Museum-hopping in Cuenca

Cuenca has a lot of museums. Over the course of a day and a half, we visited five. Our choices of which to visit were based mostly on the route we planned to stroll through town. Secondary considerations were price and novelty value.

Museo de las Culturas Aborígenes

Pottery. There’s a lot of it here. Arranged in chronological sequences and by the different cultures of Ecuador, the museum galleries are like an archaeologist’s textbook come to life. My favourites are the anthropomorphic pots. Whilst some are only hinted at, others have faces and other body parts clearly shown, like cute little thousands-of-year-old cartoon characters.

Address: Calle Larga 5-24

Admission: adult $2, student discount available

Centro Interaméricano de Artes Populares

Weavings, musical instruments and traditional costumes; the galleries are small but modern, with video/audio displays as well as hands-on objects. I appreciate being able to see the the details of the textiles up close and view the intricate stitching. The museum shop is big and laid out like on of the galleries, but too expensive for me.

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Address: corner Noviembre & La Escalinata

Admission: free

Casa Paredes Roldan Hat museum and Factory

Machines clack noisily at the back of this shop and hats of many colours and designs are spread out before your eyes to try and buy. There are some old machines and tools used for hat-making in the past, as well as a pretty amazing dress woven of the reeds that make the hats. I’m tempted to buy, but the cheapest is $60. Also, none of them fit Jon’s abnormally large head and we don’t feel like custom ordering one.


Address: Calle Larga 10-41 between Padre Aguirre y General Torres

Admission: free

Prohibido Museo de Arte Extremo

A man with one arm and a leather waistcoat answers the door. He refuses eye contact but takes our money and leaves us to look around this house-nightclub hybrid that is also open as a museum. I realise that ‘extreme’ means metal/goth album covers and demons having sex with naked women. Occasionally there’s a dead baby. It’s all pretty cheesy. Perhaps it’s more impressive at night with a live band playing and low lighting?

It can’t all be bones and devil’s horns. Sometimes a boring old plastic dish rack is the best item for the job.

Address: La Condamine 12-102

Admission: $2

Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno

I love the cool and quiet inside this place. The bare white walls and colonnades of this historic building contrast with bizarre spiked hearts, cyborgs and mirrored eyes. It’s just my kind of thing. Plus there’s a great temporary exhibit too.


Address: corner of Mariscal Sucre & Talbot

Admission: free

What are your favourite types of museums?


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.


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.

Huacas de Moche and Chan Chan

On the coast of Northern Peru, ancient adobe brick structures lie in the sandy desert. They’ve sat here for more than 1500 years and they’re slowly eroding away, leaving behind melted lumps of earth. We visited two of these sites, Huaca de la Luna and Chan Chan, both easily accessible by public transport. Although superficially they may appear similar, the sites belong to two different cultures; the Moche, present 100-800 AD, and the Chimu, who grew out of the remains of the Moche and flourished until the Inca conquest in the 1400s.

Our visitor experience at these two places was very different. There was a wonderful museum at Huaca de la Luna, which tied the history and interpretation of the site to the artefacts that had been found there. They also offered free guided tours in Spanish and English (and I think other languages where possible – our guide also spoke Turkish!). At Chan Chan, on the other hand, because we weren’t part of an organised tour, we were left to wander the maze-like structure with just a few interpretation boards to help us understand what we were looking at. The museum, which is just down the road, was in need of an update and most information was in Spanish.

Huaca de la Luna

The Huaca del Sol, visible in the background, was larger than Huaca de la Luna, but it was largely destroyed by the Spanish in an attempt to find riches (by diverting a river to wash it away!). Like the other adobe sites, what is left today is still being damaged by rainfall. It’s estimated that only about a third of it is left. The buildings between the two pyramids were centres of industrial production; workshops and workers’ housing.

Behind Huaca de la Luna is the mountain Cerro Blanco. It’s thought that the pyramid shape of the Huacas is meant to mimic the shape of the mountain. The small rocky outcrop on the right, known as the Black Rock, and the surrounding structures were sites of human sacrifice. Adult male skeletons showing cause of death by skull fracture or slit throats, along with individualised portrait pots depicting captives (which you can see in the site museum), were found here.

Whilst Huaca del Sol was the military and administrative centre – residence of the elite – it’s thought Huaca de la Luna was the religious/ceremonial centre. The iconography is unclear, seeming to depict everyday human activities like dancing and fishing, along with both real and mythological animals. For a close-up look at one particularly dazzling image, see this gigapixel picture.

Going up from the bottom row: captives, dancers, spiders, fishermen, lizards.

Built in several phases, each new layer was built on top of, and surrounding, the old structure and the space between filled in with bricks. Because of this, some of the inner layers are preserved quite well. These are the original colours – there’s been no restoration here.

This strange looking face is the god, Ai Apaec (“the decapitator”), also sometimes depicted as a spider, winged creature or sea monster. In the white area on the left, there is a small etching of a fish. Archaeologists postulate that it’s a kind of artist’s signature.

Many bricks show marks on them (over 100 different varieties) that may indicate different communities of labourers.

One last closeup of my favourite scary looking creatures: two-headed spiders (with hands?) and fishermen (with snakes hanging round their waists?).

Chan Chan

A sprawling 20km² of adobe lumps and bumps, visitors can only enter the Tschudi Complex, a dense urban area dating from the later period of occupation. Long, seemingly maze-like corridors lead between open plazas and complexes of small rooms. Restored friezes adorn some walls and statues stand guard. Had there not been large tour groups, I felt like it would have been a great place to film a psychological thriller with someone slowly going mad as they come to yet another dead end or arrow sign sending them on an endless loop.

The lattice shaped walls possibly represent nets.

Pelicans and…a frog? Or duck? Or seal?

Tell me that these aren’t the cutest little pixelated birds you’ve ever seen.

And that this doesn’t look like an old-school gameboy game or something.

In fact, perhaps it should be a game. A sort of role-playing strategy game meets first person shooter where you have to develop your own palace complex and rule over the population as well as creating craft products and ritually sacrificing young women (large numbers of female skeletons have been found in tombs here).

Real ducks! Reservoirs were built into each palace complex, and wells were used for water. In later periods, to provide for a growing population, canal systems diverted water from the Moche RIver.

Directions: Catch the bus to Huaca de la Luna between Huayna Capac & Suárez on Los Incas near the Mercado Mayorista. They drop you off and pick you up right at the museum there. Catch a bus from Ave. España in Trujillo and get off at the turn-off, Cruce de Chan Chan, where you can walk a short distance down the road to the entrance. There may be taxi drivers at the turning offering to drive you which, if you’ve come this far by bus already, is totally not worth it. Even though the distance is only a couple of kilometres, there have been some safety concerns about walking to the site from Huanchaco so catch a bus from Ave. La Rivera instead. If you’re in a group and plan on visiting a lot of sites in one day (there are two more Huacas around Trujillo), you might be better off hiring a taxi for the day.

Cost: Huaca de la Luna 13 Soles (including museum and site), Chan Chan 10 soles (includes site, museum and two smaller sites, Huacas Esmeralda and Arco Iris).

Chauchilla Cemetery

I thought about posting this for Halloween. But you know what? Chauchilla cemetery is more than just a novelty.

Yes, there are mummies – plenty of them – so if you like that kind of thing, enjoy. If you’re interested in the history too, I’ve tried to add information from my scribbled note-taking. I can’t promise it’s perfectly accurate but it is what the guide told me.


Although close to modern day Nasca town, the cemetery is hard to spot without knowing where it is. Unfortunately this hasn’t stopped grave-robbers over the centuries from looting the tombs. All that’s left of much of the cemetery are depressions in the sandy terrain where empty graves used to be.


Fragments of bone, textile and ceramic are scattered around the surface. Where possible, archaeologists have gathered what they can and reconstructed the graves which now sit open, under simple roofs to protect them.


The cemetery was used by the Paracas, Nasca and Inca cultures although most burials are dated to the period of 200-900AD.


The wonderful preservation of the bodies and artefacts is due to two things: the naturally dry atmosphere of the desert and the mummification processes.


In some cases the innards were taken out and the bodies packed with salt to remove moisture. Other times, it’s thought the bodies were dried out on platforms in the desert before having the ligaments cut to enable placing in the foetal position. A kind of resin was also applied to aid preservation. Apparently, coca leaves also helped and they have even been found in Egyptian mummies (I’m very sceptical about this).


In the photo above, you can see a clumpy shape in the earth on the right side. This is the remains of a body that, for some reason, decomposed completely. As the fat and grease left the body, it gathered in the soil and this impression is all that’s left.


From studying the bodies it’s possible to identify the diet of these people. Those from inland ate meat and vegetables and have very worn or broken teeth. Those from the coast ate seafood which was easier on the teeth, hence their pearly whites are intact.


The grouping of the bodies within graves is not entirely clear, but it’s suggested they were family groups as children are sometimes also present.


It’s also believed that ‘shamans’ can be identified by their long hair, although many mummies had this feature so either they were pretty ubiquitous in this society or it symbolises something else.


Chauchilla cemetery can be visited from Nasca on a 3 hour tour for around 30 soles. This also includes a visit to ceramic and gold workshops, which I wasn’t thrilled about but turned out to be really interesting. At both places they use traditional techniques (my favourite of which is rubbing a finished ceramic piece on human skin so that the natural oils add a gloss to the pottery).


It’s hard to believe that people once survived here on the harsh Altiplano, let alone built a thriving civilization. But the remains of Tiwanaku are evidence of how humans can create an existence anywhere.

Read more about our visit here.



A hand-made model showing the alignment of the sun during solstices.


The Sun Gate, with Jaguar and Condor Warriors.



View from the Sunken Temple towards the Kalasasaya.

An ancient model used to plan one of the large temples on site.


A postcard from Tiwanaku


Having once been an archaeology student, it was inevitable I would go to Tiwanaku, the most important archaeological site in Bolivia. Home to a Pre-Columbian civilization, the remains of Tiwanaku today don’t quite live up to what one might expect of the administrative and ceremonial centre of these Incan-precursors. This is largely due to centuries of looting which has reduced the stone structures in both size and grandeur.

The lack of signs or interpretation boards means it’s easy to wander around the site, exposed to the harsh altiplano weather, without really getting a sense of place or what the structures were used for. For this reason, I was happy I’d opted for a guided tour. From my guide, I was able to learn that: the round holes in giant stone blocks at the entrance acted as megaphones; the recesses in the walls of one temple were used to house mummies of the elite class; the dual colours of one of the statues were due to weathering which occurred when it had been half-buried for years; and the Sun Gate, carved with hard-to-discern jaguar and condor warriors, has been moved from its original location.

Our guide also told us some facts (as dubious as some of the restoration work that has been done to the site) about the Tiwanaku culture. Since ‘kawazaki’ means hello in Aymara, he explained the connection with Japanese, complete with a mime of revving a motorcycle. He also pointed out some carved masks in the sunken temple that look like ‘aliens’ and the huge blocks of stone used to build the site, which are not native to the altiplano and therefore must have been brought here by some very powerful force.

As well as the remains of the ceremonial buildings and a few statues, you can see other artifacts in the two museums on site. The lithic museum seemed only half-finished and contained only one megalithic monument. There are plans to move the statues from the outdoor site into the museum for preservation purposes and display replicas in their original places. The little ceramic museum is more interesting. Display cases of pottery, bones, metal implements, jewelry and foodstuffs show how the material culture of Tiwanaku changed through its two millennia of existence.

Apart from the site and museums, there isn’t much else to do in Tiwanaku. You can buy handicrafts (the same as you see sold anywhere that there are tourists in Bolivia) and eat lunch in one of the small restaurants in the village. There’s even a hotel, although I can’t imagine needing to spend more than a day in Tiwanaku.

Despite poor management through the years, there is still plenty at Tiwanaku for archaeologists to explore. It’s now up to the Bolivian government, UNESCO (Tiwanaku is listed as a World Heritage site), the local residents and both Bolivian and foreign archaeologists to come to an arrangement.

A guided tour (from most of the agencies around Sagarnaga), including transport from La Paz and entrance ticket, costs Bs120. Spanish and English spoken. Lunch was optional but there is nothing else to do while you wait for the whole group to finish before heading back to La Paz so I recommend joining everyone for the yummy set lunch for Bs20. You can make your own way to Tiwanaku by public transport. Entry is Bs80.

See more pictures in our photo essay.

A postcard from Valle del Encanto


He asked us where we were from, then followed with a stream of everything he knew that was associated with the USA or England.

“California, New York, Boston, Texas, Florida, Washington, Barack Obama, George Bush, Ronald Reagan…. Manchester, Liverpool, London, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher.”

Only after we’d nodded in approval at every reference did he sell us entrance tickets and give us a map. We’d come to the Monumento Archaeológico Valle del Encanto, a 4,000 year old site best known for evidence left behind by the El Molle culture (200-700AD).

It was an easy 5km walk from the crossroad where the bus dropped us off. The route was flat and straight until near the end when the dry land opened up and plants and rocks jumbled together in its depths. The little admission office stood on the edge of the road as it headed downwards. The man stood outside, looking through a pair of binoculars, seemingly aimed at us. We stopped to photograph a flowering cactus, and he followed our movement until we were right before him.

He explained the three different sectors of the valley where we could see evidence of the people who had lived here hundreds of years ago. Both mundane in their use and profound in their proliferation, are ‘cup marks’ or mortars, hollowed out of thick rocks by ancient hands grinding foodstuff and pigments. Faint traces of red waves and lines can be seen on rock faces, though what the pictographs are supposed to be is difficult to tell. More spectacular are the petroglyphs; carved images of people, masks and headdresses. Some are just a foot tall and barely visible except at the right angle. Stick figures dance alone or in groups like a child’s drawing of a family. Square faces with antennae-like protrusions recall a parallel to other ancient sites that purportedly represent aliens. Other petroglyphs are elaborately etched in deep relief, grinning, or grimacing skull-like, with deep lines and decorated bodies more than six feet high.

We felt like children on a treasure hunt, following the crude map to all the little x’s and looking out for painted arrows directing us to each individual piece of rock art. We scrambled over rocky outcrops and past towering cacti that looked like they were growing toothpicks. Occasionally we’d see a small creature run away; a long-legged mouse with a furry black-tipped tail. Birds chittered and flew from rock to cactus to scrubby bush.

A shallow river runs through the valley – the same water source that led people to settle here 4,000 years ago. Trees growing along it give plenty of shade for picnic tables and BBQ areas, but we were the only ones there until we found a small campsite and a few people cooking lunch. Looking at the sizzling meat, I wondered what the Molle people had eaten here and whether they had ground the same spices these modern day cooks were using to flavour their meal.

The valley got narrower to the west and the river dropped away steeply. We had to climb over big boulders to follow its course, but there was one thing left to see: the Baños del Incas. Two giant rocks had huge depressions in them, two or three meters wide and of the same depth. The sides were smooth and rounded, just like the small holes of the mortars. Despite the name, it’s hard to believe these could have been made by people. Millions of years of water pounding down on these rocks is more likely to have caused the wearing away, but this was the only evidence of a much more powerful river and ancient waterfall that must have been here.

Back up at the admission office we turned for one last look at the Valley of Enchantment. The binoculared man smiled and asked us if we had enjoyed it.

How to get there:
Valle del Encanto is about 19km from Ovalle. A taxi costs 15,000 Chilean pesos return or 10,000 one way.
Any bus from Ovalle heading west will drop you off at the crossroads for 2,000 pesos. However, they will NOT pick you up again from the same spot. You need to hitchhike back to town or walk around 9km to the nearest bus stop.

Tickets cost 500 pesos. There are some old and dusty souvenirs for sale (postcards, T-shirts, replica pottery) ranging from 200-15,000 pesos.

There are outdoor picnic and BBQ areas, but bring your own food and fuel as none is available on site. Remember to use the garbage cans provided or take your litter back with you.
Camping is permitted at the western end of the valley in sector three. Bring your own equipment. Porter-cabin toilets are available.

See more pictures in our photo essay.