Maria village shrouded in fog
I awoke early to the roosters crowing. Now, let me tell you that the widely held city dweller belief that the rooster crows at dawn is way off the mark. First of all, it’s well before dawn, and second, one or two times isn’t enough. They make a din and keep it up for awhile. So they are a country alarm clock and unless you have earplugs, you’re not going to be able to sleep. Fortunately I did have some and popped them in so I could catch up on sleep. Originally we were supposed to be up before dawn so that we could get to Kuelap for the sunrise, but with the arrival of the dark clouds yesterday, Carlos called it off since we wouldn’t be able to see the sun. The village was eerie in the thick morning fog, but pretty at the same time.
If we wouldn’t be able to see the sunrise in Kuelap I’d say the next best thing would be to see the lost, ruined city in the mist. In fact, the romantic that I am, I was looking forward to it. Breakfast was excellent: homemade black currant preserves, bread, white cheese, boiled eggs and fresh brewed local coffee. Carlos started us off with another song before packing up our stuff to take the van up to Kuelap. But the driver wasn’t going anywhere until the end of the Peru vs. Tazikistan soccer game that Peru won on penalty kicks to put them into the quarterfinals of the World Cup qualifying rounds.
I have a page of notes in front of me from our tour of Kuelap, but I’ll spare you every detail on the history of the Chachapoyans and Keulap.
The southern path
If you’re really interested you can grab a flight on LAN Peru and a bus to Kuelap to see it yourself. So just the highlights here. Carlos used to be director of tourism for the whole Amazonas region and he is an expert on Kuelap. In fact, he was in charge of developing the site to increase tourism and in 1997, with the prompting of a Canadian taxi driver, who visited and then kept coming back, they started the project of rebuilding one of the ruined stone houses as a model for how it would have looked. Carlos explained how he submitted plans for the reconstruction of the house to the Center for Antiquities in Lima
and after months with no answer he and the Canadian started to rebuild.
Salt licks for the llamas and animals
It was all finished when the word from Lima came back refusing permission! Fait accompli.
We couldn’t have had a better tour guide than Carlos. Not only is he intelligent and well-informed about the region and Kuelap, but he combines it with passion and humor. I felt like a grad student following a world-expert and I took copious notes because the way he told the story was so entertaining and interesting. So let me paraphrase it a bit. Kuelap was constructed high on a ridge, as were the other cities of their empire, for a couple different reasons. One was obviously defensive, but the other was that a certain insect that destroys corn cannot survive at those altitudes. The site of Kuelap is perfect for defense. It sits at the point of a ridge overlooking two valleys and the steep natural slope of the mountain along with the twelve to twenty meter high walls, make it practically impregnable.
By the southern tower
The only easy approach is from the south, which the Incas made use of when they finally were able to conquer it in 1476. The river far below, the Utcubamba (in Quechua “utcu” means cotton and “bamba” means plain) eventually runs into the Maranon river and was a means of connecting with other cities and getting supplies from outside the region. The Incas arrived in 1450 with Tupac Yupanqui as their leader and they camped at Leymebamba to the south. He would besiege Kuelap off and on for 26 years before finally conquering it, and in homage, the Incas used it themselves as a fortress, something they never did. The evidence of that is in the six square houses built on Kuelap.
We started with the southern approach in the fog and mist, which turned into a sprinkling of rain, and I noted that it was the first rain I had experienced in Peru in the nine weeks that I had been traveling! Carlos pointed out the spatula-tailed hummingbird, a beautiful and rare and endangered bird that is only found in this immediate area.
Inside a reconstructed house
As we walked he talked about the distinctive dress of the Chachapoyan people and told us that they wore turbans like he was wearing, even still to this day in certain villages. He said he was very proud of his heritage, and that his family goes back many generations in the area. Passing the southern tower we proceeded to register and go to the didactic center in a replica stone house. I was amazed to find out that about 12,500 people visit Kuelap each year, whereas at Macchu Picchu
several thousand come through each day! What a shame, what a pity to miss such an incredible site. But it’s true of most foreigners that they come to see Cuzco and Macchu Picchu and almost nothing else.
They miss the coastal cities and the canons leading up to the high sierra, the excavations of the huacas of the ancient coastal people, the jungle and rivers and waterfalls, and the native peoples. They miss the colonial buildings of Cajamarca
and Arequipa and Lima too. I could go on for pages the things that they don’t see, but we’re talking about Kuelap here so I’ll return.
We learned the reasons why the Chachapoyans built round houses. It was for warmth, for solidarity and democracy (think round table), and also for resisting earthquakes. Carlos told us about the philosophy of the peoples of the high sierra and how much it has changed since the arrival of the Spanish.
Then we walked up past grazing llamas to the eastern service entrance where we were clearly able to see the footprints of men and llamas in the rock. Many hundreds of years of using the same footholds had worn away the rock. At the inner defensive wall we paused to listen to Carlos explain that even up to today many Shamans come from all over to feel the energy in this place and conduct ceremonies and he told us to lean our heads against the wall to feel the energy for a couple minutes. I don’t believe that kind of thing but I respectfully stood back while everyone else touched their heads to the rock to meditate.
There were so many interesting things that we saw on the several hour tour. Carlos was a fount of information. We learned what a typical house looked like, with it’s stone for grinding corn, niches for placing objects, indentations in the wall for erecting platforms for sleeping and storage, tunnel for guinea pigs (they like the dark), and hole in the middle for storage or burials.
Carlos explaining llama and human footprints in the rock
We also learned that the decoration on the outside of the house, in waves to represent serpents, or rhomboids to represent puma eyes, was for the important people of the city. After a dramatic summation at the south tower, we finally left the citadel by the ceremonial entrance but first Carlos presented each of the ladies with a flower in their hair. I was famished and there was a buffet of corn fritters, boiled choclo corn, and boiled little potatoes waiting for us at the entrance. The fritters were very good and the potatoes were excellent with the salsa of mild chilis and minced red onion on top. I devoured several of them but didn’t touch the mealy, bland boiled corn.
They others set off down the mountain, but with my ankle still aching a bit from the mule kick, I decided it would be wiser to walk back to the van and go with the driver to the bottom.
A guy from Chiclayo
and his daughters came with me. We had taken them from Maria to Kuelap with us and they tagged along with us the whole way, so I had some company and conversation on the way back. It was a long winding mountain road and even though as the crow flies the village at the bottom of the hill couldn’t have been more than a few miles, it took us a good hour and a half to two hours to get to the bottom. Such is mountain geography, you measure distance in time, not kilometers. We met them at the bottom as it was starting to rain harder and Carlos had set up a table for us in the town’s ospedaje. We shared cold beer and then they brought out fresh fried trout with a mountain of the omnipresent cold, greasy fried potato wedges.
Feeling the energy
There was also salad and a bowl of rice and beans, but I didn’t have much appetite so I just ate the trout. Carlos started up dancing again and I danced too and then with two of the little girls, that I assumed were daughters of the owner. Later in talking with her I found out that the girl named Maria Flor is her foster daughter because her mom is handicapped and they live in a remote village. So to be able to eat healthily and go to school, she watches over her. Then I played some soccer with a little boy there and he was delighted. He excitedly asked me when I was coming back to play again and it broke my heart that I had to leave. I wanted to stay with these wonderful people and these sweet kids.
We drove back in the dark and it was a welcome sight to see the lights of Chachapoyas
after an hour and a half on the road, and after four days of trekking.
Charro, Carlos’ wife, arranged for me to stay in another hotel not far from the plaza because I wanted something cheaper and also because they were full. The hotel was neat and clean and just fine. I just needed a place to sleep after the four day haul!