Chachapoyas

Whilst Kuelap is the most famous attraction in the area, the whole Chachapoyas region is full of archaeological and natural sites which, with a little effort, can be visited. The tourism industry is mostly geared towards domestic tourists, but in the last few years has started to cater to backpackers. Still, don’t expect to find anywhere open and serving food during mid-afternoon siesta time.

The town is probably the cleanest and prettiest I saw in Peru. The colonial buildings are well-kept and the climate makes it pleasantly green without being too hot.

We took three different tours and were surprised to see the same group of people each time: Peruvians using their annual holiday to explore more of their own country. They said it wasn’t as jungle-like as they expected when they imagined the Amazonas region, which Chachapoyas is the capital of.

After visiting Kuelap, we took a day trip to some funerary monuments of the ancient Chachapoyans: the Karajia sarcophagi and Quiocta caverns. It was a little frustrating because, as usual, information was incomplete. No one told us we would need wellington boots nor that the cave had absolutely no lighting except the single hand-held torch the guide had. We could rent boots easily enough for 2 soles each, but I really wished I had my headlamp with me. We sloshed through puddles and sticky clay mud with only our camera flashes and the single beam from the guide to light our way. The plus side of this is that we all made friends quickly as we warned each other about invisible holes or extricated those unfortunate enough to get stuck in sucking mud.

The caverns were only ‘discovered’ and opened to the public very recently. This is something I find really exciting about the region – there are many more sites that were previously unknown and are only now starting to be studied by specialists. If only I could get a job here!

Consisting of six connected caverns, human remains were found in the first two near the entrance. Chachapoyans often deposited bones in difficult-to-reach niches in caves and on cliff-sides. In Quiocta, they’ve now become sites of offerings by modern day people, with coca leaves strewn over the bones. I found it pretty interesting how these archaeological remains were being treated in a non-academic way.

At Karajia, mummy-containing sarcophagi were built high on a cliff.

Here you can see three different sets. On the right, there is only one damaged sarchophagus; the rest have been destroyed by looters and an empty niche left behind. In the center is a well-preserved group, 2.5 metres tall, some decorated with human skulls on top. Finally, on the left is a simpler mausolem, also decorated with molded faces and paint, but less well-preserved.

It was amazing to think how the original builders managed to get up to those niches and carry the equipment needed to create the tombs as well as the remains they were going to place there. Walking along a path below, we found more bones that had once come from tombs; the whole cliff-side must have had many more burials that have since been destroyed by time and man.

It’s nice to know that the archaeological remains are now being valued and safe-guarded as an economic resource rather than being looted. I don’t know how much revenue goes to the local communities, but we paid them directly for lunch, refreshments and even horses (for those too lazy to walk to the sites) so it doesn’t all go to outside stakeholders.

On two legs or four, the walk to Karajia was beautiful.

We saw more gorgeous scenery the next day when we went to Gocta falls.

The waterfall is said to be 771m tall and, depending on which souce you quote, is the third, fifth or sixteenth tallest in the world.

And did I mention it was only ‘discovered’ in 2005? Kind of odd, considering it’s so big, but it further demonstrates what little notice the outside world, and the Peruvian government, has taken of this region.

This is definitely somewhere you might consider travelling to independently, unless you enjoy walking at a snail’s pace with the rest of the group. We tried to stick together so we could listen to the local nature guide, but it was physically impossible for me to go that slowly.

As luck would have it, we went ahead and were able to reach the waterfall, sun ourselves on a rock and head back in time to miss most of the huge downpour that fell in the afternoon. We also got to eat our lunch at a more reasonable time. I suspect the rest of the group wished they had stopped a little less and taken fewer pictures on the way there.

Even if you choose to pay for a horse once on location, both trips still involve some hiking, traversing steps and mud, which the horses can’t do. If you’re an averagely fit person you should have no problem. The tour to Karajia and Quiocta cavern cost 50 soles per person, excluding lunch, boot rental (2 soles) and entrance fees (10 soles). The trip to Gocta cost 30 soles, excluding lunch and entrance fees (5 soles).There are a selection of agencies on the main square in Chachapoyas, but prices vary a little bit so check around for the cheapest. Chachapoyas Backpackers have lovely owners who can also arrange tours.

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Mi Teleferico

This month, La Paz opened the first phase of it’s new cable car commuter system. Once complete, it’s going to be the longest urban line in the world.

Whilst living in La Paz last year, I saw government ads with photo-shopped images of cable cars hovering inexplicably above the steep slopes of the city. It didn’t look very convincing. Most people told me that it was just another one of Evo Morales’s grand ideas, meant to distract people from the real issues. Others said that even if they did start building it, it would never get finished. Considering the fact that it took them 6 months to resurface the road outside my house, I was inclined to agree.

20140421-235243.jpgThis was four months into the job. It was at least better than the gaping six-foot hole that had been there for the past two months.

They also said that the bus drivers wouldn’t stand for it – after all, they would potentially lose revenue if people rode the Teleferico instead of the buses. And this being Bolivia, there’s nothing like a good protest to let the world know that you feel threatened. The image below (which comes from the news website noticiasfides.com) shows the federation of drivers dragging down a carriage while a startled condor watches them.

But just before I left La Paz last July, I heard from someone who had met an Austrian guy who worked for the company which was going to build the Teleferico. It was a friend of a friend. Really. And I started thinking, maybe it was actually going to happen.

And now, less than a year later, it has. I’m going to have to assume Austrian efficiency had something to do with it.

I’m pretty disappointed that I never got to ride on it. I mean, it’s bound to be the cheapest cable car in South America, and, if I do say so myself, probably the one with the most stunning (or, at least, unique) view. But I keep remembering some advice given to me by Gil, the friend we stayed with in Brazil: “You know how London has the London Eye? If you see something like that in South America, don’t go on it. For safety.”

Kuelap

Near the town of Chachapoyas in Northern Peru, on top of a ridgeline at 3,000 metres above sea level, the ancient site of Kuelap sits between shifting clouds, overlooking the Utcubamba river. First built around the 6th century AD and occupied until the Early Colonial period of the 16th century, the walled ‘fortress’ remained relatively unknown until 1843 when a local judge surveyed the area. Today it still gets little attention compared to more famous Incan sites. Plans of the Peruvian governement to restore the structures (as has been done at Machu Picchu) have thankfully not gotten very far, so when you visit the site today you’re left with stone structures in various states of decay as moss, grass and creeping tendrils take over and moisture drips from bromeliads in the trees above.

The Chachapoyans were called ‘people of the clouds’ by the Incas, and the dense patches of mist that would roll in and envelop us as we walked around certainly explained how they came up with the name.

The huge wall and narrow entrances of Kuelap certainly suggest the function of defense, but there is no clear evidence of conflict.

Inside those huge walls, there are more than 400 circular structures spread over two ‘platforms’ of flat land. They seem to be residential or storage structures, but there’s very little differentiation between them in size or design. The Chachapoyans look to have been somewhat egalitarian – the only symbols that might suggest a social heirarchy are patterns in the stonework of some ‘houses’, but most are plain with no pattern at all.

One thing we do know about the Chachapoyans is that they ate the most famous Peruvian dish, cuy. Covered stone channels inside the houses were used as a means of storage (sort of like keeping a rabbit hutch in your kitchen for a fresh supply of meat…). Many also had quernstones in situ which would have been used for grinding food products (like a big pestle and mortar).

We visited Kuelap with a guide, which I highly recommend as there were so many details we would have missed if we’d just wandered around on our own.

Like this mark on a step, eroded through centuries of llamas passing through the entrance.

Or these human bones entombed inside a wall.

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And a series of stone carvings – from top right, clockwise: soldier or monkey, jaguar, snakes, woman and man, unidentified creature, possibly a jaguar – that were found and restored (not always with care if the upside-down jaguar is anything to go by) around the main entrance.

Our day tour to Kuelap cost 38 soles per person, leaving from Chachapoyas and stopping for a late lunch (not included) on the way back (usual Peruvian day trip-style of ordering what you want in the morning and eating around 3 or 4pm). There are a selection of agencies on the main square in Chachapoyas, but prices vary a little bit so check around for the cheapest. Our guide spoke really good English, but others form the same agency did not. Make sure to ask if you specifically want a tour in English. Chachapoyas Backpackers have lovely owners who can help you out if your Spanish is not up to it.