what looks like another small provincial zoo, I ask that we go back to Santa Cruz de la Sierra and our hotel instead.


Still not feeling great, we get a taxi to downtown this evening, to have dinner in a modern food court called Planchita.

The Hyari beer is made using volcanic rocks and tastes slightly salty.


Yet again we order a set meal – a mixed grill – for two people – consisting of beef, pork, sausages, chicken, plantain, fries, yucca, vegetables, and fried eggs.


Again it is more than enough for the three of us, with leftovers that we suggest a delighted waiter can finish should he wish. He is a young lad with a very good English and a great sense of humour.

It is still early by the time we leave the square in a taxi, and I am grateful to be able to slip into bed, feeling a little sorry for myself.

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this amazing private tour for us.


Posted by Grete Howard 23:17 Archived in Bolivia Tagged taxi zoo museum dogs bolivia samaipata andes skulls cosmopolitan sacrifice ford incas offerings bespoke rock_carvings private_tour drone undiscovered_destinations tweezers mixed_grill santa_cruz_de_la_sierra common_cold street_dogs little_switzerland ceremonial_centre inca_empire ageing_hippies maracuya quinoa_soup la_chakana skull_deformation dioptres diopters head_flattening trepanation refugio_de_fauna_silvestre_jach loss_of_appetite

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A shame you were feeling so rough today as this looks a fascinating place and among some beautiful scenery! By the way, I always understood maracuya to be passionfruit?

by ToonSarah

The way I understand it is that the maracuya is in the same family as passion fruit but more yellow.

by Grete Howard

it looks like an amazing first day, sorry to read you were not feeling good. I always loved to own a drone, but I thought it was difficult to handle, love to read more about it as well.

by Ils1976

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