A fortress in the clouds

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South America » Peru » Amazonas » Chachapoyas
July 26th 2012
Published: July 26th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

A time-consuming border crossing once again! There are three border posts between Ecuador and Peru: the most popular one, on the coastal Pan-American Highway, is also widely known as "the worst border crossing in South America", with (likely exaggerated) stories of bribe-hungry immigration officials and aggressive scam artists abounding. The remaining two are within relatively easy reach (I say relatively) of Vilcabamba, our last stop in Ecuador. The crossing between the Ecuadorian town of Zumba and its Peruvian counterpart San Ignacio is the one we are aiming for, as it will lead us to the Peruvian departamentoof Amazonas and its capital, Chachapoyas. This town lies at the heart of a region of immense archaeological significance, one we are eager to explore.

A pre-dawn start from Vilcabamba. A seven-hour bus takes us, over a largely unpaved road, through hundreds of kilometres of rolling, verdant and wet cloud forest to the small town of Zumba, where we have time for a quick bite to eat before boarding a ranchera - an open sided truck which provides transport throughout Colombia and Ecuador on those roads too rough even for the most clapped-out conventional buses - to the border post of La Balsa, located
Getting to the borderGetting to the borderGetting to the border

Ranchera from Zumba to the border post at La Balsa
on the Río Blanco which separates Ecuador and Peru. The journey from Zumba to La Balsa is only 15 or so kilometres as the crow flies but takes a good hour and half on the winding, rough road - you need to hang on properly on a ranchera, as the open sides and massive potholes make for a dangerous combination. The benches are solid, hard wood - oh for a cushion to sit on! The crossing at La Balsa doesn't see much foreign traffic, and we find the Ecuadorian border guard in T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, daydreaming at his computer. With our passports stamped out of Ecuador, we duck underneath the barrier (almost no vehicles pass over the border so there's nobody to raise it...) and walk across the bridge over the Río Blanco and - after ducking under a second barrier - into Peru. The formalities on the Peruvian are oddly inefficient (fill out a form, traipse over to the police station, have it stamped, traipse back to the immigration office, have it stamped again) but quickly completed. From the border a mototaxi - three-wheeled motorcycle taxis we haven't seen so far in South America - buzzes us to
Getting to the borderGetting to the borderGetting to the border

Bumping along the rough road (1.5 hours for 10 km) to La Balsa
the muddy village of Namballe twenty minutes away, where we arrive just in time to catch the last colectivo share-taxi of the day to San Ignacio. The road to the border post is undergoing major works and there is heavy machinery everywhere - the road surface has been churned to deep, thick, sticky red mud by all the diggers and bulldozers, leaving our driver struggling to keep the car under control. We make it to San Ignacio with only three pretty serious skids - the driver definitely earned his 20 soles.

We don't see much of San Ignacio other than the mattress we collapse on after a quick and comatose dinner. Another early start the next day - a first colectivo from San Ignacio to the town of Jaén (complete with puncture, impressively repaired in 10 minutes with minimum fuss, although we noted that both the original tyre and its replacement were completely bald - not much we can do about things like that), a second from there to the road junction at Bagua Grande, and a third - along a stunningly deep river canyon - to our final destination, Chachapoyas. All in all, Vilcabamba to Chachapoyas has required: bus (7 hours), ranchera (1.5 hours), mototaxi (20 minutes), colectivo 1 (1.5 hours), colectivo 2 (2 hours), colectivo 3 (1 hour), colectivo 4 (3 hours). These aren't heavily-travelled routes and colectivos really are the only way to get around - they are usually standard family cars and take five passengers, three at the back and two perched precariously in the front passenger seat, the unluckier of the two balanced on the handbrake. These taxis never leave unless fully loaded, often leading to long and dull waits while enough people gather to justify a trip. On top of that, colectivos to different places usually depart from terminals scattered all over town (the concept of a nice, convenient centralised terminal has yet to make it to Peru), meaning more mototaxis just to make connections. Most tiresome. But we're in Chachapoyas and that's what matters.

A small, friendly place perched high on a hill, Chachapoyas is located in the centre of a region populated until some 500 years ago by a precolumbian people which gave the present town its name. Much less is known about the Chachapoyas - which some poetically translate as "People of the Clouds" - than about many of the other civilisations - Mochica, Chimú - which Northern Peru is famous for, but the wild and remote countryside around Chachapoyas and its neighbouring town Leymebamba is liberally sprinkled with the burial sites and mysterious constructions of the Chachapoyas people. The civilisation fizzled out towards the 15th century as the Río Utcubamba valley - the agricultural heartland of the Chachapoyas civilisation - drew the attention of the aggressively expansionist Inca, and later of the Spanish. Chroniclers report that the Chachapoyas were physically very different from surrounding people, being tall, fair and famously attractive - mysterious indeed...

One of the best known - and best preserved - relics of the Chachapoyas presence in these lands is the extraordinary mountain fortress of Kuélap. This astonishing construction, perched on a crest at 3,000 metres altitude overlooking the Utcubamba valley, is widely considered one of the continent's centrepiece archaeological sites, playing second fiddle only to the mighty Machu Picchu itself. Despite extensive archaeological studies, nobody is yet entirely sure of what Kuélap was: temple or military installation? Kuélap is a three-hour drive - out of all proportion, once again, to the as-the-crow-flies distance - from Chachapoyas, an exhilarating rive along steep valley sides and through tiny, colourful villages. So well does the construction blend in with the rocky outcrop it's built on that you don't notice it until you are almost there (although the fact that the little girl sitting next to me on the bus threw up every ten minutes also distracted me away from the window - I was more interested in staying out of her trajectory). A short walk from where the bus stops got us to the foot of the fortress's sheer stone walls, nearly twenty metres high in places. Entry into the 600 metre long fortress is through three incredibly narrow openings, strategically built to force any invaders to enter in a very vulnerable single file. Fascinatingly, many of one of the entrances' flagstones have been worn down by centuries worth of llama hooves, the traces still clearly visible and unmistakeably those of the cloven-hooved llama. Inside the fortress are hundreds of circular stone dwellings, many of them beautifully decorated with stone friezes in zig-zag and diamond patterns. Some of Kuélap's structures have large quantities of human bones integrated into their walls suggesting, according to archaeologists, that the fortress had some sort of religious function. Whatever Kuélap was in its day, we couldn't help but marvel at the sheer size of the complex and its breathtaking position overlooking the cloud-shrouded hills and valleys beneath.

Kuélap is but one of many dozens of Chachapoyas archaeological sites scattered in these valleys. A short distance south of Kuélap is the pretty town of Leymebamba, nestled in verdant, undulating countryside. Leymebamba is the rather unexpected location for an excellent museum of Chachapoyas culture, its most treasured pieces being a collection of dozens of mummies found perched on platforms installed high up on vertical cliff faces in the very remote and rugged country surrounding the town. Fascinated by the mystery and grandeur of Kuélap, we hired a guide to take us into the hills above Leymebamba, where several unexcavated and overgrown ancient Chachapoyas sites can be visited by the more adventurous. A steep and often muddy three-hour hike lead us to La Congona, an amazing collection of circular Chachapoyas houses almost completely overtaken by thick cloud forest. It's incredible to think that dozens of these ancient sites lie unprotected all over the area. Peru has a sad history of cultural plunder dating back to colonial times - with huaqueros or grave-robbers having sacked almost every major site in the country at some stage - although the lack of precious metals or easily transportable artifacts has probably kept some Chachapoyas sites safe. At La Congona, tree roots and climbing vines seem to the greatest danger, threatening to topple many of the site's beautifully decorated contructions. We feel like bona fide Indiana Joneses as we explore the site, slipping through the thick vegetation to glimpse the remains of this little-known and mysterious ancient culture.

This region of northern Peru is also famous as the home of an extremely rare species of hummingbird, whose name is almost as fantastic as the creature itself: the Marvellous Spatuletail. The species is endemic to the Utcubamba valley, being found nowhere else in the world. The male Spatuletail has two extraordinarily long tail feathers, like wires tipped with brilliant violet-blue discs, which he can maneuver independently to attract females. We had no luck spotting the Spatuletail in Leymebamba - one of only two locations where you stand of chance of spotting it - but managed to make our way to a conservation project located a couple of hours to the north-east of Chachapoyas, where a US-funded project aims to conserve this highly-endangered hummingbird. The rather time-consuming detour paid off, and we caught many tantalising glimpses of this extraordinary and shy bird - surely one of the world's strangest and most captivating. Sadly there was no chance of photographing the Marvellous Spatuletails we saw - they didn't stay still for more than a few fractions of a second!

We had initially intended to follow the winding highland road even further south from Leymebamba towards the city of Cajamarca and then turn westwards to the Pacific coast, but an ongoing and violent dispute regarding the operation of a large mine in the town of Celendín between Leymebamba and Cajamarca has seen the latter under curfew for many weeks. In the days preceding our arrival in northern Peru several protesters had been killed in clashes with police, and foreigners were regularly being prevented from transiting through Celendín - ostensibly for their own safety. Such is the reality of travel in a country like Peru...

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