Few places can claim as magical a location as Samaipata. This gem of a town perches 1800 metres up in the Bolivian Andes; Parque Amboro, the edge of the Amazonian jungles and the most biodiverse place on the planet, flanks it to the North and East; the road in and out hugs the top of vast precipices; there are series of majestic waterfalls; and last, but not least, there is El Fuerte, one of the great Inca edifices and a world heritage site.
My first visit also revealed something else amazing, which needed a double take: driving (bouncing) along the main street we passed the local museum and then a house which I swore had a sign saying "Amigos del Ajedrez" (friends of chess). Stop, reverse, did it really say that, unbelievably it did. Ok, for those of you who don't play chess, why is this amazing:
- Well, Samaipata may be beautiful, but it's remote and only has about 1000 people
- Chess clubs in England can't afford their own buildings
- Heavens, chess clubs in England can't even afford their own sign!
Amigos del Ajedrez, Samaipata isn't just a chess club though... it's the best chess club in the world. Push open the door (which, by the way, appears to be open 7 days / week, 24 hours / day) and you'll find out why. The club is on three floors sweeping around an open courtyard (complete with giant chess set). There are tournament rooms, lecture rooms, tables flanking the staircase, a reading room complete with portraits of all the world champions, a chess cafe, a restuarant, computers, a vast (and full) trophy cabinet and accomodation. Most importantly, there is a constant buzz as players, including hordes of enthusiastic juniors, flow in and out all day. I knew chess was more important in South America, but this has to be seen to be believed.
I've played in Samaipata twice, been warmly welcomed each time, and then lined up for their most talented youngsters to take 5-minute pot-shots at. On my first visit I chatted with a Prof. Wolfgang Paulin, a German who had founded the club in 1997, and on my second with the principal trainer, Prof. Rolando Luna. I've never been anywhere like it.
Samaipata also boasts everything you'd expect of an small Andean town, deeply rutted mud and clay roads, a butchers with meat 2 or 3 times a week, tablecloths over window-sills to indicate bread is available to buy, the most welcoming and friendly people, and fresh fruit dropping from the trees. Its location also means it offers rustic restaurants, tours of the jungle, and accomodation including backpacking, cabanas and stunning houses. What's more it's on the newly opened Che Guevara trail, he fought a skirmish here shortly before his death in nearby Vallegrande.
If you get the chance, visit!
If you've been to the Moscow Central Club, or somewhere else great... bring on the debate!