Indigenous peoples in Bolivia's eastern hills began carving the mountaintop at Samaipata around 1,700 years ago. (Photo Credit: Sara Shahriari)

The Cat and the Rattlesnake: A Visit to Samaipata, Bolivia

Sara Shahriari
11/25/12

In the hot Bolivian lowland hills that stretch toward the Amazon rainforest, indigenous peoples began to carve a giant red-hued rock. Beginning work about 1,700 years ago they etched their story into the exposed mountaintop.

The rock and carvings are still visible today at an archaeological site called the Fort of Samaipata. Despite the name the first people to shape the rock, who were probably from the Mojocoyo culture, weren't building a fort. Instead they were creating a religious center rich with symbols whose meanings are lost in time. According to UNESCO, this World Heritage Site "bears outstanding witness to the existence in this Andean region of a political culture with highly developed religious traditions," and has "no parallel anywhere in the Americas."

Three Peoples on the Mountain

Some thousand years after the Mojocoyo began their work, the Inca Empire reached its long arm eastward from the Andes mountains, wrested control of the area and reshaped it for the empire's needs. Though very little about Samaipata is certain, the Inca probably used the site as both a spiritual center and a local capital.

Inca rule was not long-lived, and in the 1500s the area fell quickly to the Spanish. Like other cultures before them, the Spanish realized Samaipata's strategic location, took it over and added their buildings to the settlement.

However, some people don't believe that Samaipata is the work of ancient human beings at all, and suggest the rock was actually a launch strip for spaceships. Similar claims have also been made about the ancient city of Tiwanaku in Bolivia-though most trained archaeologists say both places are certainly the work of Indigenous Peoples.

The Rattlesnake and The Cat

The first thing visitors to Samaipata see is a lookout point over a rock about 2000 feet long. Patience is required, because at first glance this appears to be a pretty regular rock. The sandstone is eroded, but with a little patience the carvings emerge. Onthe left is a raised circle with the shape of a cat carved into it, and on the right is a corresponding circle. Cats were significant to both the Inca, who revered the puma, and to some Bolivian lowlands cultures, where jaguars still play an important role. Other animals, such as birds, have been wiped away by erosion.

In the foreground two cats are carved into the rock at Samaipata, one in a raised circle on the left and one on the right. Further up an Inca wall cuts horizontally across the rock, and beyond that are two parallel channels. (Sara Shahriari)

Further up a low Inca stone wall cuts horizontally across the rock. A few yards beyond the Inca wall are two vertical parallel lines bordered by zig-zags that call to mind rattlesnakes, which are commonly found in the area.

After looking at these carvings visitors may ask themselves what it all means. Researchers agree that the rock was a religious site, but there is no consensus on the significance of many carvings, and in some cases it's unclear whether they were made by Inca or Pre-Inca cultures.

The southern wall of the rock at Samaipata is covered with niches and seats carved into the stone. The rock was an important religious center as early as 300 AD, but it's unclear what ceremonies took place here. (Sara Shahriari)

Leaving the viewing platform and descending via an elevated walkway, a series of niches carved into the rock are visible. Given their trapezoidal shape, seen at other Inca sites like Machu Picchu, these niches are probably Inca additions to the rock that housed objects like mummies or statues. According to UNESCO, excavations at this southern base of the rock show pre-Inca and Inca buildings once stood here, and the stone foundations of a Spanish house are still visible.

Inca-period niches cut into the southern wall at Samaipata were probably covered by temples and used to hold mummies or statues. (Sara Shahriari)

"The site is really amazing, the ways it's set in the mountains amongst the trees," said Stefanie Hackl, a visitor from Germany.  "One of the things that's special about it is you can see the Spanish, Inca and pre-Inca walls."

Looking away from the rock to the right the foundations of a large Inca building called a kallanka stand on the edge of the broad, flat square central to Inca settlements. According to archaeologist Maria de los Angles Munoz, the kallanka was an imposing building about 220 feet long and 40 feet high with a  palm leaf roof, and eight doors opening out onto the plaza.

The foundations of the Inca-built kallanka at Samaipata are all that remains of a building more than 200 feet long and 40 feet high, with eight doorways opening onto a plaza. It was probably built between 1300 and 1500 AD. (Sara Shahriari)

Travels to Samaipata

The Fort of Samaipata is located near the town of Samaipata, an appealing, small, sleepy place with lodging and restaurants for visitors, most of whom come to see the fort, visit local caves or trek in Amboro National Park. The slightly cooler weather in these mountains is a welcome relief from the tropical heat of Santa Cruz, Bolivia's largest city, three hours away.

Elevated walkways lead around the rock to prevent further erosion caused by people walking over the sandstone. (Sara Shahriari)

The rock is a quiet site where you may find yourself one of just a handful of visitors. It doesn't have the same scale or mega-appeal of Machu Picchu, but archaeology buffs and anyone with an interes

t in American indigenous cultures will appreciate the history and symbolism at the site. Though even a few more descriptive signs and illustrations would enhance the visitor experience exponentially, the Fort of Samaipata is a beautiful place to spend a few hours taking in a unique piece of history

.The uncrowded Samaipata site is surrounded by picturesque rolling hills. (Sara Shahriari)

For more information on Samaipata, visit UNESCO.

IF YOU GO:

Shared taxis leave Santa Cruz for Samaipata. They cost about $4.50 per person and leave whenever enough passengers show up. Taxis pass the turnoff to the Fort of Samaipata en route the town. A taxi from the town of Samaipata to the Fort costs about $12 for four people, and will wait while you tour the site.

There is small museum in town with information on the rock, items excavated at the site and ancient pottery from other local indigenous cultures. Information and signage is very limited at the actual site, so taking in the museum beforehand is a good idea.

Tickets cost about $3.50 for Bolivians or foreigners with Bolivian residency, and $7.00 for foreign visitors. They can be purchased at the museum or at the fort itself.

 

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