We are easy to spot, hovering outside a bus terminal with bulging backpacks loaded front and back. What fools we must look, oversized Lonely Planet on a Shoestring, open on the “getting there and around” page, in hand. What easy targets we make, married to our desire to reach the next destination.
In my case, the next destination was a place I had actually already arrived at less than nine hours earlier. And now the only objective, travel journal safely back in my possession, was to get back to green Samaipata. But the Lonely Planet was at best vague about how to get there from inhospitable Santa Cruz, and a taxi driver, and his cohorts, wanted to charge me Bs50 for what seemed like only 4km or so to the Samaipata-bound shuttles. R75 is hardly expensive, but by now I knew that they were overcharging me based on my choice of luggage and reading material. BS indeed.
Which is when, out of nowhere, a young Bolivian lady (ahem, that is, probably my age), pushed through the ring of drivers who had surrounded me and asked me where I needed to go. I explained and she led me away from the men and carefully gave me directions. (It should go without saying that everything transpires in Spanish, unless otherwise indicated.)
Having spent my last Bs35 on the bus ride from Samaipata to Santa Cruz, I had to change Chilean pesos before I could be on my way. Young Lady took hold of my hand and escorted me to one of the road-side money changers (they perch on barstools clutching fat rolls of Bolivianos), negotiated a non-gringa rate and then sweet-talked a sour-looking sweet vendor into changing a Bs100 note for me. I got the stink-eye but was quickly led away, still by hand, and physically helped onto the bus by Young Lady.
Kindness leaves a mark.
Should you ever find yourself in this part of the world, this is how you get to the Samaipata shuttles in Santa Cruz for the low, low price of Bs4 from the entrance of the bus terminal, should you not be lucky enough to attract the attention of a Bolivian guardian angel:
- Take the 74 bus and ask the driver to stop at the intersection of Tercer Anillo and Doble Via la Guardia.
- Cross four lanes and head left, getting onto the 76 bus.
- Ask the driver to drop you at Plaza Chiriguano (the one where the kids ride around in go karts). It’ll take a while, and you’ll drive through the centre and slowly past the massive mercado. Don’t panic.
- At the traffic circle with the statue of Mr Chiriguano, cross the road – carefully – and on the right-hand side of the road, turn right before the hardware store (ferreteria).
- Immediately to your right is the shuttle office. Announce yourself and wait until there are enough people to fill a shuttle. You pay your Bs30 (or 35, I forget), directly to the driver. (I point out here that the price to travel 143km to Samaipata is in fact lower that the 4km in a taxi from the bus terminal to the shuttle office.)
- Enjoy the ride and put Santa Cruz far behind you.
This is exactly what I did and at 3pm, 12 round hours after first arriving in Samaipata, I was once again back in the small town of dirt roads and low buildings, a town hugged by lush green mountains which, now that I could observe it in the daylight, was perfectly different from the urban spaces I had visited during the preceding days.
El Jardin (The Garden) is an idyllic place that delivers on its eponymous promise, and within 15 minutes of arriving my tent was pitched (I’m so fast now, guys, I don’t even time myself anymore), lighthearted hellos and how-are-yous were shared and I had a cup of strong instant coffee in my hand, courtesy of the Parisian couple, Simon and Samia, who would become two of my favourite people ever within 24 hours of us meeting. It helped that they are my age, and funny, and kind, and open, and interested, and readers, and marvellous people. Urgh, I love the French.
A lot of time has passed since my week in Samaipata (a visit that I thought would only last a night or two, which should tell you something about the place) so all I really have now are abstract recollections tinged with powerful nostalgia.
Sounds: the chipper of birds, the off-key singing and guitar-playing of the Chileno Loco who didn’t know the notes, chords nor words to Hotel California (but who was not deterred by this in the slightest); the rolling grumble of thunder and the pitter-patter of raindrops on my tent’s canopy on that first night, waking me up and then lulling me to sleep again – one of my favourite paradoxes.
Sights: A lush green bamboo-lined garden in the hollow of an even greener valley; the three Argentinian hippies asleep on the floor of the outdoor kitchen that morning after the rain (my tent > their tents); the remnants of my dinner from the night before scattered across the lawn after dogs got hold of it and the laid-back, overwhelmingly positive emotional response to this.
Feelings, man: The bliss of a great night’s sleep in a tent in the middle of the Bolivian lowlands; the quiet, natural companionship of people you were born to be friends with; the gift of hard-earned tranquillity.
You get the point.
Thinking back to it, my time in Samaipata represents a massive change in my outlook and my attitude. Everything has only gotten better since then, adventure has found me – or I have found it – more regularly, travelling has become tangibly beneficial … Something changed, and it started here.
Simon, Samia, Rabah (another Frenchie, equally delightful) and Laura, the Argentinian hostel receptionist and I went on what turned out to be a pretty strenuous trip at some point that week. It was a beautiful but steep downhill trek-slash-trot through a thriving forest that occasionally opened up to reveal the spectacular burnt-red Muela del Diablo (Devil’s Tooth) peaks all around.
And at the bottom we had a long, lazy swim in the piscina natural (natural swimming pool) with its own little waterfall, which left us all exhausted and glowing and giddy in our underwear.
On our way down I dedicated only a fleeting thought to the fact that what goes down, must come up, but I was rudely awakened to this Newtonian rule when we started hiking back. Those two hours were slow, steep, relentless, soul crushing, drenched in sweat and tough, so tough.
And that was not even the end of it. Next we walked back to the main road towards our overnight destination. On our way our spirits were high – the climb was over – and soon we would eat. We were silly and tired and in awe of the surrounds – palms and ferns and mountains and cows and buenas vistas, a shiny, alluring river below.
Our destination, Ginger’s Paradise, deserves a post of its own.