People of the Clouds - Chachapoyas, Peru

June 20-25, 2007


The tenth century mountain fortress of Kuélap.



From Chiclayo in northern Peru, another overnight bus trip took us to the cloud forest domain of the Chachapoyas. With no flights or paved roads connecting this Amazonas region with the rest of Peru, the friendly town of Chachapoyas remains wonderfully light on touristas and retains its rich cultural and historic presence. Wandering through this adobe town on our first night, the narrow streets are crowded with people celebrating a local school anniversary with a marching band and groups of school children carrying large hand-made paper floats depicting the area's landmarks, buildings, airplanes, animals, and assorted odd objects. The whole town seemed to be out marching in the streets. After six days in this beautiful area, Chachapoyas turned out to be one of our favorite towns in South America.

The pre-Inca culture of the Chachapoyas, People of the Clouds, thrived in this region from around 800 AD until the 1470s when they were conquered by the Incas. Shortly thereafter the Spanish conquistadors arrived, and the town of Chachapoyas became the third Spanish settlement in Peru. Many archeological sites are scattered around this region, the most famous of which is the massive mountaintop ruins of Kuélap.










A 500-year-old stone trail, built by the Inca, leads us through the countryside, past idyllic farms and adobe houses. We meet remarkable people along the way: a confident nine year old boy riding his horse alone across the mountains (making us wonder if we are a tad overprotective in our society); an old woman, with a beautifully wrinkled face, carrying huge load of firewood stops to talk and wish us well; an amazing-looking mountain man with his intricately carved walking stick and white "panama" hat is very surprised to see us out here -- he's chewing something that stains his lips yellow and smiles broadly as we have a stilted conversation in Spanish. As far as we can tell he's on his way to Celedín, many kilometers to the south.







On a rainy winter solstice, three and a half hours by rough dirt road from Chachapoyas, the ruin of Kuélap sits forlornly on the top of a steep 10,000' limestone mountain. Shaped a bit like an immense grounded ship, its half-mile long oval stone wall is impenetrable except for three narrow slits.

Entering one of these mysterious gateways, we are led through a narrow walled incline, forcing our party single-file up and into the interior of this ancient citadel. Unlike Machu Picchu, Kuélap sees only a handful of visitors per day. Our small group of a dozen international travelers (from Peru, Scotland, UK, Spain, Czech, New Zealand, and Australia) wander through the forested interior, around the remains of over 400 circular dwellings where 3,500 people once lived. One of these houses has been reconstructed with its steep conical thatched roof. In its heyday, this city in the clouds must have been a truly amazing sight!










Another day, a terrifying ride from Chacha, up and over a steep mountain range in a station wagon cab driven by yet another high-on-adrenaline young driver, brings us to the trailhead for a Chachapoyan Pueblo de los Muertos. As we hike down a steep canyon across from the third tallest waterfall in the world (2,500 feet!), we round one bend and are astonished to see forty clay sarcophagi set in the natural rock alcoves on the opposite sheer cliff. Human bones lay scattered everywhere, left behind by grave robbers. Many of these 1000-year-old clay tombs are decorated with long faces, quietly staring towards the eastern sky.






Jose, our Chachapoyan guide, leads us down to the main dwelling site overlooking the funerary, where we carefully tiptoe around circular adobe and stone houses built on a precarious rock ledge, cantilevered over the abyss. It seems impossible that families with small children could have lived here, but in almost every house we find enormous mortars for grinding maize and other grains, blackened walls above fire pits, and pictographs of llamas and warriors. We spend a long time wandering around this complex, contemplating the lives of these ancient people.






Lima (plane) Chiclayo (bus) Chachapoyas