Santa Cruz


John Malathronas examines the evidence for alien visitors in Eastern Bolivia



Mindful of the dangers of altitude sickness, I entered Bolivia through Brazil and arrived in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia’s capital of the Eastern lowlands. Lowlands is a relative term, of course: the elevation there (415m) is about the same as Zurich in Switzerland.


Santa Cruz felt like a Spanish-speaking Brazil and the more I stayed, the more I discovered a Brazilian spirit heavily threaded in the weft and warp of the city’s fabric. People were more fun-loving and extrovert than the altiplano’s moody and serious Aymara Indians; the brash sprawl of the city felt more like São Paulo than Sucre; and it proudly proclaimed itself as the “karaoke capital” of South America. Indeed, one karaoke bar was found operating inside its maximum security prison – along with a brothel. Priorities, priorities..


Still, this is mostly a town to base yourself in for excursions. And none is more dramatic than the Unesco heritage site of El Fuerte, near Samaipata, arguably the principal reason to visit Santa Cruz.


Samaipata itself is a small, colonial village with cool weather and a sometimes muddy, occasionally paved, narrow street grid. But 10km outside lies one of the most enigmatic archeological sites of South America – and the continent has its good share of mysterious ruins.


The pre-Incan rock of El Fuerte, dated to around 300AD, is a big red sandstone mound 200m long and 10m high. As the name implies, the conquistadores thought it to be a fortification. We now believe that it was much more than that – except that we know nothing concrete about it; it's all conjecture.


The only possible thing for me is to describe it. There is an abundance of petroglyphs in its lower slopes, many worn by rain and overgrown by lichens. There are distinctive zigzag rhombic patterns and clear zoomorphic carvings, most notably those of a puma. At the top there are 'seats' around a circle sculpted into the rock and on its sides there are carved recesses like doors into nothing.


But the feature that draws the eye immediately is ‘El Cascavel’: two long parallel grooves that disappear into the air seemingly without purpose. They led Swiss writer Eric von Daeniken, the father of ‘Gods were astronauts’ theory, to hypothesise that El Fuerte was a UFO takeoff and landing strip.


Hm.. Another 300-metre walk down a slope from the rock, there is a concealed, circular hole 30 metres deep and perfectly straight, like a dry well (or the launchpad of a cylindrical spaceship, if you like). Nothing has been found at the bottom. We assume it was carved by humans but how did they achieve such perfection without mechanical diggers?


No human remains have been found around El Fuerte. Further south of the hill we have excavated Inca artefacts from a much later period (around 1400AD). After their discovery, the Inca state's borders were extended. As these Andean people notoriously hated the jungle, the site almost invariably marks the south-eastern limit of the Kingdom of the Sun.


El Fuerte certainly is intriguing. What was it for? The prevailing theory is that it was a meeting place of the area’s Chané tribes for religious or political ceremonial purposes. Yeah, well, that was difficult to guess, was it?


Me, I like the UFO idea, what with the grooves to the sky and all. But then again, there is a similar piece of highway-to-nowhere in the middle of Manchester. I bet the prehistoric budget ran out.


I can relate to that...


You can get Bolivia included as a stopover in the 4 Continent Explorer RTW or there are cheaper options via Latin America here have some great options in Bolivia and Lake Titicaca here