El Fuerte

Top choice in Santa Cruz & Gran Chiquitania

Remains of El Fuerte Pre Inca archeological site near Samaipata in Bolivia.

Jef Wodniack/Getty

The mystical site of El Fuerte exudes such pulling power that visitors from all over the world come to Samaipata just to climb the hill and see the remains of this pre-Inca site. A designated Unesco World Heritage Site since 1998, El Fuerte occupies a hilltop about 10km from Samaipata and offers breathtaking views across the valleys.

Allow at least two hours to fully explore the complex, and take sunscreen and a hat with you.

First occupied by diverse ethnic groups as early as 2000 BC, it wasn’t until AD 1470 that the Incas, the most famous tenants, first arrived. By the time the Spanish came and looted the site in the 1600s it was already deserted. The purpose of El Fuerte has long been debated, and there are several theories. The conquistadors, in a distinctly combative frame of mind, assumed the site had been used for defense, hence its Spanish name, ‘the fort.’ In 1832 French naturalist Alcide d’Orbigny proclaimed that the pools and parallel canals had been used for washing gold. In 1936 German anthropologist Leo Pucher described it as an ancient temple to the serpent and the jaguar; his theory, incorporating worship of the sun and moon, is now the most accepted. Recently the place has gained a New Age following; some have claimed that it was a take-off and landing ramp for ancient spacecraft.

There are no standing buildings, but the remains of 500 dwellings have been discovered in the immediate vicinity and ongoing excavation reveals more every day. The main site, which is almost certainly of religious significance, is a 100m-long stone slab with a variety of sculpted features: seats, tables, a conference circle, troughs, tanks, conduits and hornecinos (niches), which are believed to have held idols. A total of seven steps leading up to the main temple represent the seven phases of the moon. Zoomorphic designs on the slab include raised reliefs of pumas and jaguars (representing power) and numerous serpents (representing fertility). Chicha (fermented corn) and blood were poured into the snake designs as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). Sadly, these designs are unprotected from the elements and erosion is making them harder to discern with every passing year.

About 300m down an obscure track behind the main ruin is Chincana, a sinister hole in the ground that appears all the more menacing by the concealing vegetation and sloping ground around it. It’s almost certainly natural, but three theories have emerged about how it might have been used: that it served as a water-storage cistern; that it functioned as an escape-proof prison; and that it was part of a subterranean communication system between the main ruin and its immediate surroundings.

On the approach to the site look out for La Cabeza del Inca, apparently a natural rock formation that bears a startling resemblance to the head of an Inca warrior, so much so that many insist it is a human-made project that was abandoned halfway through. Watch too for condors soaring on thermals overhead.

There are two observation towers that allow visitors to view the ruins from above, and a kiosk with food and water next to the ticket office.

Taxis for the round-trip, including a two-hour wait at the ruins, charge B$100 for up to four people from Samaipata. Gluttons for punishment who prefer to walk up should follow the main highway back toward Santa Cruz for 3.5km and turn right at the sign pointing uphill. From here it’s 5km to the summit.