Getting Lost Off the Gringo Trail: Chachapoyas

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September 16th 2007
Published: December 9th 2007
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I turned up into the mountains once again, heading for the little-known or at least lesser-known-than-Machu-Picchu ruins of Kuelap, ancient capital of the Cloud Warriors.
The main town in the region is called Chachapoyas - my final choice as my favorite town in Perú. This decision was made as I groggily opened my eyes to a 5am entrance into the downtown area - and thought I was back in Cusco! The buildings are the same gleaming white with elaborate wooden balconies all along the second floors. Only, as I quickly realized, this town is much too small and friendly to be Cusco...
When I got off the bus I saw the one other gringo asking advice of a bus station man. I inserted myself into the conversation, and we walked downtown together (after genuinely enthusiastic greetings, directions, and assurances of our safety by said bus station man). I had shown up with no plans beyond find a cafe and make plans, but Nicolas (as my new friend from France was called) was on a mission: carro to a pueblito called Tingo, 4 hour hike up to Kuelap, 2.5 hour hike back down from Kuelap, carro back to Chachapoyas, then to Cusco
The Outer Walls of KuelapThe Outer Walls of KuelapThe Outer Walls of Kuelap

Curved for earthquake resistance.
(my man Nicolas was going from Quito to Cusco in one heroic stretch). Since he seemed to know what was up, I figured what the hell, and got in the carro to Tingo.
Tingo is this tiny, adorable village where we dropped our bags with an old lady in one of the most run down hostels I've yet seen and were served coffee and fried eggs by a small girl while she got herself and her even smaller brother ready for school. After this brief stopover we grabbed some water and headed on up the mountain. My guidebook, ever helpful, warns that only the "very fit" should attempt to hike both up and down in one day... I guess I can for once say its advice was pretty accurate... I'm in quite good shape (if I do say so myself... ahem...) and I've been hiking a lot, way way up high, for the last year. This one was tough (I guess it might have been easier if I hadn't done it at 6am after a few hours sleep on a bus, but still...) Steep climbing, with almost no shade whatsoever, for 4-5 hours. By the top we were pretty much
The First EntranceThe First EntranceThe First Entrance

Nicolas and Jesús, our guide, leaving the ancient city.
dead. Nicolas turned out to be one of those people who talks to everyone... very sweet, and the people living way up there on the mountain were lovely. Eventually I huffed and puffed up to find him chatting with a local man, who then invited us into his unfinished house (giving me a chance to ask polite questions about mud construction, yay) and gave us the most delicious tangerines I've ever eaten (have to note exactly how generous this was of him, as the closest place he could get those tangerines was back down in Tingo...) He then offered to be our guide to the ruins... Ok, sure - I didn't really want a guide (mystery and solitude, I was going for) but I felt a bit beholden and well, why not... Before we left he asked his wife to have lunch waiting for us when we got back, and we headed up (yes, more up) to the tippy-top of the mountain, and the ancient city...
This city was, as I mentioned, the capital of the Chachapoyans, called the Warriors of the Clouds by the Incas. It was inhabited from at least 800 ad through to the Spanish conquest. The

High in the wall in the first "room" in the Cuevas de Quiocta.
Incas, as usual, did eventually conquer the Cloud Warriors (after decades of fighting), but the Spanish got there almost immediately thereafter, so I guess they didn't have time to impose their large stone squares on the rounded designs of the Chachapoyans.
The magic of this site is that it's not too well-known (though this is changing quickly), so as of now, though they are being excavated, it is still overgrown - an ancient city on a mountaintop, rounded structures set with geometrical designs, and growing out of and around them, all around, orchids and drooping trees and bromeliads...
On the hike back down I, against my better judgement, followed Nicolas down a side path... and after a very long while realized that though we could see our destination at the bottom of the valley, there was no way this path was going to it. Thus ensued about 2 hours of picking our way along cliff sides, through thorns, and down dusty gravely slides, til we met the road and the path we should have been on the whole time... ah, adventure.
That evening I sat with Nicolas, two guys from Lima who travel their country with rafting gear, running trips
Giant GrasshopperGiant GrasshopperGiant Grasshopper

On the walk up the canyon... I didn't know they came this big!
for tourists (what a way to travel!), a girl from Lima who lives in Santiago and was there with her Australian boyfriend (she spoke no English, he no Spanish and he looked pretty miserable that he had no idea what was going on all night... I don't know how people do these relationships...), the old lady from the hostel, and a rotating group of local kids, waiting for a ride to Chachapoyas. Eventually one came, but I stayed on in Tingo for the night, and made my leisurely way back to the city the next morn.
I decided to spend some more time in the area, seeing what there is to see. The Cloud Warriors lived throughout the area, and left many enigmatic ruins. Since this part of Perú is pretty remote, new sites are still being discovered all the time! Too bad I didn't have access to donkeys, horses, and a team of locals - I could've had a real adventure.
At any rate, for my next stunt I headed about an hour out of Chachapoyas to a small village called Lamud. The enthusiastic ladies at the Chachapoyas tourist office had assured me that from Lamud, I could easily
The Festival in LamudThe Festival in LamudThe Festival in Lamud

That's a drawing made of colored sand on the street in front of the church.
walk to the Pueblo de los Muertos ruins in 2-3 hours. Alas. As it turned out, these tourist office ladies, with whom I had been so impressed for being so full of information are, apparently, full of wrong information.
When I arrived in Lamud the carro driver sent me right on into the one tourist office in town. There I found out that certainly you can walk to the Pueblo de los Muertos... in 7 hours. Whoops. Well, in the office I met Victor from Nevada but originally from Perú, who proposed that I tag along with the tour he was about to take to the Cuevas de Quiocta, apparently in use as a sacred site for millenia. Then that afternoon, we could hit up the Pueblo de los Muertos and some other place. I sighed, accepted temporary defeat of my organized-tour-avoidance-strategy, and went along.
The tour was pretty cool and unique... me, Victor, two elderly señoras, and the guide, who carried the only flashlight, heading a 1/4 kilometer into these caves. Room after room of fantastical landscapes of stalactites (and stalagmites, to boot!) The guide would walk a bit, then stop and shine the flashlight back so we could clamber over rocks worn smooth by millenia of water flow... Victor and I each had a perpetual exclaiming señora on our arms the whole way...
Back in Lamud, they were in the midst of their yearly festival. I think this may have been the reasoned that our guide wound up begging off the afternoon portion of the tour, securing the key to the gated site and sending us off with an old car driver, a small boy, and a plastic bottle of some strong local sugar cane liquor. The driver took us to the end of a road some ways out of town, parked the car, and gestured to a path half-strangled with grass and garbage. "There you go," he said. And there we went, on a path along the edge of a gorge that just got narrower and narrower... the walk was supposed to take a 1/2 hour. Figuring this to be a South American 1/2 hour (meaning anywhere from an hour and 15 minutes to 2 hours), we didn't really start getting worried for quite some time. However, when the path made a sharp turn and suddenly became vertical to avoid a gorge, Victor resolutely (in a panicky
Karajia the DisappointingKarajia the DisappointingKarajia the Disappointing

These statues are to be found high up on cliffs throughout the region.
sort of way) refused to go on, and I gave in.
Approaching the entrance, I saw the old man and the small boy heading towards me. "Where have you been?! It's been 2 1/2 hours!"
"Well, there's nothing there!"
"Well, did you go all the way to the end?"
"Of course we did! There's nothing there! You've brought us to the wrong place!"
Waiting for Victor, I notice 1) that we are at the town landfill, ie, the part of the river where everyone throws their trash and 2) the bottle of liquor is empty.
When we got back to town, the driver tried to charge us extra for the wait! But he couldn't even really ask seriously, so.
We headed over to a field outside the town where the afternoon's festivities were taking place. That day, chasquis were arriving from each town in the province. Chasquis were the runners the Incas used to carry messages all over the empire in a relay system, and now these young guys came running in in felt costumes, feathers... Also each town had a dance presentation on something relevant to their villages - people reenacting hunts, and my favorite, "reforestation", pictured below.
The next day I set out for Karajia, where I had been told I would find these really strange human figures carved into a hillside... I had seen a picture of these before even coming to Perú, and I was pretty excited to see them. So I took a car - to pretty much the most remote place I've ever been - paid a little girl and walked 1k or so down a hill. And these statues are so far away, way up on a cliffside, it took me forever to even sight them! I gazed at them for about 2 minutes, before climbing back up the hill and asking the only person in sight, a young guy in a poncho playing with a cell phone, how the hell I was supposed to get out of his village. He told me to walk to the next village. So I did. And sat there for 2 hours, before thinking maybe I should start walking to the next village... about an hours walk away. There I indulged in some canned fish, which I'm pretty sure had bones in it, and stale bread. And found a car back to Chachapoyas.
Moral of all these stories: if you go to Chachapoyas, take a tour. Or maybe not. I never did see the City of the Dead, after all, but I got to see Reforestation.


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