August 15, 2009
Where the hell is that? Why are you going there? These were the questions asked by the confused faces of people I encountered along my trip when I told them I was going to Samaipata. I didn’t have the answers. From what I’d read about it, I sensed that it would a be a gorgeous place with wonderful things to discover. What things, I didn’t know.
I’d made a reservation for a lovely looking little place in Samaipata called Hostal Andoriña. I received a prompt confirmation response and an important piece of information: Constantly remind the bus driver that you’re getting off in Samaipata. I was taking a Sucre to Santa Cruz overnight bus and needed to get off before the final stop. According to the hostel, people who were trying to get to Samaipata often woke up to find themselves all the way in Santa Cruz.
As I boarded my bus, I told the guy who had taken care of the ticket formalities that I was getting off in Samaipata. He looked shocked even though “Samaipata” was written largely and highlighted on my ticket.
Bolivia is home to the notorious “World’s Most Dangerous Road“, but it doesn’t take a traveler long to see that almost every road in Bolivia is dangerous. Steep cliffs, unsurfaced roads, sometimes no road at all, freezing cold temperatures, vehicle breakdowns, running out of gas– these are the realities of overland travel in Bolivia. I’d read that on the World’s Most Dangerous Road, there are dogs spaced out along the beginning waiting for people to offer them food. People believe feeding the dogs will give them good luck on their journeys. Even though this road had no official extreme title, as we pulled away from Sucre, there the dogs were, waiting for their offerings.
The first hour of the drive was fantastic as we rounded the corners of uninhabited mountains and the setting sun illuminated the sky with gorgeous shades of the rainbow. As the sun and the paved road vanished, the drive became a little more sketchy, but not nearly as bad as I imagined. The times that made me nervous where when we found ourselves moving backwards around a bend on a steep cliff. Sometimes the road was too narrow for two vehicles to pass each other which made it necessary to backtrack until a wide enough portion of the road was reached.
We made one stop in a town that was in the middle of celebration. Firecrackers lit up the sky, a great surprise after a drive that was increasingly uncomfortable and monotonous. At this stop, I reminded the driver and co. that I was getting off in Samaipata. One of the guys looked annoyed that I was telling him again. But I was determined to not wake up two hours past my destination.
I chatted with the French group I’d hung out with in Sucre and said goodbye because I knew it would probably be the last opportunity to do so. They were several rows behind me and I’d be getting off the bus before them. We were at the stop for a long time and we all got back on when we heard the driver start the engine. As we drove away, a few people chased after the bus and hopped on. The very real risk of getting left behind when your bus stops is yet another dangerous aspect of Bolivian bus travel.
The journey was about 13 hours. I had a great spot in the front row with ample leg room, but a chair that refused to stay reclined. After hours of tossing and turning in my gravity defying chair, I opened my eyes to look at the time. It was just before 6am and if I’d calculated right, we were due to arrive in Samaipata.
I knocked on the door to remind the driver once again that I was getting off in Samaipata. Whaddya know, it was a completely different driver and crew. They had no clue that someone was getting off the bus early “Oh, Samaipata?!” I was so glad I got up when I did, because we arrived in Samaipata about 10 minutes later. My broken chair was a blessing in disguise.
At the hostel, I rang the night bell several times before someone answered. I was surprised when a young American girl answered the door. She took my to my room where I immediately went to bed. In the late morning I woke up to sounds of people chatting outside my window.
In the courtyard I found what I didn’t know I was looking for—a traveler community. It was more than the usual coming of age backpacking holidayers; a motley mix of people was scattered about. There were youthful travelers and others with graying hair. Some were flighty, some cantankerous, some effervescent. But regardless of background or personality, you could tell these were all people with an insatiable curiosity about the world. People who felt the urge to move deep in their bones.
There were no barriers in this peculiar community of travelers, and it wasn’t long before I knew a bit about each person there. A Scottish couple, two Australian sisters, a girl from England and I agreed that some or all of us would go on a hike through a giant fern forest nearby the next day.
I peeled myself away from the fascinating assortment of people at the hostel and went into town. In the center of town, there was a main square full of random sculptures and absolutely nothing going on. At the height of tourist season, it was far from the “major tourist destination” my guidebook described it as. I loved it there. In this sleepy town I felt I was somewhere new and different while simultaneously feeling at home.
I bumped into the Scottish couple and they helped me negotiate a price for a cab to the El Fuerte ruins. Not much is known about the unique ruins of El Fuerte and I didn’t didn’t know what I’d find there which made the experience more appealing to me. Taking a cab is the quick way to get to the ruins, but you can also take a challenging uphill walk. On my way, I passed by the Australian sisters trudging up the mountain and hoped they didn’t see me taking the easy way up while they struggled.
At the top of the mountain where the ruins are, there was a fantastic view of the area. It is amazing how much of Bolivia is so pristine and untouched. The unruliness of the land has likely saved a lot of it from being destroyed. I reveled in the beautiful views and the mysterious El Fuerte and enjoyed a quiet walk around…