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Quick Facts on Fuerte de Samaipata

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Fuerte de Samaipata
Samaipata, Santa Cruz Department
Samaipata  locality
Bolivia  country
South America  continent
Main date(s)
4th-16th C
18.178369° S, 63.819753° W

Description of Fuerte de Samaipata

The archaeological site of Samaipata consists of two sections: the stone carvings high on the hill and the residential area to the south of the hill.

The stone hill was the ceremonial and religious center of the ancient town at Samaipata. The reddish sandstone hill features fascinating carvings of jaguars, snakes, cats, other animal figures, and geometric designs. The carvings cover an area of 220m by 50m, or roughly 1 ha.

On the western part are carvings of two cats on a circular base, the only high-relief carvings on Samaipata. The ceremonial area also includes a water tank with two parallel conduits leading to the settlement below. Between and alongside the parallel groves are smaller channels cut in zigzag patterns - locals have dubbed this feature El Dorso de la Serpiente (The Snake's Back).

At the highest point of the stone hill is a curious seating arrangement known as the Coro de los Sacerdotes (Choir of the Priests). Here, 12 seats are deeply carved into the hilltop in a circle (7m in outside diameter). 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 its walls. Further to the east is a structure which probably represents the head of a cat. Felines and snakes were closely linked with the sun in Inca religion.

Most of the southern face of the rock was originally dominated by a series of at least five temples or sanctuaries, of which only the niches cut into their walls survive. These niches vary widely in size, shape, and orientation, but their design indicates the temples were built in the Inca period.

The carved hill of Samaipata is truly a unique and intriguing sight. In the words of UNESCO: "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."

At the foot of the rock is the Casa Colonial (Colonial House), situated on an artificial platform. Excavations have revealed evidence of Inca and pre-Inca structures here, and so it is known as the Plaza of the Three Cultures. Other features cut into the rock include the remains of two Inca houses, similar to others known from Machu Picchu, and the Templo de los Cinco Hornacinas (Temple of the Five Niches), also of Inca type.

South of the stone hill is the administrative and residential district of Samaipata during the Inca period. Situated on a series of three artificial platforms, the main feature is an enormous building (68m by 16m) known as the Kallanka; it is on the lowest platform and faces the ceremonial area on the rock across a spacious plaza.

Holly Hayes
October 27, 2011


The ancient site of Samaipata was occupied and used as a ritual and residential centre by people belonging to the Mojocoyas culture as early as 300 AD, and it was at this time that work began on the shaping of the great rock.

According to the 17th-century Spanish priest Diego de Alcaya, the site was occupied in the 14th century by the Inca, who made it a provincial capital. Archaeological excavations have confirmed this, uncovering a central plaza with monumental public buildings around it and terracing of the neighbouring hillsides for agriculture, all characteristics of an Inca settlement.

The site was first discovered by the Spanish, who dubbed it El Fuerte (The Fort). In the 16th century, the Spanish formed a colonial settlement in the valley beneath the ancient site, the town of Samaipata. The hilltop structures were abandoned, and were soon covered with vegetation.

After this, the ruins were visited only by treasure hunters and herdsmen, but the local villagers kept the memory of the place alive. El Fuerte first came to the notice of scholars in the 18th century, and it has been excavated and studied since the beginning of the 20th century.

The unorthodox Swiss theorist Erich von Däniken (b. 1935) visited Samaipata twice, concluding that two parallel running grooves carved in the rock were once used as a UFO launch site.

Holly Hayes
October 27, 2011

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