How often does one wake up not knowing that they would visit pre-Incan ruins built atop a 9,000 foot mountain? We opted for a guided tour offered by our hostel, Chachapoyas Backpackers. This was the first time we ventured on this type of guided outing and it did not disapppoint. We made our way to the van, piled in with about 14 other travelers and began the drive to Kuelap. It had been rainy and dreary since we entered Peru just at the beginning of January and this day was no exception. The road curved smoothly along a rushing river for a while and after about an hour we started to climb a dirt road that was extremely muddy. Outside the left-hand window was a vertical drop, sometimes several thousand feet down. Our guide, Ernando, pointed to the top of a high mountain near some distant trees saying “See, there you can see it.” We had a way to go. Our trip to the top of the mountain was only met with one minor road slide where men hopped out of tour vans in front of us throwing boulders off the side of the road. We made it to Kuelap around 11:30 AM.
One of the most remarkable things about this place is how few tourists were there. After paying our ridiculously cheap 15 soles entrance fee, our guide took a German mother and daughter, Kurt and me on an English speaking tour. One of the first things he told us was that Kuelap means “Hill Fortress” and Chachapoyas (the pre-Inca group that built the fortress) means “Cloud Men”. On the day we visited it was obvious where the name came from as we meandered through fascinating ruins surrounded by clouds. I cannot imagine what it must have been like thousands of years ago for this community to build this fortress and live here. The 400 round stone remnants of houses amazed me. Although there was some reconstruction, the original structures seem to be well in tact. I believe there will be more discoveries made by archeologists in coming years. Although we did get some obviously fictional facts during our two and a half hour tour about the possibility of viking influence on the Chachapoyas culture, most of the tour seemed factual and believable. The guide mentioned to me on our hike down the mountain a book called Cosmic Conflict about the coming end of the world, saying he had enjoyed meeting Kurt and me and was concerned about our future. Although I had no concerns myself, I appreciated the brief proselytizing and kind intention of the man. Afterwards we headed back to the van and wound our way to a restaurant half-way down the mountain, where we had a late lunch of local delicious food. We arrived back in the town of Chachapoyas where we are staying at around 6 PM.
Kurt researched the book Ernando recommended and discovered that it was written by the founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. As he researched more about the founder’s ideas, some things we noticed in Northern Peru became more clear. There are vegetarian restaurants and Seventh Day Adventist Churches scattered throughout the cities, towns and villages in this region. This religion advocates vegetarianism. On our fourth and final hike in the region before leaving for the high jungle city of Tarapoto, we met some American Adventist missionaries in a small village near Gocta, one of the most dramatic waterfalls in the world. They were there to help build a church. After speaking with them, the local proselytes working on the new church nearby greeted us warmly thinking we were fellow devotees.
Other adventures included visiting the sarcophagi of Karajia with our Belgian friend where we trudged through a mile of mud. Kurt bought a hand spun and hand knitted wool hat from a proud little girl in the village above the site. On another day, we made a trip to a dramatic canyon near Huancas and a hiked back to Chachapoyas in the blistering sun. Fortunately, we had the ailing umbrellas we bought in Bogota to keep us from a hospital visit. On the very rainy days we spent time around the hostel and shopping at the local market where we bought olluco, similar to the potato but more delicious. The kind woman at the hostel helped us in preparing the dish one evening. Here is the recipe. All in all, I would call the Chachapoyas region a true historical and geographic gift. It is touristy enough to make things relatively comfortable yet so far off the beaten path that it doesn’t feel like it has been purchased by Walt Disney.