We begin our ten hour drive northward from Chiclayo across Peru’s coastal plains, following the Pan-American Highway, ascending gently through regions of dry forest interspersed with irrigated farmland. towards the lowest pass of the Peruvian Andes, at 2,135m/7,000 ft, where we cross the continental divide and enter the Upper Amazon basin.
We reach the bridge over the Marañon, one of the great tributaries of the Upper Amazon, which was formerly believed to be the source of that mighty river. Here we enter the former realm of a mysterious and powerful civilization, the Chachapoyas.
We follow the Utcubamba river, the main artery of the Chachapoyan heartland, first ascending a dramatic canyon then winding up the mountainous valley which leads us to El Chillo, the charming hillside garden hotel which will be our home for the next three nights.
We follow the Utcubamba valley upstream, spotting herons and perhaps an Andean torrent duck in the river as we slowly ascend the valley. At the village of Santo Tomás we turn off the main highway, crossing the river and ascending a side valley where vivid scarlet poinsettias the size of trees overhang the walls of typical Chachapoyan farms. Soon we meet our wranglers and the calm, sure-footed horses that will carry us up the trail to Revash.
Throughout this journey on horseback we gaze up at huge cliffs and limestone overhangs and ledges. In such places the ancient Chachapoya built the tombs where they buried their noble dead.
We come to Revash, a group of tombs standing as ruined structures still bearing their original coat of red and white pigment. There are two adjacent sets of caves, featuring cottage-sized structures covered in still-bright mineral-oxide paintwork. Some of them look like cottages, with gabled roofs, others like flat-topped apartments. They are adorned with red-on-white figures and geometrical symbols -- a feline, llamas, circles, ovals, crosses and T-shapes - that perhaps once told the rank and lineage of the tombs’ occupants. They are silent, empty, their contents long ago looted, but their facades still trying to tell us a story whose meaning was lost long ago.
Retracing our steps we continue our road journey to Leimebamba, which we reach mid-afternoon. This settlement was established by the Incas during their conquest of the region, and continued as a colonial town under the Spanish. It retains much of this antique charm in its balconied houses with narrow streets where more horses than cars are parked. Visit the Leimebamba Museum with a delightful collection of extraordinary artifacts recovered from another group of cliff tombs discovered as recently as 1997 at the remote Laguna de los Condores, high in the mountains east of the town. A big picture window offers a view of the temperature- and humidity-controlled temporary “mausoleum” where more than two hundred well-preserved mummies are kept.
Return to El Chillo (two hour drive) for dinner and a restful night's sleep.
We spend a full day visiting Kuelap, beginning with a drive through places whose names -- Choctamal, Longuita, and Kuelap itself -- evoke a lost language and a vanished ancient people who spoke it, the Chachapoyans. We don’t know what they called themselves, but the Incas who finally conquered these fierce warriors knew them as the, Chachaphuyu -- Cloud People -- after the cloud-draped region where they lived.
For years Kuelap was believed to have been a Chachapoyan fortress with some massive walls that soar to a height of 19m/62ft and few narrow entranceways ideal for defense. Yet the archaeological evidence now suggests that this was principally a religious and ceremonial site.
Chachapoyas was not a nation, or an empire, but some sort of federation of small states centered on numerous settlements scattered across their mountainous territory. The earliest settlement dates obtained here suggest that its construction began around 500A.D. and, like the Moche coastal pyramids, it was built in stages as a series of platforms, one atop the other. It is now a single enormous platform nearly 600m/2,000ft long, stretched along a soaring ridgetop. Seen from below, its vast, blank walls give no hint of the complexity and extent of the buildings above creating a maze of structures in a variety of styles and sizes. Even today, Kuelap’s remoteness ensures that only a handful of other visitors are there to share it with us.
We drive to Chachapoyas city for dinner and overnight at Casa Vieja Hotel.
There are two alternatives for today's excursion:
Gocta. We drive to the village of Cocachimba, the trailhead for this lovely walk through forest and farmland to the foot of the world’s third highest waterfall. Amazingly, the existence of these falls was not known to the world until they were spotted by a German explorer in 2006! Local people lived in fear of them and stayed away, owing to their ancient legend of a dangerous enchantress, the siren who lived in the falls. Our walk takes approximately three hours each way, and along the route we have a good chance of spotting the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Peru’s national bird. The male of this large, brilliantly colored red-and-black member of the cotinga family sports a huge crest that completely envelops its beak. When the males gather they hop from branch to branch through the trees, insulting each other with loud squawks and screeches in an attempt to attract females. We hear the thunder of Gocta before we see the falls, a huge two-stage torrent of water falling from the towering limestone cliffs characteristic of the entire region. When we are close they are so high that the rim of the falls, 771m/2,528ft above us, seems to be lost in the sky. We can spend some time here enjoying the refreshing mist of the falls and enjoying the surrounding forest, viewing hummingbirds, toucanets, and, with luck, a troupe or two of capuchin or woolly monkeys. During the dry season when the volume of water is not too ferocious, those willing to face the chilly waters (and perhaps the siren!) can bathe in the pool beneath the falls. We hike back to Cocachimba and return to Chachapoyas in time for dinner.
Karajía. We drive half and hour from Chachapoyas to the village of Caclic, and then take a side road for about 1.5 hours, before beginning a descent of 300m/1000ft, to the clifftop at Cruz Pata, then hike a short way to the foot of even higher cliffs. Here we can look across a vertical cliff face to a completely inaccessible cave where the ancient Chachapoyans somehow installed nine tall clay figures, up to some 3m high, inside which the bodies of chieftains and perhaps their families were laid. The heads have angular, stylized faces, made of clay, while the bodies of the figures were made on site of wattle and clay, which was then covered in brightly painted designs. How the ancient Chachapoyans reached this place to create this burial site for their elites is still a mystery. We return to the city of Chachapoyas in the afternoon.
After an early breakfast we return to Chiclayo by road. We will make a pleasant stop at a suitable spot along the way to eat our box lunch. Take an afternoon flight back to Lima and connect to your international flight.
Alternatively, we can make arrangements to extend your trip in Peru. Click here for extensions such as to the Amazon, Lake Titicaca, or Machu Picchu.
$80 single supplement