We decide to take the Sindicato El Fuerte to Samaipata from Santa Cruz, which is basically a shared car. You turn up at a designated point, wait for four people heading the same way and off you go. It’s not quite as cheap as a local bus but it’s quicker, plus the randomness of who you might be travelling with adds to the fun. The journey should take about three hours but our driver seems to be in a rush to get there. After two hours of mostly dirt road, carved precariously out of the edges of mountains, we arrive in the centre square. It’s a small town, locals are friendly and we feel at home immediately.
Our accommodation, Posada del Sol, is top notch – cheap and almost hotel standard. Again we get lucky, many travellers insist on not booking ahead to try and get a better deal but we find turning up can leave you with only the cheapest or most expensive options. Also, arriving in a new town without the hassle of lugging backpacks around is worth every penny.
The weather is great so we grab a cab (local chap with a car) and head up to see the pre-Inca ruins – El Fuerte. It’s our first taste of altitude and although we don’t notice it the cab does – how a Nissan Micra made it up the tracks to the ruins I don’t know.
I’m a kinda no instruction manual kinda guy, and hiring guides fits into the same category for me. But in this instance I decide I don’t know it all and we rent an amigo for a couple of hours to talk us through the site. It’s an impressive place, dating from around the 16th century, a huge settlement of importance to the Incas, and subsequently the Spanish, due it’s elevated position, closeness to trade routes and it’s alignment to the stars. These days it’s a big carved rock on top of the mountain covered with inscriptions and sacrificial altars, the surrounding land full of primitive huts, with most of the site yet to be excavated. If you have already been to Machu Picchu you might scoff at the place but for us it’s our first taste of ruins and old stuff.
That night we buy our bus tickets to Sucre. A few months back we met an English tour guide who has been taking a tour group around South America for years (Toucan Tours). His advice was to avoid night travel in Bolivia, and went as far as saying it’s suicide. Pah, what does he know. We book a 10 hour overnight bus, and are informed it’s a dirt road all the way through the mountain up to 2500m. To catch the bus we need to wait by the side of the road at a designated time, apparently the bus driver will be informed. What could go wrong?!
After awkwardly avoiding some miserable Israelis we met at breakfast, we grab a local pizza in an empty local restaurant on the square where I’m treated to hours of Shakira videos on TV. How I’ve never seen a video of hers before I don’t know. I’m in love and Leah accepts there will forever be another in our relationship.
The next day we take an hour’s walk out of town to a private animal sanctuary,Zoo El Refugio. It’s the reason I wanted to come here – big fan of monkeys. The placed is actually a small paddock, 70 pence entrance. Inside are a crazy collection of rescued animals: boars, parrots, monkeys, dogs and cats all live together perfectly happily and they all like a bit of attention. The boars will walk alongside nuzzling your legs looking for a pat, the fox will accept a stroke and the monkeys will outstretch a hand to be lifted for a hug. It’s great fun and we spend about two hours wandering around playing with the monkeys. It’s also possible to volunteer here for a few weeks. Accommodation is provided in exchange for a full working day of preparing food and keeping the critters company. Low season is best, the fellas get bored of playing when there are loads of tourists, and we had the place to ourselves.
That evening we catch our bus, that’s it. No crazy stories of bad transport, rip offs and breakdowns. Its not the cleanest bus, but it arrived on time(ish), the seats almost recline fully and although the journey was bumpy we didn’t drive off the cliff face that was just two feet from the road and even arrive slightly early in Sucre! Don’t know what all the fuss its about. A little girl behind me did empty her bowels around 2am which was fragrant to say the least but her embarrassed parents did a great job of cleaning her up whilst bouncing along. If you’re going to Bolivia and are worried about the buses, yes, there are fatalities every year, just pay that few dollars extra and get local advice on recommended companies. You’re going to miss a lot of Bolivia if you fly everywhere, don’t wimp out.