Samaipata – Simon the Spider Monkey and Israeli backpacking superiority in South America

Samaipata is a Quechua word that means “The Height to Rest.”

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The small, slow-moving town meets this description perfectly.

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Samaipata is a great place to come and relax and do some hiking, whether you are coming from Sucre in the South, Santa Cruz in the East, or La Paz in the Northwest.

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The central plaza has a little platform where if you stand directly in the middle, you can talk and instantaneously hear your own echo. It is an interesting phenomenon that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

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At the time I visited Samaipata there were lots of Israeli backpackers heading north into Samaipata after spending several months in Chile and Southern Argentina. Lots more were heading west in Bolivia after finishing weeks of partying in Rio, Brazil during Carnival.

Some of my Israeli traveling buddies enjoying some water pipe in Samaipata’s only bar

Some of my Israeli traveling buddies enjoying some water pipe in Samaipata’s only bar

Like Eyal, who had just finished his service in the military and who I had just spent time with in Parque Toro Toro, there are tons of other Israelis backpacking all over South America.  Just like Aussies tend to dominate backpacking in Europe and Southeast Asia, Israelis dominate backpacking in South America.  To illustrate this point, in a place called El Chalten, Argentina, at a certain time of the year are more Israeli backpackers in that part of southern Patagonia than Argentinian residents.

It was in Samaipata that I first witnessed Israelis’ backpacking prominence in South America. I stayed in a hostel dorm with two other Israeli guys and no exaggeration, the other 30 guests at the hostel were all Israeli.  One of the guys I stayed with, Matan Vax, ended up traveling with me in Bolivia for three weeks.

Matan pets Samaipata’s only dalmation

Matan pets Samaipata’s only dalmation

The high number of Israelis is no coincidence.  After each of them finish their compulsory military service (guys must serve three years, girls two) most of them grab a backpack and go see the world for 6-12 months. This is culturally similar to the Australian “Gap Year”, only difference being that for Israelis it occurs after military service (when 21-22 years old) instead of after the end of high school (when 18 years old), as it is in Australia.

So while the Israelis in South America (and the ones I met in Southeast Asia) were enjoying their backpacking “gap” after military service, they are generally older and more mature than the Australian Gap-Year backpackers you meet in Europe and Southeast Asia.

But both the Israeli and Australian Gap Years offer the same invaluable life lesson. Before the Israelis have even attended university, like the Aussies, they go out and broaden their horizons through world travel and learn more life lessons than a university could ever teach them.  As I mentioned in the hyperlinked blog post above, which I wrote a year ago, I think this has big-time value for a variety of reasons.

Matan and I throw a Frisbee in Samaipata’s futbol field

Matan and I throw a Frisbee in Samaipata’s futbol field

The most popular Israeli backpacking destinations are the cheapest ones. 1. South America, 2. Southeast Asia, and 3. India.  There is even a website for Israeli backpackers in South America, http://www.gringo.co.il/, where they can post advice about places to stay, recommendations for tour companies, and logistics of how to get from point A to point B.  Suffice it to say, Israelis got backpacking in South America figured out.  Most of them are traveling in the continent for at least 6-9 months and many more will continue on up into Central America.

There are are tons of things to do in and around Samaipata.  The hikes are so plentiful that the owner of Hostal Andoriña, a Dutchman named Andrés, has devoted an entire book to them.  I did four big hikes in Samaipata but those will be the subjects of my next blog posts.  In this post I just focus on what is going on in the small town of Samaipata.

Undoubtedly Samaipata’s greatest and simultaneously most underrated attraction is its Animal Refuge.

free monkeys for your well being

The entrance sign is actually being very literal.  When they say “free monkeys for your well being”, they mean it…

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Though it is never nice to play favorites my favorite monkey at the refuge was undoubtedly Simon (pronounced See-mone), a spider monkey the refuge was taking care of.

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The guide at the refuge showed us how keen Simon was to give you hugs, or just to use you as a tree.

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Simon is anything but shy.  In one of my favorite videos of my South American trip I wander over to Simon’s play area and when he take notices of me he, he moves right in for a quick climb and hug maneuver.

The other monkeys at the refuge have a bit more freedom than Simon, who is movably chained to a chain link wire.

It is always sad to see an animal chained or caged but Simon gets lots of attention and love throughout each day

It is always sad to see an animal chained or caged but Simon gets lots of attention and care each day

For instance, the refuge’s howler monkey wanders wherever he pleases.

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But mostly he just liked to take naps.  On my lap.

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There were several smaller chimps running willy-nilly around the compound – in this video they almost interrupted the howler monkey’s nap.

Only the most aggressive monkeys had to be in cages.

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The rest of the monkeys were free to do what they wanted, which included a variety of playful activities.

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