25th-28th August 2018
‘Chachapoyas’ means ‘people of the clouds’ in Quechua, and there is no mystery as to why this region was named such way as you are driven there through a series of winding roads cutting through the mountains. I arrived there at night, after a long day crossing the border from Ecuador where I made a new friend, Henri, and together we gritted our teeth through a series of colectivos (Peruvian shared taxis, often with more passengers than seats). I was already noticing that the rules of the road were different in Peru, and my heart was in my throat during the final stretch where we experienced a particularly precarious driver who liked to overtake at corners and accelerate to over 110 kilometres per hour.
Chachapoyas, the town, was prettier than I expected. Its streets were lined with old colonial buildings with balconies. Our first day, we wandered around, getting a feel for the place. We went shopping in the market, which was the centre of life and had a great variety of vegetables, fruits, cheeses, bread, and grains from all regions of the country.
In the afternoon, we caught a bus to Huanca – a village a few kilometres away with wonderful views of Soncha canyon – and it was there we finally got to see the terrain in the daylight.
Soncha Canyon beautifully demonstrates the extremes of this region and was a great introduction to understanding it. The Chachapoya people who dwelt here hundreds of years ago are mysterious. Not much is known about them because they fell into obscurity shortly after being conquered by the Incas who implemented a system of known as ‘mitimaes’ (forcibly relocating subjugated peoples to spread them out and better control them). What we do know, is that they somehow managed to thrive for hundreds of years in a difficult landscape and, one of the ways they did this, was turning its extremes to their advantage and acting as traders between those who lived in the highlands of the Andes and the people of the Amazon.
You cannot easily judge journey times around Chachapoyas. Distances as little as thirty kilometres can take over an hour because of the difficult terrain. The destination is always worth the time. On our second day, we went to see Gocta Waterfall which involved an hour and a half down bumpy roads followed by sweaty two-hour walk.
At 771 meters, people can’t seem to decide if it is the third tallest cascade in the world or the sixteenth. At the bottom, the water has fallen for so long it fumes into clouds. I have taken a video which can be seen here.
It was our final day that we went to see the crowning jewel of this area. Kuelap, an ancient city estimated to have been home to over three thousand people.
Perched upon the top of a mountain, Kuelap can now be accessed by Peru’s first ever cable car system and, while making this twenty-minute journey up the mountain, you can only begin to appreciate how impressive it is that they built it in such steep inclines. At the top, you can see for miles in every direction. The site has an ethereal quality which makes the Chachapoya people deserving of being ‘of the clouds’.
Our guide told us some facts (and speculations) about the place. It hasn’t received too much archaeological attention compared to other areas, but the excavations which have been done uncovered curious things such as human bones ritually placed within bottle-shaped recesses built into some of the walls. There is also a large platform on the south side they believe to have been a ceremonial space. It has the iconic face of a deity imprinted onto some of its stones, and the small opening at the top is perfectly aligned to where the sun shines on one of the equinoxes.
It took a full two hours to make our way through the entire complex, which is overgrown with trees but fairly well maintained. I didn’t realise that it would be so extensive. Kuelap exceeded my expectations in many ways and I do honestly believe that if it was in a country other than Peru – where it is somewhat over-shadowed by Machu Picchu – and wasn’t so hard to get to, it would be a world-renown attraction of much higher regard.
I guess that it is a good thing in a way that it gets such little attention because sometimes the magic of places can be lost when they become too popular.
For more photos and videos, click here.
Also, here is a link to a very interesting BBC documentary about the Chachapoya people.