Samaipata has developed into one of the top gringo-trail spots over the last few years. This sleepy village in the foothills of the Cordillera Oriental is brimming with foreign run, stylish hostels and restaurants. Visitors flock to see the pre Inca site of El fuerte, some in search of a dose of the Ancient site’s supposed mystical energy, while increasingly it is the main jumping off point for forays to Parque Nacional Amboró. But it’s not just foreigners who come up here; Samaipata is a popular weekend destination for cruceños, too. The Quechua name, meaning “Rest in the Highlands”, could hardly be more appropriate.
The mystical site of El Fuerte exudes such pulling power that visitors from all over the world make their way to Samaipata just to climb the hill and see the remains of this pre Inca site.Designated in 1998 as a Unesco World Heritage site, El Fuerte occupies a hilltop about 10 km from the village and offers breathtaking views across the rugged transition zone between the Andes and low-lying areas further east. There are two observation towers that allow visitors to view the ruins from above. Allow at least two hours to fully explore the complex, and take sunscreen and a hat with you. There is a kiosk with food and water next to the ticket office.
First occupied by diverse ethnic groups as early as 2000 BC, it wasn’t until 1470 AD that the Incas, the most famous tenants, first arrived. By the time the Spanish came and looted the site in the 11600s it was already deserted. The purpose of El Fuerte has long been debated, and there are several theories.
The conquistadors, in a distinctly combative frame of mind, assumed the site has been used for defense, hence its Spanish name, “the fort”. In 1832 French naturalist Alcides d’Orbigny proclaimed that the pools and parallel canals had been used for washing gold. In 1936 German anthropologist Leo Pucher described it as an ancient temple to the serpent and the jaguar; his theory, incorporating worship of the sun and moon, is now the most accepted. Recently the place has gained a New Age following; some have claimed that it was a takeoff and landing ramp for ancient spacecraft.
There are no standing buildings, but the remains of 500 dwellings have been discovered in the immediate vicinity and ongoing excavation reveals more every day. The main site, which is almost certainly of religious significance, is a 100m-long stone slab with a variety of sculpted features: seats, tables, a conference circle, troughs, tanks, conduits and niches, which are believed to have held idols. A total of seven steps leading up the main temple represent the seven phases of the moon. Zoomorphic designs on the slab include raised reliefs of pumas and jaguars (representing power) and numerous serpents (representing fertility). Chicha and blood were poured into the snake designs as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). Sadly, these designs are unprotected from the elements and erosion is making them harder to discern with every passing year.
About 300m down an obscure track behind the main ruin is Chincana, a sinister hole in the ground that appears all the more menacing by the concealing vegetation and sloping ground around it. It’s almost certainly natural, but three theories have emerged about how it might have been used: that it served as a water-storage cistern; that it functioned as a water-storage cistern; that it functioned as an escape-proof prison; and that it was part of a subterranean communication system between the main ruin and its immediate surroundings.
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