Orange-water waterfalls and pre-Incan ruins in Samaipata, Bolivia
This little town tucked away in the lush valleys between Sucre and Santa Cruz is a wonderful getaway from the hustle and bustle of Bolivia’s big, grimy cities. While it’s not exactly off the beaten track, with a fair few tourists finding their way to its dusty, colourful streets, Samaipata is a less visited spot in Bolivia (many travellers only bother to stop in Uyuni, Sucre and La Paz, never heading East). For this reason, it’s possible to see a little more of small-town life with the comfort of menus in English for those that want them. Samaipata does attract a different kind of tourist; you’re more likely to see 50-somethings on a retiremoon than muddy backpackers, which means that some of the prices are fairly inflated in comparison to the rest of the country. It boasts two impressive attractions, El Fuerte de Samaipata ruins and Las Cuevas waterfalls; more on those later.
How to pronounce Samaipata: Sam-ay-PAH-tah
Getting to Samaipata from Sucre or Santa Cruz
If you’re coming from Sucre, there are a fair few options for companies that offer routes to Samaipata from Sucre bus terminal. Choose your bus wisely, taking heed of our advice to get the highest quality bus you can find. Most of the companies from Sucre bus terminal are small businesses without standardised pricing, so they will charge you more because they think they can, but you can definitely negotiate them down. We got it to 100Bs, which fit with our rule of 10Bs per 1 hour of bus in Bolivia.
Plan the journey from Sucre Samaipata around a night when there is no rain forecasted; when you see the road through the misty darkness and the sheer drop into the bottomless fathoms that lie next to it, you’ll understand exactly why. Also, ensure when you get on that the bus driver knows you’re getting off at Samaipata. As it turns out, buying a ticket to Samaipata and then noting off your name next to Samaipata on the clipboard of his assistant is not enough, the driver himself has to know.
Our driver decided not to stop because he ‘wasn’t told anyone was going there’. Yep. And when we realised that we’d already gone past it at 5am and were ploughing on through jungley darkness, we couldn’t even ask the driver what the hell he was playing at because we were at the back and people were sleeping all the way down the filthy aisle. Mare. As we said before, if you can fly in Bolivia, do it. We ended up having to go all the way to Santa Cruz and then back down the same road to Samaipata. From Santa Cruz, you can get a 2-3 hour colectivo to Samaipata for 30Bs (£3) each from an agency office on Soliz de Olguin with Avenida Omar Chavéz Ortiz.
Visiting Las Cuevas waterfalls near Samaipata
Most people come to Samaipata for the orange-pooled waterfalls of the Las Cuevas national reserve. Unless it’s a daytime party you’re after, try to avoid this place on weekends as it’s teeming with local families playing music from boom-boxes and clogging up the pools for selfies. However, even with this it’s hard to detract from the natural beauty of the falls and the valleys. With powerful water surrounded by huge, looming mountains the orange-sedimented river is a must-see in Samaipata.
There’s no need to book a tour to Las Cuevas, it’s very easy to work out yourself. A taxi from outside the church on the main square of Samaipata will get you there and back for around 100Bs (the taxi will wait outside the reserve for you for two hours, and they don’t expect payment until your return).
There is a 15Bs entry fee to the park (bring change, they reeeally don’t like large notes), then a 10 minute walk to the first and least impressive waterfall. Turn right up the hill find the waterfall with the best pool in which to swim, or hop across the steeping stones along the top of the first falls and follow the path along the river for 5-10 minutes until you reach the third falls, which has the best space for setting up camp for a relax on the riverbank. Once there, across the riverbank you’ll see a small set of stairs that head up the mountain. If your knees can handle it, we recommend taking these stairs all the way up; only from that view can you realise how truly tremendous this landscape is.
We recommend visiting the reserve with the most minimal number of valuables possible, and a waterproof bag would be ideal. We went on a Saturday, and you could barely find a place to sit down for all the people. Much as we would love to say that we live our lives with a carefree trust in others, we didn’t feel comfortable leaving our bags containing all our photography equipment on the side while we went in the water, so only one of us could go and play in the falls at one time.
El Fuerte de Samaipata
Nearby to the town of Samaipata, you can find El Fuerte de Samaipata (Samaipata Fort), which is home to a rare combination of Chané (pre-Incan), Incan and Spanish ruins. This includes the world’s largest carved rock, believed to have been used for sacrifices. The fort is a UNESCO world heritage site, and it’s been given the Stone Henge treatment, meaning you can look at it but you can’t get too close in order to protect the ruins. Entry to El Fuerte de Samaipata costs 50Bs.
The Samaipata ruins are about 15 minutes in a car – find taxis outside the same church from which you get the taxis to Las Cuevas waterfalls. The driver will again wait for you to come out for the return journey, costing around 100 Bs (£10). If you’re travelling on a super budget, you can actually hike the 2 hours to the fort, too.
Where to stay in Samaipata, Bolivia
There’s not really a wrong part to stay in Samaipata. It’s small enough to walk from anywhere in town, and the area is pretty safe, even for gringos. Everything happens around the Plaza Principal day and night, so if you want to be in all the action check our accommodation round there (watch out though, lots of hostels in the area do not have wifi). If you’d like something more relaxing, there are plenty of options further out. We stayed in Casa Lynda, a 6-7 minute walk from the plaza. It was really peaceful and had excellent facilities, though note that you don’t have access to a kitchen. Book accommodation in advance if you’re heading to Samaipata on the weekends as Santa Cruz locals flood the area to get out of the city with their families.
Where to eat and drink in Samaipata
There are plenty of options for eats around the plaza, but as we said before, prices are inflated. Our favourite place to eat was La Cocina, a burrito bar. The style and vibe reminded us of London, and the food was absolutely incredible. Luckily we got there fairly early, as locals and tourists alike queue for a place at the table.
If you want more of a party vibe, La Cocina also provides food directly to the plaza’s main bar, La Boheme, so you can order there instead if you like your tacos with an espresso martini. This bar is where most of the parties seem to happen, and it draws a surprisingly large, mixed crowd on the weekends. You can also expect to find a fair buzz in the evenings in the plaza, whether from flappy-trousered travellers playing flutes or from kids playing around the fountain.
For an authentic meal that locals would actually eat, head off the plaza uphill on Calle Rubén Terrazas, taking the very first left after the cafes. 10 metres down, you’ll see a fairly open, rubbish-looking restaurant with a basic bar for the caja at the back. This place had delicious food and cheap as chips priced for their Menu del Dia.
More local food can be found in the market, where there is a row of small kitchens inside the main building, buried away under the sheer volume of stuff for sale. The market can be found if you stand at the church and head downhill with the plaza on your right, and is also a nice way to spend half an hour mooching around looking at local produce.
If you’re in search of a good breakfast, on the plaza itself is La Chakana, which provides many hearty albeit relatively pricey options. Caffé Art is a little further out of the centre and a beautiful spot to chill. We were annoyed that we had to pay for WiFi but appreciated the espresso all the same 😉
How to leave Samaipata
To get to Santa Cruz, which is pretty much the only option as it’s the only cities for hours and Bolivia’s infrastructure doesn’t allow for roads in different directions, go to the little taxi office on Calle Sucre, a few shops up from La Boheme bar. Register your interest in getting to the city, and simply wait there until the minibus fills up. If you’re really in a hurry and there are a few spots left to wait for, you can always buy up the rest of the seats!
Recommended stay to enjoy Samaipata, Bolivia: 2-3 days
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