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The ruins of Fuerte de Samaipata

Fuerte De Samaipata - A Site of Ceremonial Carvings and Sacrifice


The Andean nation of Bolivia has been home to a number of remarkable cultures, and as a result many archaeological sites remain in the country. The Fuerte de Samaipata site has been recognized as crucial to the understanding of Andean cultures and has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

The History of Fuerte De Samaipata, Bolivia

This site was originally built by a group who belonged to the Mojocoyas culture, the southern-most branch of the great Arawak speaking people. They used the site as a ceremonial and administrative center from at least 300 AD. The area was later incorporated into the Inca Empire in the fourteenth century.

The inhabitants of the area voluntarily submitted to the rule of the Inca, who later made it a regional capital and gave the area its name. Because it was strategically beneficial and one of the most remote outposts of the Andean Empire, the Inca rebuilt much of the original settlement.

Fuerte de Samaipata was often attacked by the fierce Chiriguanos of the Chaco region who were part of the large Guarani group. And when the Spanish Conquistadors occupied the site and settled the area, and it later became a key staging post in the transportation of silver from the famous mine of Potosí. The Chiriguanos, however, continued to raid the remote urban center.

The colonizers later developed the new town of Samaipata in the Valle de la Purificación, partly because they believed that their former settlement was too vulnerable to attack. It was ultimately abandoned which ironically helped to preserve the many ruins at the site.

The Samaipata Archaeological Site

The archaeological site covers an area of 20 hectares and has traditionally been divided into two parts. There is a ceremonial/religious center as well as an administrative and residential area. While the Inca rebuilt many of the original buildings, they retained the layout of the original urban settlement.

The ceremonial area in the northern section of the site is roughly 700 by 200 feet (213 by 60 meters). A large red sandstone outcrop dominates the entire area and the many carvings engraved into the rock face date from before and after the time of Incan occupation. The figures include animals, distinctive linear engravings - referred to as the serpent by the locals - as well as a great many geometric figures.

Detail of one of the carving on the massive rock of Fuerte de Samaipata (CC BY SA 2.0)

Detail of one of the carving on the massive rock of Fuerte de Samaipata (CC BY SA 2.0)

There are also a number of niches carved into the rock and those at the highest point of the eminence are known as ‘the choir of the priest’. Some of the alcoves may have been dwellings for priests or may have held idols. They may also once have been part of a number of temples and shrines which were later destroyed by the Spanish.

The other main section of the site is the administrative area, which also served as a residential district for the local elite. This massive triangular plaza is about 300 by 300 feet (91 by 91 meters) with remains of a market and a Spanish era hacienda. The plaza is surrounded by ruined Inca buildings known as Kallanka. These buildings, trapezoid in shape with many entrances, were once the center of public life. Public meetings were held, and esteemed visitors were housed here, although often they were used as military barracks. It appears that one Kallanka was being repaired when it was abandoned.

Niches carved into the great rock, Samaipata (Public Domain)

Niches carved into the great rock, Samaipata (Public Domain)

One of the most fascinating residential remains is the Acllahuasi, or ‘house of the chosen’ where Inca women were sequestered, spending their time weaving cloth for the Inca Emperor until they were married to local nobles. Many women also took part in religious ceremonies and were often selected to be sacrificed to appease the deities.

Experience Fuerte De Samaipata For Yourself

Fuerte de Samaipata is located in Florida Province, Santa Cruz Department, Bolivia. There are guided tours of the area and a bus which is organized by tour operators, runs from Samaipata. The historic location is supervised by a non-profit group and there is a small entrance fee. Sadly, the site has been damaged in recent years by careless tourists who have not respected the site and engravings on the rocks.

Top image: The ruins of Fuerte de Samaipata                       Source: CC BY-SA 2.0

By Ed Whelan


Meyers, A., & Ulbert, C. (1997). Inka Archaeology in Eastern Bolivia. Some Aspects of the Samaipata Project. Tawantinsuyu: An International Journal of Inka Studies, 3, 80-85
Available at:

Meyers, A. (2007). T oward a reconceptualization of the Late Horizon and the Inka Period: Variations in the Expression of Inka Power, 223-254
Available at:,+Bolivia&ots=PQmh8f3nWc&sig=iUyIplyN7H9oyLy3mIY5TJSeXh8&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Fuerte%20de%20Samaipata%2C%20Bolivia&f=false

Siiriäinen, A. & Pärssinen, M. Eighty years after Erland Nordenskiöld: The question of the eastern frontier of the Inca Empire in Bolivia
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Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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