With a local shop that sells excellent German sausage, an abundance of signage in English, great coffee shops and a number of particularly pale residents, in parts, Samaipata doesn't feel particularly Bolivian.
This small town of just over 3,000 people has a very different face than that which existed a couple of decades ago. The main reason is the 250 German, dozen or so Dutch and handful of Americans who have settled here - drawn by the temperate climate, sumptuous countryside and clean, fresh living. However, unlike many other small towns and cities we've visited, where the influx of international residents has partly been to the detriment of a place rather than a positive, Samaipata's experience appears to be a little different. On the whole, the role of these immigrant Europeans appears to have been welcomed and recognised as improving the tourism prospects of an area which, on the whole, has been overlooked by most travellers in Bolivia.
However, word seems to be spreading this gorgeous place. Indeed, we only made the decision to visit Samaipata (Incan for 'Rest in the Highlands') after reading a small local magazine piece which made it sound like heaven on earth. And, although we wouldn't say it quite lives up to that description, if you do decide to head east from La Paz - or a couple hours west of Santa Cruz - you will be rewarded with a quaint, welcoming town, blessed with beautiful countryside, manageable altitude levels and some excellent food options!
Here's our guide on where to eat, what to do and where to stay in Samaipata.
There's a phrase in Latin America that once you understand, you'll hear all the time: vale la pena. Roughly translated as 'worth the effort'.
Go on any hike with the slightest incline in any country from Mexico to Argentina, and those on the way down will are almost certain to breathlessly utter these words as you pass.
Unfortunately, El Fuerte - promoted as the star attraction of Samaipata - was definitely not 'vale la pena'. As with quite a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites we've visited in the world, having historical and archaeological importance does not necessarily translate into being that, well, interesting for the simple day-tripper.
'The Fort' is a significant pre-Columbian religious site, which was also the focus of numerous battles given its strategically important position in the hilltops. Due to this, it was held and maintained by three distinct cultures - Chanés, Incas and the Spaniards - each of which have left their mark. If you visit and take a guide, some of this history may come alive before your eyes. If not, you may just be spend an hour wandering around questioning why on earth you're here on a big brown rock. The views from 'El Fuerte' are excellent, but the ruins and (barely visible) carvings for which its renowned will not make it into any of our 'must see' lists for Bolivia.
Thankfully, we chose to hike the 8km from town through beautiful countryside instead of taking the overpriced return taxi rides. That was the best decision we made as the walk there and back - with glorious and photogenic vistas - was much more memorable than El Fuerte itself.
Need to know: To walk to El Fuerte, simply follow the road out of town (towards Santa Cruz) for around 3km, at which point you will come to the turn off on the right, which is well-signposted. From here, follow the (controversially expensive) new road all the way up the hill. The entire 8 km should take around 2 hours and is a beautiful way to spend an afternoon. Good walking shoes or trainers are essential. It's a safe route, but do exercise caution if you see any dogs.
If you prefer four wheels, then you will find taxis in the main square which charge a fixed rate of 100B for a return trip (they wait two hours whilst you're exploring the site). Motorbike taxis also make this trip.
Entry for foreigners is a slightly eye-watering 50 Bolivianos and this includes entry to the El Fuerte museum back in town. As we've said, we don't really recommend a visit to El Fuerte unless you really want to see it or are interested in its historical importance.
With a number of attractions in the area requiring a tour or guide to reach them, Las Cuevas provides a great D.I.Y option for the budget backpacker.
Composed of a number of small waterfalls, cool swimming holes and sandy beaches, this is a great place to hang out for hours - especially during a hot summer day.
Need to know: Located around 20 km out of town, these waterfalls are best reached by bike or taxi. Taxis will charge around 40 Bs one way. You may also be able to flag down a seat in one of the many buses passing by the entrance on the way to/from Santa Cruz.
Entrance for foreigners is 15B each.
amboro national park
Composed of not one, but three ecosystems (the foothills of the Andes, the northern Chaco, and the Amazon Basin), Amboro National Park is known as one of the most ecologically diverse places on the planet.
For the lucky tourist, this means that this massive park is an excellent place to spot some of Bolivia's most impressive wildlife, including the spectacled bear, pumas and jaguars. It also boasts 60% of all of the country's birdlife (that's more than 900 species!), so is a popular spot for twitchers.
Need to know: Given the size of Amboro, it is not surprising that it is illegal to enter the park without a local guide. Practically this mean, you're going to have to go as part of a tour; various operators in town will be able to advise you.
condor's nest hike
For those looking to experience the sheer joy of having the world's largest flying bird soar above your head - without the cacophony of a hundred other tourists trying to jostle for position - head to Samaipata.
A full day tour (unfortunately, it is not possible to do this independently) will have you hike through spectacular forest to reach the secret spot at 2,200m where the condors dive and soar, searching for food. It was an incredible experience!
Sound good? Check out our post and photography about looking for condors in Samaipata.
La Pajcha waterfall
We have seen a lot of waterfalls dotted throughout South America, and almost all were a little disappointing. Thankfully however, La Pajcha lives up to its online reputation - it really is quite remarkable.
Set amongst beautiful scenery this multi-tiered waterfall also creates a natural pool edged by a sandy beach. As the weather in Samaipata can get pretty toasty, this is a spectacular place to cool off!
Need to know: As the waterfall is located 43 km outside of Samaipata, unless you have your own transport, the only way to reach it is by taxi or part of a tour (it is usually visited after a hike to the Condor's Nest).
Round-trip taxi rental, with a couple of hours at the waterfall, will cost around $35 USD.
explore the colourful streets
Whilst there is so much going on in the gorgeous countryside surrounding Samaipata, you should make a little time to explore its cobblestoned and colourful streets.
At times feeling like you're part of a wild-west cowboy town, and others some hipster-friendly getaway, wandering around the town makes for an interesting afternoon or two.
The traditional local market is the place to buy your hostel meal or hike pack-lunch ingredients, and also serves as a healthy reminder that, despite the various European influences here, this town's beating heart is still very much Bolivian. The plaza is also a lovely spot, especially when the sun's out and you can sit here for a few hours on one of the pavement tables, sipping a coffee and watching the world pass by in front of you.
where to eat and drink
Unsurprisingly, in a town bursting with expats (this is a great article about their stories and love of the town), you can get some pretty good food in Samaipata. Actually, scrap that; you can get some GREAT food here!
Here are our top picks:
La Cocina - Owned and run by a young Turkish guy, La Cocina offers a very simple menu of burgers, schwarma and falafel - but by god, does he do it well, In fact, the falafel served in this stylish spot may well just be the best we had on this trip! And it's very good value, with burgers and wraps only costing 20B.
Caffe Art - This delightful little café is a wonderful place to get an afternoon cup of coffee and splurge on a cake (the chocolate brownie with ice cream looked INCREDIBLE!). Run by Sandra, a local artist, the entire cafe is decorated in her colourful paintings and pottery with various works available to buy. It's a little pricey but it's a nice place to relax (especially if you need to use some wi-fi!).
La Boheme - We love Bolivia, but cool bars are few and far between - La Boheme is what we had been missing. This super cool, expat-friendly bar in the main square offers excellent value cocktails (including gin) during happy hour and lots of live music, plus a lovely roof terrace.
Cafe 1900 - Just a few doors down from La Cocina, this is a lovely place to have a drink, with seating inside and out. The food is a little overpriced, but the beer is reasonable.
La Vaca Loca - A lovely little walk outside town will bring you to this little homemade ice-cream joint in the scenic countryside, which also serves lunch and has a pool (extra fee) - a great spot for a hot day!
Be aware that Monday is the day most of the businesses in Samaipata close, so your options will be a bit more limited then. And, of course, alongside each of these more 'western' styled restaurants, there are cheap local eateries to check out on the streets heading off the main plaza.
where we stayed
We were delighted to be hosted by Landhaus during our stay in Samaipata. This family-run hotel - set up by one of the first Germans to settle in the town - has a number of accommodation options, catering for couples requiring just a double room or a self-catering apartment to large families or groups of friends looking for their own private house with all the amenities of home.
There is also a restaurant selling great breakfasts in the morning, a welcoming swimming pool to cool down after a long day hiking and beautifully landscaped gardens in which to relax and enjoy the views with which Samaipata has been blessed.
It's also one of few accommodations in Samaipata to have wi-fi at the moment (which is surprisingly quick).
They don't have dorms, so solo backpackers will need to check out some other options, but for couples, groups and families looking for privacy, comfort and a relaxing stay, whilst staying only a few blocks from the town centre, Landhaus is an excellent option.
how to get there
If you're coming from Cochabamba, you have two options.
The first is to take a bus all the way to Santa Cruz (10 hours, 50-100B depending on the company), and then catch a second bus from there to Samaipata (2.5 - 3 hours with collectivo, 30 Bs, slight longer but cheaper with normal bus). This option is often preferred as it means travelling to Santa Cruz along the much better 'new road'.
However, as we like to limit the number of bus changes, we chose the other option - a single, very long bus journey all the way from Cochabamba to Samaipata along the 'old road'. Sure, it was a little more bumpy and took a really long time (there are lots of road works going on due to landslides and traffic was stopped for up to one hour at several points) but at least we could just sleep through it! The bus took us around 13 hours and cost 50B each (a bargain!). Information available online is a very difficult to find, but we can tell you that we got to the Trans Pojo depot (it's on the corner of Avenida 6 de Agosto and Calle Moxos - NOT the main bus terminal) nice and early with a taxi and caught the first bus at 7 a.m, although the lady who sold us the tickets said that there was another at 8.30 a.m every day.