Next morning started quite early and I walked towards the tour office with a brilliant sunrise behind me. On reaching there I found that there were 2 extra people in my group thus exceeding the number of travelers from 5 to 7. Although I believed in more the merrier, the cramped safari vans did not make the concept seem enticing. That was a clear sign that Samaipata tours did not believe in keeping their words, but my frustratingly limited Spanish and getting hastened on by the tour operator lady made me depart without any further queries. The safari jeep was a rusty, uncomfortable contraption with jagged edges and 7 of us (along with backpacks, camping equipment) huddled inside a space meant for 5.
We drove out of the village, left Samaipata’s tranquility behind and bumped up the unpaved steep road towards Amboro National Park gate. A stunning panorama unfolded as we went higher and Andean beauty rendered us speechless. It was a breathtaking vista of deep blues and greens as beautiful rolling meadows spread widely under a huge open sky. Steep green mountains cradled picturesque villages and fluffy clouds dotted the sky like masses of candy floss. However it was a disappointingly short drive and we reached the park gate soon. We loaded our gear on our backs, trudged behind our guide and started the trek. The walk immediately went completely uphill and the Andean sun burnt burnt down fiercely. Our backpacks soon grew heavier by the minute, breaths got laborious and sweat poured off like rivers. Immediately on cue, as if tailor made to make our experience more difficult, the trail got narrower until only a sliver of space remained off a steep precipice. Tangly undergrowth scratched us to ribbons and cow dung and fallen leaves made us dangerously slip and slide.
The undergrowth at times became too thick and while cutting it down, we imagined the famous Andean poisonous snakes coiling around us. It was a harrowing imagination but we welcomed the tunnel of green more than trekking in the open. Without their cover the sun seemed too close and burnt us till we turned red. The mountain air in contrast was chilly and the alternating heat and cold made our heads hurt. We trekked through the lower slopes constantly for what seemed like forever stopping only to take brief breaks in shaded spots. Wading (even knee deep) through endless streams made us wet and our heavy jeans clung to our skin uncomfortably. The trail was strangely winding and we constantly went up and down endless forested mountains.
Soon the famous Amboro cloud forests arrived and its beauty magically made our aches and exhaustion melt away. Although Amboro National Park is one of most botanically endowed national parks in the world, it was the photo of its enchanting cloud forest that had attracted me into its depths. A park with dramatic and surprisingly different landscape, Amboro spread over 4,425 square kilometers and was home to many spectacular indigenous plants and animals like jaguar, spectacled bear, ocelot and giant anteater. Although our fauna sighting was restricted to only grazing cows, the diversity of its flora mesmerized us. From dry scrubland, palm forests and cactus groves, we suddenly found ourselves in an area which looked straight out of the movie “Jurassic Park”. Giant ferns grew tall and covered the sky and moss tangled down spookily. Dew dripped constantly making the forest cold and wafting fog made it look beautifully eerie. Touted as “dinosaur food”, tree ferns were older than most of the other flora of Amboro and often took hundreds of years to attain full maturity.
We rested under the giant ferns for some time, caught falling dew drops on our hot sweaty faces and freshened up in the misty cool air. The arduous trek continued deeper into the forest and we soon lost the track of time. We were so exhausted that the sun and mist no longer bothered us and the entire experience got rolled into a numbing nonstop zombie walk. Watch showed us later that for 8 hours we had trudged non stop, up and down the Andean heights, scraped our way through rocky cliffs faces, waded over mossy cloud forest floors, jungle streams and rough dirt tracks. Lunch happened sometime around noon and by that time we had left the cloud forests behind. We were higher than the cloud cover that surrounded us, and peering down from our Andean heights we saw the majestic condors glide effortlessly. We were dirty, exhausted, badly scratched and swollen from bug bites. Hunger made us ravenous and the meal of cold sandwiches, apples and orange juice seemed like a princely feast. The guide handed out generous wads of coca free and we stuffed our cheeks like chipmunks with the world’s most controversial natural stimulant.
TRAVEL TIP – Coca, the source of cocaine is a shrub cultivated in parts of Bolivian Andes. Highly controversial (heavily sanctioned), its a cash rich crop and at one time, had been the backbone of Bolivian economy. Evidence of coca use (not abuse) has been found in most ancient cultures of South America, including Nazca, Moche, Tiwanaku, Chiribaya and Inca. Mummies of these cultures have been found, buried with coca wads in their mouth and coca leaf has always been considered sacred by Bolivian indigenous people. When US backed UN sanctions on coca were imposed on Bolivia, it was the indigenous community who had fiercely (often with huge fatalities) fought for their right to chew coca.
The sanction caused a historical moment in UN and triggered the famous “coca” speech from ex-coca farmer and Bolivain President Evo Morales. The President had famously snucked a coca leaf into the United Nations General Assembly to educate the diplomats and change the international opinion on coca. Holding up a coca leaf to help emphasize his message at a United Nations anti-drugs meeting in Vienna, Morales said declared that “We are not drug addicts when we consume the coca leaf. The coca leaf is not cocaine “. While coca is an essential ingredient for manufacturing cocaine, it is also a rich source of nutrition, an integral part of an ancient faith and a way to make a living.
Coca has been found to have excellent medicinal qualities and is a good antidote for fatigue and hunger. It is beneficial for gastrointestinal illnesses, eases the pain of arthritis, headaches, sores, fractures, nosebleed, asthma, and cures impotence.The ancient method of Andean coca use involved folding coca leaves into a “quid” and placing it between the teeth and the inside of the check. An alkaline substance such as powdered wood ash or baked and powdered seashells was then transferred into the quid using a silver awl or pointed tube of limestone. Nowadays it is consumed by placing huge quids inside the cheek and adding sweet potato ash for taste.
As the hiking trail became harsher, our coca quids got bigger and our cheeks expanded to their limits. I soon overcame my initial reservations about chewing coca when fatigue nearly made me crumble down. While it never gave me any high, the constant chewing distracted me from concentrating on my aches and cuts. After trekking for 8 hours or more we finally reached our camping site and pitched our tents. We were again inside the cloud forests and strange beauty surrounded us. Sunset happened shortly but due to the fern cover the sky was hardly visible to us. Shrieking of parrots and rapidly falling dusk made us rustle up a quick rustic dinner of meat and potatoes on a roaring bonfire. Night fell fast and drowsiness took over as we listened to the rhythmic night sounds of the jungle. Slivers of a cool night sky was visible from the forest and stars shone with a cold hard glitter. We crawled back to our tents as the fire died and tried to get comfortable on a bug infested camp floor.
It rained at night and millions of insects crawled inside the tent. Moisture dripped from the palm ferns and only our flashlights glowed eerily in the dark. We spent a difficult night, imagining snakes and strange bugs crawling inside our tents and in spite of our fatigue found sleep difficult. The morning however broke beautifully clear and we woke up to a stunning panorama outside. Strange colorful flowers bloomed profusely, noisy parrots flapped and green curtains of moss draped wispily from hanging giant ferns. We sat enjoying the morning freshness for some time and after a quick breakfast continued with our trek. It soon turned into a horrifying nightmare as our guide took us up on a more difficult trail and suddenly a stony wet cliff face which stood in front of us like a huge vertical impenetrable wall. Completely untrained for it and with no equipment it looked most dangerous and our hearts stopped beating with each step. The trail disappeared soon and we found ourselves again cutting undergrowth to make way. A sheer precipice fell on one side and condors circled over the cloud banks. Sharp cold winds tore at our jackets and we kept our eyes strictly fastened on the cliff face. There was nothing to hold on to except for wet and slippery tree branches to pull ourselves higher up and we were soaked and scared with our backs breaking from the heavy strain.
The guide climbed higher and helplessly we followed him, fighting the strong winds which grew fiercer as we up. Drizzling rain stung our eyes and while holding onto only the shrubs for life, our tears got mixed with the rain. One slip would have meant sheer death as there was a free fall of nearly 2000 meters. We climbed on shivering in the cold as clouds swirled menacingly around us and condors brushed by. Andean condors belong to the vulture family, is one of the longest living birds and flies at dizzying heights. It was the worst nightmare coming true for all of us and we immediately canceled continuation of our trip to the Volcans, the moment we came back to safety. All of us seriously feared for our safety, our lives and a broken ankle got me laid up at Samaipata hospital, where I craved for familiar urban comfort of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
TRAVEL TIP – While this Amboro National Park with Volcans trekking tour was cheap-400 Bolivianos it was definitely not worth risking our lives. After this horrifying experience and incessantly trawling the net, I found this to be quite a common Amboro trek experience. Based on recommendations from other travelers I would suggest these treks be done with Ben Verhoef tours. Although a bit more expensive the Ben Verhoef tours are considered the most professional of them all and offer many interesting trips around Samaipata.
Try their Che trail and follow the final steps of the iconic dare devil guerrilla hero. This trail includes Vallegrande, Pucará and La Higuera, the laundry of the Señor de Malta, hospital and the famous landing strip in Vallegrande. Pucará, named after a pre Inca ruin is a picturesque town famous for its traditional architecture and Quebrada Del Churo is the unfortunate place of Che’s capture and houses the school where he was executed.
In Samaipata don’t miss the El Fuerte and the archaeological museum. El Fuerte de Samaipata (Fort Samaipata), also known simply as “El Fuerte”, is an archaeological site and a Unesco World Heritage place. It is situated on the eastern foothills of the Bolivian Andes and is generally considered to be an important pre-Columbian religious site. Built by the Chane people, a pre-Inca culture it is quite impressive and provides beautiful bird’s eye views of the region. Although very much a DIY thing, opt for available guided tours to understand its mysteries. El Fuerte in fact is one of the most enigmatic places on earth and has been forever mentioned as the launch pad for extra terrestrial cultures and their spaceships by alternative theorists.
Also consider a day trip to the pretty three waterfalls of Las Cuevas where you can swim and hang out at the little beaches, pick oranges, and go for picturesque little hikes. These are situated in a lovely forested area where parrots, hummingbirds and other species of birds can be seen. Bella Vista and Volcans mountain ranges (Sandstone mountains with different types of forest, rivers and jungle in canyons and valleys) are also great options for trips around Samaipata. For condor watch try hiking up the Condor Mountain on clear days. Condors almost always appear around midday and it can be clubbed with the nearby La Pajcha waterfall which is great for camping too. The most unique option however is visit to the little neighbouring town of Mataral, about 60 kilometers from Samaipata. It has some caves where our human predecessors left interesting rock paintings (believed to date back to about 4000 B.C.) and the area is home to some pretty waterfalls and natural pools. Nearby is the the vast desert of San Isidro and Pulquina, famous for giant cactus and exotic cactus flowers.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE