Referred to as El Fuerte (The Fort) de Samaipata, the rock carvings at Samaipata in the mountains of central Bolivia is a unique Incan site excavated in the early 20th century. It is actually a stone hill that is the home of a diverse variety of carved animals and geometric icons. Occupied from as early as 300 A.D., this ancient site was used as a ritual and residential centre by the people of the Mojocoyas culture who then started shaping the rock. Later, it was inhabited by the Inca who made the region as it capital that is evident because of the enclosing central plaza, public edifices, and hillsides holding terraced farms – all featuring the Inca civilization.
After being abandoned for many years, the site was initially found by the Spanish who called it “El Fuerte” (The Fort). In the 16th century, the Spanish built a settlement in the valley below the hill and after that the hilltop structures were soon buried under vegetation. If today archaeologists could find them, it is all thanks to the local villagers who had protected them. Now, it is designated as a World Heritage site as UNESCO describes it as: “the huge sculptured rock, dominating the town below, is a unique testimony to pre-Hispanic traditions and beliefs, and has no parallel anywhere in the Americas.”
Exploring the Site
The entire archaeological site is divided into two areas namely, the stone carvings atop the hill and the residential complex at the south of the hill.
The reddish hill of sandstone has very interesting carvings of jaguars, snakes, cats, other animals, and geometric designs. To its west, there are sculptings of two cats on a round platform that is regarded as the only high-relief carving in the town. At the stone hill, all ceremonial and religious activities were performed by the people of the ancient town. The ceremonial area also has a cistern with two parallel conduits taking one to the settlement beneath the hill. These conduits are the parallel grooves that are even thought as a UFO runway according to an expert. In between and along these groves, smaller channels intersect in crisscross style, which the villagers have named as El Dorso de la Serpiente meaning the Snake’s Back.
Reach to the summit of this stone hill and you will see a probing seating display called the Coro de los Sacerdotes (Choir of the Priests) wherein 12 seats are carved spherically. Within the circle of 12 is another set of three seats, which are placed back-to-back and face outward toward the 12 seats. The circle includes triangular and rectangular niches cut into the walls. To the east, a structure that seems to indicate the head of a cat is seen.
If you go ahead and explore the rock’s southern face, you will find that much of it was initially an array of a minimum of five temples or sanctuaries. This is evident from the only surviving part of the edifices, the niches that intersect into their walls, which greatly are different in size, shape, and orientation. Further, the pattern or the style of the niches tells us that the temples came into existence during the Inca period during which the felines and snakes were closely associated with the sun as per their religious belief.
Standing on a man-made podium at the base of the rock is the Casa Colonial (Colonial House). It is also known as the Plaza of the Three Cultures and is so named due to the excavated structures belonging to the Inca and pre-Inca era. Cutting the rock is the relics of two Inca houses in Inca style that resembles the ones at Machu Picchu in Peru and the Templo de los Cinco Hornacinas – the Temple of the Five Niches.
Further towards the south of the hill, you will spot the administrative and residential district of the Inca era built on a collection of three man-made bases. Out of them, the main one is the huge building called the Kallanka seen on the lowest base facing the ceremonial region across an airy plaza.
Do take a camera with you as photography and entry both are without cost.