Samaipata, Bolivia’s Mountain Town

The cute mountain town of Samaipata has a laid-back atmosphere, charming hotels and trendy cafes. We adored this picturesque town set in the ‘Elbow of the Andes’ and think you will too.

As we arrived in town’s centre square we could already sense that Samaipata would be different from the other Bolivian towns we visited. Low roofed buildings painted with quirky designs line the outside of the square. Outdoor cafes were filled with tourists drinking coffee or having a late lunch. Others were browsing in the small craft shops. No one seems to be in a hurry in the laid-back town.

Samaipata is often referred to as Bolivia’s little Switzerland and we did find a little resemblance. Not only does it have a mountain town vibe but a few of the buildings are styled to look more like Swiss chalets than typical Bolivian construction. Apparently, quite a few Swiss and German expats live in Samaipata and built homes to remind them of their country.

Samaipata is also unique because it has both international and Bolivian tourists. Unlike much of Bolivia, the nearby city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra is located at a low elevation and therefore can get quite hot. Conversely, Samaipata is at 1,600 m elevation and its cool, mountain temperatures make it a popular destination for residents of Santa Cruz when they want to escape the heat.

Its location on the eastern slopes of the Andes also means there are quite a few mountain activities. In the surrounding hills you can find many different hiking and biking trails as well as a mountain top pre-Incan ruin. We were able to visit a couple of spots during our short stay in Samaipata.

Las Cuervas

Although the name translates in English to ‘caves’ there aren’t any caves in Las Cuervas. Instead there are three small but pretty waterfalls that you can reach by short hiking trails.

It is located on private land where there are also cottages that are available to rent. A good hiking trail leads you past the cottages and into the forest to reach the first waterfall. It’s not very high, but has a small natural pool at its base. It’s a popular spot for families because it is a great place for kids to swim. It was quite chilly when we were there, so we didn’t swim in any of the three waterfalls.

From the first waterfall, follow the well-marked trail as it climbs a little higher through the forest. Waterfall two has a more wild, untamed look. Ferns and other plants cover the cliff making the water appear as if its searching between them for a passage down. It was our favourite of the three.

On the way up the hill to the 3rd waterfall a look-out lets you admire the surrounding mountain scenery. Far across the valley we could see the cliffs of the popular Amboró National Park. It is a large park with many hiking trails, but we didn’t have time to explore it.

You have to walk a little further up hill to reach the third waterfall, but it’s worth the effort. Dropping from a 20 m high cliff the last waterfall is taller than the other ones. With the open sky above you may think you’re at the top, but you’re not. A rough trail climbs even higher to reach a picturesque mountain cirque above.

Entry fee into Las Cuervas is 20 Bolivianos.

Getting to Las Cuervas

There are a few tour agencies in town that offer day tours to the waterfalls, but it’s very easy to do on your own without a guide. Taxis can usually be found at the central plaza in Samaipata. They charge 100 Bolivianos to take you to the falls, wait for 2 hours and return to town. For a combined price you can also have them take you to El Fuerte (below) on the same trip. The ‘taxi’ that took us may have been the worst car we’ve ever been in. All that was left of the driver’s seat was the wire seat frame. None of the doors could open from the inside and you needed two hands and a lot of force to roll down the windows. We did make it to the falls and back despite the bald tires.

El Fuerte

Not far from town is a small historical site with pre-Incan ruins. Although the name translates in English to ‘fort’, El Fuerte was actually the site of a temple.

The temple ruins are located on the top of a mountain. On the walk to reach it we passed terraced farms and interesting vegetation growing right out of the mountain walls.

Once we reached the entrance to El Fuerte we could see the temple remains on a rock high above. Over 2,200 years ago the indigenous Chané people carved a temple into a large rock. Not much is known about their use of the temple or any of their other buildings on the site.

From the temple there is a lovely view of the surrounding mountains. It makes you wonder if the view was part of the reason this spot was originally chosen.

In the 16th century the Incas used the temple and the land around it. They expanded the temple by cutting niches into the side of the rock and adding buildings around the border. Researchers believe that some of the buildings were used for sacrifices. Not much is left of the temple today, but you can see some of the niches and the remains of a few buildings.

Spread across the green meadow below the temple you can visit the remains of a small Incan village. There are partial walls of homes, storage facilities and meeting halls.

Eventually the Spanish controlled the area and used it as a fort resulting in the name El Fuerte. They also built a small village in this same area, but there are no remains of those buildings. The Spanish eventually moved to Samaipata and the area was abandoned and forgotten. It’s not a large or well-preserved site but is worth a visit if you are in Samaipata.

Entry to El Fuerte is 50 Bolivianos and includes admission to the museum in town.

Getting to El Fuerte

The turn off to El Fuerte is 4 km from the edge of Samaipata, but the site is another 5 km up the mountain road. For 100 Bolivianos, taxis will take you to the site, wait for 2 hours and take you back to town. For an extra fee you can include it with a trip to Las Cuervas.

Ignore the location given on Google Maps and Maps.Me. We made the mistake of having our taxi drop us off on the highway at the turn-off because these maps show the site to be only 1.5 km from the highway. They are wrong. It’s actually located 5 km up the road, on the top of the mountain.

Getting to Samaipata

The closest city to Samaipata is Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Mini buses leave Santa Cruz from Salida a Samaipata Estrellita, one block from Av. Grigota & 2nd Ring Road. The fee is 30 Bolivianos and the bus leaves when it is full. The drive takes 3 hours. There are also night buses from Sucre and Cochabamba to Samaipata.

Where to stay and eat in Samaipata

Unlike many Bolivian towns, Samaipata is ready for tourists. There are many good quality budget hotels and guest houses as well as tourist friendly restaurants in the few blocks surrounding the main plaza. You don’t need to book a room in advance and most do not have on-line booking. We were able to easily find accommodation at Hotel Casa Blanca when we arrived. It was clean, comfortable and the fee (175 Bolivianos) included a great breakfast.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra

The nearest city to access Samaipata is Santa Cruz de la Sierra (called Santa Cruz). There’s not a lot to see in the city, so it probably shouldn’t be your primary destination. However, we were able to find enough things to do in Santa Cruz to see to keep us busy for a day.

Santa Cruz is considered the financial capital of Bolivia, but most of its buildings were poorly maintained. We did see a few lovely colonial buildings downtown, but the majority of the buildings in the city are not in good condition.

With its low elevation of 416 m, it quite hot in Santa Cruz. The one thing that we did enjoy about most of the downtown buildings is that they have colonnades. These covered sidewalks are a great way to provide shelter from the hot sun.

Plaza 24 de Septiembre is a large square in the centre of town. It’s filled with tall palm trees that provide much needed shade. On the side of the square is Igelsia Basilica Menor de San Lorenzo. This large brick church has two tall bell towers bookending the front entrance. The side of the church has detailed brick work and is actually nicer than the front. During the week it’s possible to climb to the top of one of the bell towers for a view of the city, but we arrived after it had closed for the weekend.

The square was busy with locals during the day but at night it seemed that it was the place to be. Families came for ice-cream and teenagers were hanging out with their friends. Most of Santa Cruz seemed to be in the square at night.

Something different in Santa Cruz than other Bolivian cities is the street art. If you walk around the streets surrounding the plaza you can find some great displays of colourful art.

We visited the botanical gardens on the outskirts of town, but it was a huge disappointment. The best part was the large display of bonsai trees near the entrance. This gave us hope for what was coming. We walked through much of the site and spotted a few different birds and some interesting plants, but rather than an botanical garden it was mostly an overgrown forest. Admission is free though so it’s difficult to complain.

Getting to Santa Cruz

This major city has excellent access by both bus and by air from most other Bolivian cities. Located close to the border with Brazil, there are a few buses going to the nearest Bolivian border towns. We took a bus to San Matias and then took a taxi all the way to Cáceres (300 Bolivianos). If you go this way there is no border station on the Brazilian side but you do have to report to the Federal Police station in the nearest city of Cáceres. If you go through the more popular border crossing in Puerto Suárez apparently you can walk across the border and find buses in the Brazilian city of Corumbá.

Where to eat and stay in Santa Cruz

The city is not a primary tourist destination but there are several hotels and restaurants downtown. Try to stay near Plaza 24 de Septiembre for the most comfortable hotels and best restaurants.

To read about our other adventures in Bolivia click here.

Coming Next – Jesuit Missions of Chiquitania in Bolivia

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To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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