Encounter of three worlds at Samaipata

Vanesa Zegada | Live the World

November 23, 2022

The ancient city I will tell you about in this story is known as the "Encounter of Three Worlds". And it is home to one of the giant sculpted rocks ever found. This city is called Samaipata, and it is located in Bolivia. Let's discover why Samaipata is one of the most remarkable archeological sites in South America, and let's see which three worlds converge there.

© iStock/Jef Wodniack

Samaipata was abandoned for centuries until its giant sculpted rock of 220 meters (the length of approximately two soccer fields aligned) caught the attention during the 18th century.

© iStock/Francisco Revuelta

Looking closer, the rock was sculpted with seats, canals, geometric symbols and animals that have essential meanings for past civilizations. At its highest point, twelve sculpted seats in a circle were facing in and three facing out. These and other findings indicated that this giant rock was a ceremonial center.

© iStock/Jef Wodniack

Centuries later, when more detailed excavations took place, archaeologists got a big surprise: they discovered tens of houses underneath the dense vegetation. Samaipata was more than a ceremonial center; it was a whole city!

In 1998, the Archeological Site of Samaipata was denominated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. And even now, more and more pre-colonial constructions keep being discovered under the dense vegetation of this area. So, who knows what else could this city reveal in the future!

© iStock/Jef Wodniack

But why is Samaipata called the "Encounter of Three Worlds"? Well, actually there are two reasons.

To explain the first one, I need to introduce you to three of the most important natural areas in South America.* **In the first place, the Andes, which is the longest continental mountain range in the world. Secondly, the Amazon, which is the largest rainforest on our planet. And last but not least the Chaco*, which is a hot and semi-dry region covered by forests and savannas. Each one of them is so big that it covers several countries of this continent.

Now let me explain this a bit more. If you look for the extreme eastern point of the Andes on a map, it is located in Samaipata, and it is called the Andes Elbow. Now, if you look for the Amazon territory and mark its southern extreme, it is located in Samaipata as well. Finally, also bordering Samaipata to the east is the Chaco. That is how Samaipata, between mountains, tropical lands, and low lands, is the "Encounter of Three Natural Worlds"!

But there is one more reason why Samaipata is considered the "Encounter of Three Worlds". To explain it, let me tell you a little story.

This city was populated by people of a culture called Chané. They were peaceful people who traded with cultures from the high and low lands. Archeological findings of the Chané culture and some other cultures they used to trade with are displayed in the Archeological Museum of Samaipata.

© Marie Croon

But little did Chané people know about what would happen: two dominating cultures were getting closer to meet in that exact location.

On the one hand, coming from the east was the Guarani culture, who were constantly searching for a place called Candire or "the land without evil". That is how, moving from one place to another, they expanded their culture throughout the lowlands of 5 of the current countries of South America. In fact, in one of these countries, the entire population still speaks the Guarani language.

On the other hand, coming from the west was the Inca Empire -** an empire so powerful that its territory expanded throughout the highlands and valleys of six of the current countries of South America**.

In no time, Guaranies and Incas meet in Samaipata.

In older times, the city was called Yaguagua (according to the historian Franz Michel), a shortened form of "yagua i guagua", which means "the power of the jaguar". But when the Incas arrived, they made it a regional capital of their empire and changed its name to Samaipata, which means "rest in the heights" in the Quechua language.

For a certain period, they shared the city with the peaceful Chané people. That is why, today, we can find lots of Inca buildings there, such as the Kallanka – a site for celebrations, the Kancha – a place to exchange products, and the Acllawasi – a sort of school for women.

© iStock/Jef Wodniack

What Incas did not know was that expanding their empire further to the low lands would be impossible. Because as soon as they tried to reach those lands, they were stopped by fierce Guarani fighters. But the same way, the Guarani people could not expand their culture to the highlands because the Incas already dominated the area. That is how the lowlands and the highlands remained with their own dominant cultures. And, this time, Samaipata marked the "Encounter of Three Cultural Worlds": the Chané, the Inca, and the Guarani.

Later, when the Spanish colonizers arrived, they used the temple rock of Samaipata as a fort to defend themselves from the Guarani people. But the tribes were so fierce that the colonizers decided to move west, founding a city called "Ciudad del Valle de la Purificación de la Santísima Virgen", now known as Samaipata town. However, because of the Spanish use of the giant rock as a fort, many people refer to it as "The Fort of Samaipata". But, perhaps, it would be more accurate to call it "The Temple of Samaipata", according to its initial known purpose.

© Zoomalmapa/Vanesa Zegada

Most people visit the Archeological Site of Samaipata to observe its enormous sculpted rock, which, in fact, is very impressive. But think about it. This city not only marks the "Encounter of Three Natural Worlds" (the Andes, the Amazon, and the Chaco), but it is also a city where three of the most expanded cultures of the continent met. That is why Samaipata is definitely a valuable treasure that nature and history lovers can enjoy in equal doses!

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