Samaipata – celebrating the Inca New Year

30 Aug

We looked at the time – it was 12.20am. We looked down at our jeans and shoes – they were caked in mud. We looked all around us – 500 people were drinking, dancing and singing as they prepared to welcome in the Inca New Year with the party to end all parties.

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The chosen venue was El Fuerte (The Fort), impressive Inca ruins set on a high hilltop 10km from the beautiful village of Samaipata and surrounded by cloud forest, and the date was the Southern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice.

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The site dates from 800 AD and includes a huge stone temple which looks like it was carved straight into the rocks and numerous stone dwellings in the surrounding area.

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A World Heritage site, El Fuerte is unique in the world because it contains buildings from three different cultures – the vast temple built by the Chane people, ruins of an Inca city built near to the temple and remains of buildings of typical Arab Andalusian architecture left behind by the Spanish.

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Earlier that evening, we indulged in Turkish food and a bottle of wine in Samaipata with a group of people we’d met during our few days in the village (a couple from France, a couple from the UK and France and a girl from Australia) and we all took a taxi to the bottom of the road which leads to the site at around 11.30pm.

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The only route to El Fuerte is via a steep, muddy, winding track which takes 30 minutes to drive in good conditions but is virtually inaccessible when it rains.

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It had been raining on and off for the last hour and when we arrived even four-wheel drive jeeps were getting stuck in the mud and having to reverse back down the slope. Several hardy locals had started to walk from the bottom but they slipped and slid and were covered in mud within seconds.

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The walk would have taken the best part of 2 hours and we really didn’t fancy it in the pitch black, but just as we were giving up hope and considering a taxi ride back to Samaipata…they called in the big guns. Two monster trucks with industrial sized wheels pulled up and people jumped on. The trucks were quickly dangerously overloaded with many passengers, including us, hanging precariously off the side or back of the truck. We would have surely fallen out if we hadn’t been packed in like sardines. Even these trucks slipped on the mud and occasionally took us a little too close to the edge of the road and a nasty drop!!

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All was forgotten when we finally reached El Fuerte and were met with live music from local bands, frenzied dancing by costume clad warriors and centuries old Inca rituals.

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The local brew was hot milk laced with a fiery, spicy rum which tasted like a Caribbean cocktail and was a bargain for only 5 Bolivianos (1 USD) a glass. Food stalls grilled kebab skewers, served thick cut chips and deep-fried doughnuts with honey for dessert.

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We drank, we ate, we danced – and finally snuck off back to our tent in Samaipata at 5.15am!!

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The village of Samaipata is the picture of rural bliss and the type of place many people come for a few days and end up staying for a few weeks…in fact some people never leave as seen by the large ex-pats living and working here. The village’s permanent population is only small, in the region of 3,000, but immigration is certainly helping to push this number up and introducing the village to some great amenities – there’s a funky bar on the square called ‘La Boheme’ run by an Australian couple, an excellent Turkish restaurant called ‘La Cocina’ and a knowledgable Austrian / Swiss partnership operating ‘Roadrunner’ tour agency.

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We could instantly see why this place was loved by so many people – surrounded by rolling hills and farmland we were more likely to hear a cock crowing or a cow mooing than a car horn honking or building work droning. The weather is perpetually warm and sunny and many guest houses have fabulous gardens with exotic flowers, and hammocks for relaxing.

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As with many small places, the people were very laid back and friendly and everywhere we went in the village we were met with huge smiles and welcoming greetings. The small central plaza hosts a cute church, a couple of coffee shops (selling decent coffee which isn’t always easy to find in Bolivia) and often market stalls selling artesan products such as crochet hats, fabric bags or hand-made jewellery. The small but perfectly formed central market buzzes with locals selling fruit and vegetables, freshly baked bread, soft cheese, home-made chutney, olives and sun-dried tomatoes – picnic lovers salivate now!

We visited a local wildlife sanctuary one afternoon and enjoyed the free and easy nature of the place with many animals, including geese, horses and monkeys roaming freely.

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The man who greeted us was quick to explain that this place was not a zoo but instead it was a donation run home where animals who had been injured or who had lost their mother at a young age could receive treatment, recuperate and hopefully be released back into the wild at some stage.

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We were introduced to three-legged Coati, a short-sighted and orphaned baby deer, geese with no vocal cords and a monkey who had been rescued from a bar where he was used for entertainment.

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We looked on in amazement when we saw a very temperamental Spider monkey climbing all over a Saint Bernard dog who seemed very relaxed about the whole affair.

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It transpired that the pair had arrived at the sanctuary at around the same time and became inseparable – it’s so strange how nature works!

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A little later on in our visit, the same Spider monkey became envious of the attention Dan was getting from a baby Capucino money and proceeded to jump on Dan’s head making a blood curdling screeching sound. A member of staff went white and tried to coax the monkey away whilst Dan went red with panic waiting for a set of razor-sharp teeth to plunge into his neck. It all ended happily with the monkey jumping away and sulking in a corner and I of course had some good material to jibe Dan with – I mean the poor monkey simply recognised one of his own!!

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Whilst in Samaipata we also arranged a one day tour to Amboro National Park to trek through cloud forest and learn about the flora and fauna that can be found in this area. Our transport was quite unique and offered us an open air experience.

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Our Austrian guide was incredibly knowledgable and brought even the plainest bush to life by explaining its medicinal purposes. Even on the drive to the park he excitedly pulled the truck over to tell us some local history about Che Guevara (who robbed a post office close to Samaipata) or to show us some rare species of flowers, all done in an accent which was not dissimilar to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.

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Amboro park covers 4,425 square kilometres and crosses two divides – the warmer Northern Amazonian-type section and the Southern Yungas-type section, which we’d be visiting. Our guide explained that only one expedition had ever been made to cross the park on foot and much of the park remains unexplored.

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The guide’s wife was a biologist and she was currently spending days and weeks at a time inside of the park to collect samples, some of which she thought would almost certainly be completely new plant and animal species and some of which may be used in new medical treatments.

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The views were spectacular with mountains covered in dense forest and circles of cloud hanging at the summit. We could see distinctly where the land changed from being dry and arid to damp and moist. We trekked for several hours and in some places the foliage was so dense our guide needed to use his machete to hack us a path through.

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The trees were incredibly tall with wide roots and a fully canopy of leaves and branches stretching up to the sky. Giant green ferns also spread their leaves upwards competing with the trees for a chink of sunlight.

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The crowns of the trees above swayed in the breeze which we couldn’t feel in the trees, and discarded brown leaves carpeted the floor. A few rays of sunshine penetrated the thick cover above our heads creating beautiful shadows and lighting up the forest in a spectrum of greens and browns.

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Decaying tree roots and moss covered the damp ground under our feet. Nothing was ever dry in the forest and leaves shimmered with water droplets and fungi could be found all around us.

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Our guide identified flowers and plants used by the local witch doctors to cure ailments and diseases ranging from the mundane – warts, headaches and upset stomachs – to the serious and sometime life threatening – infected wounds, liver problems and even some cancers. The local people in this part of Bolivia, along with many other parts, are extremely superstitious and do not trust or understand modern medicine so instead would prefer to place their health and their family’s health in the hands of the all-powerful shamans.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any large wildlife in the National Park but we knew they were hiding close by as we felt cobwebs snagging at our faces on the trail, saw half eaten forest fruit discarded by monkeys and peered into large, deep holes where perhaps snakes slept coiled up. By treading slowly and looking closely we did find unusual patterned butterflies, colourful birds in a chorus of song, beatles and bugs with commando like armour on their abdomens and giant pincers to be used as weapons, and fury caterpillars going about their business. Our guide explained that creatures with vibrant colours such as red or yellow tend to be more harmful and sometimes poisonous. He also suggested not to touch any caterpillars whilst we were in Latin America as although they can look cute and funny, their small spines can stick in your skin and cause a nasty irritation.

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Apparently, the animal killing the most people in Bolivia right now isn’t the jaguar, crocodile, snake or spider…it is in fact the humble beetle, the ‘Chagas Beatle’ to be precise. The beetle, typically found in rural housing made of mud or thatch, lays its feces as it bites the victim in the night and the ‘Chagas’ disease is transmitted when the feces is unknowingly rubbed into the bite. The infection can be treated with medicine but often goes undetected for years. The subsequent parasites attack the vital organs and over time destroy tissue cells and render the organs to jelly, often triggering heart attacks. It’s estimated that 11 million people are infected with the disease in Central and South America alone.

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Dan and I lagged behind the rest of the group to take photographs of the pristine cloud forest and appreciate the noises of the jungle – the trees creaking and cracking, birds chirping above and frogs and insects making unidentifiable sounds.

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We found a couple of long, thick vines hanging down to the ground and secured up high in the canopy. We pulled hard on the vines testing their strength and they seemed incredibly secure, stretching only a tiny bit. So on the count of three we both grabbed hold of the vines, put our whole body weight on them and swung our legs out beneath us. With a loud crack and a crash, Dan and I simultaneously plummeted to the ground followed by the snapped vines falling on top of us. Tears filled our eyes as we laughed like Howler monkeys until our sides hurt. Each time we looked at each other on the floor covered in dirt and a bundle of vines, we burst out in a fit of giggles again.

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The novel ‘Heart of the Amazon’ by Yossi Ghinsberg had captured our imaginations and given us an idea of just how wrong things can go out here. Set in the Bolivian Amazon, the story explains how four travellers venture into the jungle with a guide to find hidden tribes and unparalleled adventure. The group parts ways after disagreements and when a rafting accident splits the final two friends, Yossi is left alone in the jungle literally fighting for his life. In the weeks it takes him to find his way back to civilisation, he’s plagued by biting insects, the skin of his feet begins to rot, he loses 10 kilograms of body weight with a diet of foraged fruit and nuts and he comes face to face with a man-eating Jaguar. We certainly didn’t want to find ourselves in the same predicament, so after a late lunch of cheese, tomato and cucumber rolls in a sunny spot on the side of the mountain, we followed our guide’s every instruction and retraced our steps back to our ride out of there.

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We returned to Samaipata from our organised trek in the jungle feeling like explorers and ready to share our thoughts and experiences in our blog. But how long would we really last in an extreme wilderness experience and how much enjoyment would we actually get from it?

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The truth is, most travellers, including ourselves, like to experience adventure travel without the dangers and then return to the safe and happy world of internet access, cafe lattes, and plugs to charge our iPods. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To make the effort to visit somewhere remote and uninhabited to experience its beauty but also sense its inhospitality, creates in us a deep-rooted respect for nature. To miss home comforts and to appreciate the harsh realities of surviving for yourself without the aid of modern technology, gives us a never before understood appreciation for those people who really do push the boundaries of human endurance to conquer mountains; to catalogue a new species of plant or animal life; or to offer medical assistance to a remote tribe. And of course, to go without for just a short while, makes us more thankful for the smaller things in life and extremely grateful for what we have.

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