Day 1: Sunday
Arrive after 17 hours from La Paz, 2 hours waiting in Santa Cruz and a 2 and a half hour drive in a cramped minibus full of French people who speak to each other and ignore you. Go to Don Gilberto’s Tours to get a taxi to the farm where you’re volunteering. Wait over three hours for the surly Don Gilberto to return from helping a man with a cow. After explaining where you want to go, ride in his ancient car while the sun sets over the green hills around you. Be greeted by a dread-locked Brit with a headlamp who leads you up a slippery mud trail to an earth-built cottage. Once inside the one-room shack and sitting under the dim light bulb, drink some kind of tea and eat rice and vegetables from a wooden bowl offered by your host. Explain a little about yourselves and listen to your hosts beliefs on ‘forbidden archaeology’ and other conspiracy theories. Finally, take your bags halfway back down the slippery mud trail to the volunteer shelter (which is mostly just a tin roof surrounded by tarps, with a couple of hard bed bases and sleeping bags that leak feathers). Ensconce yourself under a mosquito net (not forgetting to trap a mosquito in there with you) and fall asleep quickly despite fears of scorpions and pumas coming from the nearby Amboró National Park.
Day 2: Monday
Wake up late, but still earlier than your host. Make an attempt at using the dry eco-toilet but decide the bushes have far less flies hanging around. When your host finally awakens, go into the main house and see it in all it’s glorious dirt with light coming in from the plastic-bottle-windows. Cook porridge and listen to BBC World Service while discussing more conspiracy theories. Gather spades, a saw and pliers, and begin transforming part of the slippery mud trail into earth-and-wood steps. After several hours work, feel quite proud of your achievement even though it was mostly just following simple instructions. Take a tea break and then (following more simple instructions) plant two types of beans. When your host asks if you’re leaving tomorrow, nod non-commitally while mentally tallying up how many days you think you can survive this lifestyle. While climbing into bed fully clothed (and caked in mud), decide that tomorrow would be a good time to leave.
Day 3: Tuesday
Although two weeks of volunteering turned into only two days, feel good when you wake up this morning knowing that soon you’ll not only be able to have a hot shower but also eat with clean plates and utensils. After breakfast (yesterday’s leftovers reheated), finish the last of the steps and then get a taxi ride from a man named Felix. Once in town, check in to Residencial Kim because it has a cute sunny courtyard and a parrot in a cage. Go to La Chakana and order the menu del día, even though lunchtime is over. Afterwards, take a shower (despite assurances of hot water, lukewarm is all you get) and quarantine all your dirty clothes together. Walk around town and find a cheap tour that’s leaving the next day. Go to a corner shop where a one-eyed cat butts its head against you in aggressive affection and buy bread and chocolate spread for dinner. Return to your room, start reading a new book and promptly fall asleep.
Day 4: Wednesday
At Across Tours Amboró, realise that the group you’re joining are some of the same French people from before. After this disappointment, speak to them in Spanish and decide they’re not so bad but still feel happy when a lanky German joins at the last minute. Get into a big pick-up truck with your guide Clemente and travel along a dirt road to the cloud-forest area of Amboró. Walk through lichen- and moss-covered forest, with occasional patches of giant tree ferns. Pose for adequate pictures and imagine dinosaurs stalking through the primeval landscape. Start walking faster when it begins to rain. Eat a lunch of bread, ham, tomatoes and fruit while standing in a semi-sheltered spot and eyeing everybody in the group to see who looks the most bedraggled. Eventually make it back to the truck. On the return ride, periodically mutter swear words and clutch your bag tightly when the truck slides on the liquid-clay surface of the road. Instead of watching how close the truck is to the edge, concentrate on the terrified expression of the French girl and the fascinated look of the German filming everything. At the last patch of slippery surface, get out of the truck and push it from one side every time it starts to slide to prevent it from going into a ditch. When you get back to Samaipata, thank Clemente profusely and then ask about going on another tour tomorrow. Arrange to come back at 8:30pm to confirm. Enjoy removing your soaking wet shoes and take another lukewarm shower, then go to Cafe 1900 and order hot chocolate and chocolate cake. Splurge on dinner at Latina Cafe and be mildly surprised when the chicken curry contains carrot and potato like a Japanese curry. On returning to the tour agency, find it closed and discuss with Mikael the German about what to do tomorrow. Say you’ll check with the agency in the morning and then knock for Mikael at his hostel.
Day 5: Thursday
Wake up to grey clouds and rain and decide not to get out of bed. When Mikael comes looking for you, feel a little relieved to hear that the agency was still closed. Since he’s going to the farm you just came from to volunteer for a day, arrange to hire a taxi tomorrow and go somewhere after the solstice celebrations at El Fuerte. Head over to the museum on Calle Bolívar. Before reaching your destination, be accosted by an out-of-breath Mikael who is now not volunteering as there was a mix-up on the phone. Change into your walking shoes (still wet from yesterday) and get a taxi together to Las Cuevas. On arrival, hide your ignorance that Las Cuevas are in fact waterfalls. Walk leisurely and take ample pictures of gushing water, red sand beaches and misty hills. Back in town, get the almuerzo at La Chakana again, then laze about in your room since the weather is chilly and your shoes are still wet. For dinner, go out to a tiny restaurant on Calle Sucre whose only indication that it’s an eating establishment is the woman out front saying “Hay pizza!” Enjoy a nice Neapolitan while small children, a dog and a puppy run in and out. Watch representatives of four villages dance in the plaza in a ceremony for the solstice. Attempt to get information about whether taxis will be available to go to El Fuerte before dawn next morning. Despite asking several people, fail miserably and decide to just buy cheap Brazilian beer and drink it in your room.
Day 6: Friday
Wake up at 4:30am and drag yourself out to catch a taxi up to El Fuerte for the solstice sunrise. Decide that 80Bs for a taxi is too much when normally it’s 10Bs per person. Wait half an hour for more people to join you. Watch a crazy woman shout at, and demand money from, some young guys drinking in the plaza. Try to haggle the taxi fare down unsuccessfully. Give up and decide that you don’t need to be there at dawn, plus if you visit during the day it’ll be less crowded with New Age hippie types. Go back to bed. Get up late and eat bacon and eggs for breakfast at Cafe 1900. Start walking to El Fuerte because you’re still mad at the Samaipata taxi syndicate. On the road out of town, be stopped by a turquoise jeep offering you a ride halfway to El Fuerte. Accept and have your faith in humanity restored when the driver refuses your offer of payment for petrol. Disembark and keep walking, periodically passing groups of Brazilians struggling in stiletto heels. Once at El Fuerte, try to avoid walking in front of Brazilians posing for umpteen shots in front of information panels, trees and, occasionally, picturesque ruins. Try to identify all the rock carvings from the viewing platforms and realise that from this angle they really do look like an alien landing pad. Take a taxi back down because rain clouds are looming ominously. Eat ice cream in the plaza, then take a final lukewarm shower and pack your stuff. Realise you’re really hungry and go to eat at 6pm just as La Oveja Negra is opening. Order three different types of beer and lament the fact you can’t get any of them elsewhere in Bolivia. Go to bed early and happy, having spent too much money.
Day 7: Saturday
Go to the market and order api and pastel (confusingly called an empanada here). See a potato-cheese-pancake-thing that looks so delicious that you order a second breakfast. Ask a shared taxi driver when the next one leaves for Santa Cruz. He tells you now, so explain you’ll just be five minutes picking up your bags. Return in two minutes to see the driver loading up the luggage of different people who just took your space in the taxi. Sit in the plaza and wait an hour for the next one, reflecting that this is probably better than waiting longer in Santa Cruz for your bus back to La Paz. Finally board the taxi to find there are two people extra but that it’s not really a problem since the driver crams them in the front with him. And so with a final farewell, begin the curvy drive back.
For more pictures of Samaipata, see our photo essay.