Chachapoyas, Peru, South America
By Jared Johnsen
It is impossible to go to South America without visiting the legendary ruins of Machu Picchu. Nor is it recommended to do so. Yet, as any traveler who ventures beyond the Sacred Valley knows, there are many ruins in Peru that are also intriguing. In one such place, rivaling the immensity of Machu Picchu, is the Chachapoyan settlement of Kuelap. Located 20 kilometers from the modern day town of Chachapoyas, lies this 1000 year old settlement that stretches over a kilometer in length and is made up of 420 buildings. It rests at around 3,000 meters on the top of a mountain ridge in a cloud forest of dense vegetation, visited mainly by resident hummingbirds. Today, some walls are felled, their stones lying scattered on the forest floor, cloaked with giant bromeliads and orchids. But fortunately, this is not the case for much of the site, whose walls remain erect, some as high as 17 meters. While these circular structures set in the mesmerizing atmosphere of the cloud forest may very well be the crowning point of any visit to the area, the Chachapoyans also left their own little “Sacred Valley” of ruins, which dot the nearby landscape and date back to the same pre-Incan period. Trekking through all of these magical sights not only brings to life a new chapter in ancient Peru’s history, but gives one the freedom of exploring areas of the country still undiscovered by tourism, whose treasures can often be enjoyed in an atmosphere of blissful tranquility.
The town from which all adventure in this area usually begins is Chachapoyas. This town is in the northern region of Peru on the eastern slopes of the Andes and is nicknamed la ceja de la selva, the brow of the jungle. From here it is possible to organize tours into the surrounding cloud forests to visit the undisturbed ruins of the Chachapoya people, also known as ‘The Cloud People.’ Like Machu Picchu, many of these structures were abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived and went undiscovered. Some of them remain shrouded in jungle undergrowth to this day, as this region begins to encourage further excavation and tourism. For now though, one will find it mostly quiet with a few guides available for hire in Chacha (as the locals call it). Carlos Burga, who owns Hostal Revash in town, is an excellent resource for organizing a tour. He charges around $300 for a five day trek exploring the ruins of the Gran Vilaya region and Kuelap, but also has helpful advice for those who don’t have these kinds of funds and want to brave it alone. Even for those with their own tent and food, hiring a knowledgeable local for the day may be necessary to find your way among the Incan footpaths. You may also be required to rent a bedroom from a resident of one the tiny villages along the way. Many find this aspect of the journey quite enjoyable, as it gives you a chance to interact with the locals, who are some of the friendliest in Peru. Keep in mind that some Spanish – most likely a second language to you and them – is a must.
While it is possible to simply hire a tour to Kuelap, the whole region is filled with ruins and deserves a few days of exploration. The journey through Gran Vilaya is highly recommended because it can take you through lush cloud forest and the verdant valley of Belén before the much anticipated Kuelap. This mystical landscape of clouds and dense hillsides seems as in a dream. Many of the ruins here remain covered with years of jungle plants, unperceivable to those passing by, while clouds shroud and bleach distant hills. After leaving Belén, the trail takes you to the dryer and warmer pueblo of Congón, where you may pay to stay in a local home. The trek here is quite up and down for a while, but well worth the struggle. During my own trek, after stepping down what seemed to be a bunch of haphazardly placed stones, I was made aware that I was on an old Incan trail. I then noticed a steep embankment covered in bromeliads and viny underbrush to my side. The guide put his hand between the leaves of the embankment and pushed away the vines and plant matter beneath. Below were hundreds of mossy stones from an Incan wall – just sitting there undisturbed for a millennium. In addition to places like this, many sarcophagi and other sites of interest abound just off the trail, so a guide who knows the area is highly useful.
The remainder of the hike is climbing back out of the valley and up into the cloud forest where you will come to Choctámal. It is from here that you will make your visit to the ancient dwellings of Kuelap the following day. Upon arrival you will see towering stone walls that housed a city of 3,500 people at its prime. And every structure inside these walls is perfectly round except for 4 of them. These square structures are believed to evince the occupation of the Incan after the Chachapoyans abandoned the site for more fertile farmland at a lower elevation. The fact that this site remains mostly unaffected through the passage of time, seems to attest to the indomitability of this clouded mountaintop fortification to all warring neighbors like the Huari. This splendid site, filled in with lush vegetation leaves its onlookers rapt in curiosity about the Chachapoyas. Certainly, there is much still to be learned, and as much of this area awaits excavation, it will draw in even more tourism someday. But today, it remains an absolute gem for those seeking an undeveloped land of ruins.