Sunday, August 26, 2007

El Fuerte

Today was a cold, drizzly, windy day – the kind of day that’s perfect for curling up indoors with a book and a cup of hot chocolate. I did find two cups of hot chocolate, and luxuriate in the warmth of Tuscany in my book Under the Tuscan Sun. But I also took a half-day tour of the nearby El Fuerte ruins, one of four UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Bolivia.

It’s only nine kilometers away, at the summit of a mountain, but the going was rough. On the way out of town, the driver stopped at a store to buy shampoo. “So the window won’t fog,” he said. “It’s a secret trick among drivers.”

It did keep the window from fogging, but it also streaked the inside of the window, so viewing was still difficult. We headed up a dirt road that had turned to mud from the drizzle. We crossed a river, continued uphill, then drove over rock. We were among the first to make it up. An SUV in front of us turned around partway. When we left an hour or two later, we saw many cars stopped part of the way up, or turning around in defeat.

Our guide, Erica, took us along the path through the pre-Incan ruins. The area was beautiful. Unfortunately, the fog and mist prevented us from seeing more than 10-20 meters ahead. When we climbed the overlooks, we could see only what was right below us. The photographic sites were, for us, just a collection of mist off the edge of a mountain. From what I’ve heard and seen in photos, the views are supposed to be spectacular. But I imagined they had misty days centuries ago as well. And I could try to visualize what it would have been like to live there and see a scantily dressed warrior with a bow and arrow emerge along the misty jungle path.

Though conditions were less than ideal, it was still interesting to see. It was unique compared to other ruins I’ve seen in that the highlight was a giant, 200 by 60 meter sandstone rock, carved with jaguars, serpents, ceremonial circles and tombs.

I had my lunch in the Latina Café, a nicely decorated place with large windows looking out over the hills. I ordered the pollo milanesa and was surprised to see it was as big as a pizza, taking up the entire plate. They brought the sides in a separate dish.

I’m taken with the prevalence of natural and organic food here, so I stopped at the local market to see how much the local products reflected the finished goods sold so enthusiastically to tourists and to restaurants and grocery stores in Santa Cruz. The first thing that caught my attention were the green and brown eggs from sale, from criollo chickens. There was a full and colorful selection of fresh vegetables overflowing wicker baskets – lettuce, spinach, carrots, peppers, radishes, and herbs.

Erica told me that now should be high tourist season, due to the European summer vacation. But they have less visitors than they’d expect. “Bolivia has a lot of problems,” she said. What amazes me though is how many Europeans cross the world and the ocean to get here, yet so few Americans know about it or make the trip. Samaipata is a wonderful little retreat – a great place to relax and enjoy nature, or to explore the surrounding ruins, national parks, or a giant, ancient fern forest that I unfortunately haven’t been able to get to. I’d love to come back here for an extended time.

The cold prevented me from using my hammock or spending any unnecessary time outdoors. Even so, every time I went out, I breathed in the spicy, sweet scent of herbs, flowers and tropical trees. I purchased herbal teas, an herbal mix for pizza and a rhubarb compote. But I wish I could somehow bottle the scent of the air and take some home with me.

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