Perched at 9842 feet, the Chachapoyas people (pre-Inca) build their biggest fortress and town. The story is that there was a love affair between an Incan warrior and the most beautiful girl in the village of Kuelap. She agreed to marry him, but only if he built an irrigation system around Chachapoyas and Kuelap. Later, there was a feud between the two Inca Princes. The Spanish used the discord to divide and conquer. Thinking that they would win protection and immunity, the Chachapoyas people helped the Spanish conquer the Incas, only to then be conquered themselves. The Chachas architecture is easily identified because of their round houses and criss-cross decorations. Each house (of which there are hundreds in Kuelap) has a trough where they kept their Cuy (guinea pig cousins and delicious, if chewy, dinner), deep earth wells to store fresh water and food, and a raised bed for sleeping. But our actual arrival at and exploration of Kuelap is only a fraction of the story of our journey to reach the fortress on the hill.
From Chachapoyas (where we saw the sarcophagi in the last blog entry), we easily found a van on it’s way to Tingo, the highway village on the way to Kuelap. Climbing off the van in Tingo, (literally 20 old buildings clustered on the highway, population maybe 100?) we were shocked to learn that there is actually no public transportation to Kuelap, which is 2 more hours by car along a steep, pothole filled mountain road. So we decided to be brave (or stupid) and start off in the mid day heat to face the steep and treacherous “short cut” climb up the mountainside. We asked the local police, busy gossiping on the corner, for directions and off we went. About 45 minutes later our attempts at waving down every passing car finally came to fruit and a van pulled over, only to inform us that we has just walked 45 minutes in the wrong direction. Hot, tired, and running on bananas, I almost lost it (poor Cam) and we headed back to Tingo just as the black afternoon rain clouds closed in. We decided that we didn’t want to backtrack by heading all the way back to Chachapoyas and we checked into the only hotel in town, rickety and beyond basic Hospedaje Leon, with the most wonderfully knowedgeable owner Luis and his wife, $9 per night.
As soon as the rain had slowed, Luis sent us off on a more local adventure. 1) Walk 20 minutes down the road until you reach the river. 2) There you will find a basket on a rope that will carry you across the river. Climb in and push yourself across. 3) Follow the trail another 30 minutes and you will find Loros ( Parrots. I had actually tried to ask him about how much mud (Lodo) was on the trail, but he has misunderstood and sent us to the parrots.) and the Macro Ruins of the Chacas people. Off we went. Luckily a local woman ferried us across the river in her hanging basket for a tip. The funny thing is that the basket isn’t even one a pully system so if it’s on the wrong side of the river and no one is there to throw it to you, you have to swim across to get it….hmmm. Peruvian logic at it’s best.
The next morning, we packed our bags, had breakfast at the one restaurant in town, and started off up the side of the mountain as soon as the night rains turned to a drizzle. Our LP Guidebook warned us that the hike to Kuelap was a 5-6 hour journey, but the locals reassurred us many-a-time that it wouldn’t take more than 3 hours at a normal walking pace (2.5 if you go fast). We were all smiles as we started our assent up through one of the most beautiful valleys I have ever seen. We traverssed the switchbacks with confidence and laughter, and I only had to stop every 15 minutes or so to catch my breath. After 2 hours, the smiles had started to fade just a bit. After 3 hours and the realization that we were no where near the top, Cameron was luring me up the mounatin by dangling chocolate and water in front of me. My every 15 minute rest breaks were now every 15 feet rest breaks. If there had been a way to quit, I would have. But the only way out was to keep climbing. After 4 hours we finally saw the first signs of the town of Kuelap. Pasture land- full of sheep, ducks, and horses. We were thrilled- we had finally arrived! Imagine my face when we rounded a corner 10 minutes later and found the steepest hill yet. All the way to the tippy top of the mountain. I was taking it 5 feet at a time, afraid to sit down because I may not be able to get back up. After 5 hours of pure ascent, we had climbed 3600 feet (not to mention that we nearly 2 miles above sea level). We were both dead tired, but I was so proud of myself. I have never in my life done a hike like that. Those of you who knew me as a child know that I basically avoided physical activity- bless my dad for dragging Julian and I on day hikes. This was something wholly new to me and I couldn’t believe that I had done it. The strangest part, was that even at the worst of it, I never regretted it. The views were some of the most stunning I have ever seen. And to look down over the cliff side and see the river where we had started…it was amazing. We spent about 40 minutes actually touring the ruins (funny that at both the Sarcophagi and Kuelap our time at the actual site was just a fraction of the time it took us to get there!) and then were lucky enough to find a taxi to take us back down the 2 hour road where we collapsed and slept like babies.
Actually that’s not the whole truth. First we rushed to shower, pack our backpacks at Hotel Leon, and got to the bench by the dirt highway in hopes of catching a van heading South to our next detsination. We sat for about 3 hours, chatting it up with the population of Tingo. For three hours we stopped hiking and moving and reading and listening to our Ipods and took up the local pasttime- watching the world go by. The ancient barefoot, hunchbacked grandma who carried her cabbage into town in shawl tied around her sholders to sell to the restaurant. The 14 day old newborn. The man with the donkey carrying in a day’s load of sugar cane. And of course the occasional van passing by, not one headed where we wanted to go. As the sun set, we retreated back to the hotel and moved back into our room. We learned that in Tingo, you can’t really set your own pace. What was meant to be a day trip had turned into 3 full days. We knew the whole town by now. And it was lovely. After another 2 hours by the highway at dawn the next day, we managed to get a bus and continued our journey south to Cajamarca where we met some friends, drank some Pisco Sours, listened to revolutionary folk music at an amazing bar called Usha Usha, soaked in the Inca Baths where the Inca price Athahualpa was lounging when the Spanish soldiers arrived in town, and toured the Inca irrigation system in the hills.
On Tuesday we celebrated Thanksgiving with our Huanchaco family, the day before ¾ of us left Huanchaco and headed our seperate ways. Our group of 5 Americans led the way with all the classics (except cranberry sauce- no cranberries!) that tasted amazingly like they are supposed to! We topped it off with a sunny day, sangria, and lots of International treats (Our lovely French baker brought pastry wrapped baked cheese and pears and our favorite Huanchaco Cake Lady made us a delicious flan). It was a perfect night of friends, laughter, and food. We all left Huanchaco stuffed, loved, and happy. Not one of us will feel the lack of Thanksgiving this year. It was definitely the best Peruvian Thanksgiving I could have wished for.
Cameron and I took an overnight bus last night to Huaraz, elev 10,000 ft, from where we will start our 4 day trek into the Cordillera mountains. We have two days to acclimate and then we’re off (don’t worry, we have a guide and a donkey!). I’m sure we’ll have plenty to say when we get back. Thanks for reading. Happy Thanksgiving! And I promise lots more blog entries now that we’re back on the road.
All my love,