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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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).