Tour: Chachapoyas Express
(4 Days / 3 nigths)
A program for travelers with limited time to visit the Chachapoyas but that offers the option to explore the huge mountaintop temple and fortess of Kuelap, The Leymebamba museum with its collection of 200 mummies, the Revash cliff tombs. The area is still new to tourism, but we have taken every care to provide as comfortable a stay as possible, with air-conditioned vehicles, expert guides and the best possible accommodation.
The tour includes short treks on foot and horseback, and the cost covers all land travel and meals and accommodation at the charming El Chillo Hacienda Lodge.
Note: our horseback excursions may also be done on foot, but this option is only available to strong, fast hikers, due to long distances and time constraints.
The pre-Columbian Chachapoyas culture, conquered in the 15th century by the Incas, has left a landscape scattered with ruined settlements and burial sites which until recently has been largely overlooked by archaeologists.
Situated in the cloud forests around the town of Chachapoyas in Peru’s northern Amazonas Department, these sites are dominated by the mighty fortress-temple of Kuelap, perched majestically atop towering cliffs overlooking a verdant Andean landscape.
The Chachapoyas region has historically been somewhat isolated from the rest of Peru. Local traditions are distinctive, daily life revolves around cattle and horses, and forest-covered remnants of a glorious past can be spotted on every ridge and cliff.
Day 1: Chiclayo to Chachapoyas: Across the Andes to the Amazon.
We drive northward from Chiclayo across Peru’s coastal plains, following the Pan-American Highway, then turn east onto the Trans-Andean route, ascending gently through regions of dry forest interspersed with irrigated farmland. Our road loops towards the lowest pass of the Peruvian Andes, at 2,135 m/7,000 ft, where we cross the continental divide and enter the Upper Amazon basin. Following the valley of the Huancabamba/Chamaya river system we pass broad ribbons of bright green rice terracing, forming a striking contrast with the cactus and dense thorn-scrub vegetation of the mountainsides. Lower downstream we pass the massive dam and intake of the Olmos irrigation project, ultimately destined to divert much of this water through a 23 Km/14.2 mile long tunnel to the Pacific slope of the Andes.
We reach the bridge over the Marańon, one of the great tributaries of the Upper Amazon, which was formerly believed to be the source of that mighty river. Here we enter the Peruvian department of Amazonas, former home of a mysterious and powerful civilization, the Chachapoyas, whose remnants we will explore during this journey.
We follow the Utcubamba river, the main artery of the Chachapoyan heartland, first ascending a dramatic canyon then winding up the mountainous valley which leads us to El Chillo, the charming hillside garden hotel which will be our home for the next three nights.
Day 2: Journey to the Cliff Tombs of Revash and on to Leimebamba.
We follow the Utcubamba valley upstream, spotting herons and perhaps an Andean torrent duck in the river as we slowly ascend the valley. At the village of Santo Tomás we turn off the main highway, crossing the river and ascending a side valley where vivid scarlet poinsettias the size of trees overhang the walls of typical Chachapoyan farms, with verandas surrounded by wooden columns, and topped with tile roofs. Soon we meet our wranglers and the calm, sure-footed horses that will carry us up the trail to Revash.
Throughout this journey we gaze up at huge cliffs that loom ever closer. These limestone formations, laid down in even layers over geological aeons, tend to break away in neat collapses, often leaving extensive overhangs and protected ledges beneath them. In such places the ancient Chachapoya built the tombs where they buried their noble dead.
A gigantic fold in the cliffs, testifying to millenia of unimaginable tectonic forces, lies ahead of us, and at the top of the fold one such cave houses a group of tombs, ruined structures still bearing their original coat of red and white pigment. But they are far off, and this is not yet Revash. Another hour brings us to a viewpoint much closer to the cliffs, and here we see two adjacent sets of caves, featuring cottage-sized structures covered in still-bright mineral-oxide paintwork. Some of them look like cottages, with gabled roofs, others like flat-topped apartments. They are adorned with red-on-white figures and geometrical symbols -- a feline, llamas, circles, ovals -- and bas-relief crosses and T-shapes, which perhaps once told the rank and lineage of the tombs’ occupants. They are silent, empty, their contents long ago looted, their facades still trying to tell us a story whose meaning was lost long ago.
Retracing our steps we continue our road journey to Leimebamba, which we reach mid-afternoon. This settlement was established by the Incas during their conquest of the region, and continued as a colonial town under the Spanish. It retains much of this antique charm in its balconied houses with narrow streets where more horses than cars are parked. We go a little further up the highway and pull in to the spacious garden environment of the Leimebamba Museum, where we visit a delightful collection of extraordinary artifacts recovered from another group of cliff tombs discovered as recently as 1997 at the remote Laguna de los Condores, high in the mountains east of the town.
The exhibits, cheerfully displayed in well-lit rooms, offer a sample from the mass of artifacts recovered from this amazing discovery. In 1997 a group of undiscovered cliff tombs -- similar in style to those of Revash -- was spotted above the remote Laguna de los Condores by local farmhands. Although they looted and damaged the site, a mass of priceless objects and a trove of vital information was rescued. We see gourds carved with animal and geometrical symbols, an array of colorful textiles, ceramics, carved wooden beakers and portrait heads, and a selection of the dozens of quipus (Inca knotted-string recording devices) recovered from the site. A big picture window offers a view of the temperature- and humidity-controlled temporary “mausoleum” where more than two hundred salvaged mummies are kept.
Archaeologists are still uncertain as to how most of this material came to be so startlingly well-preserved, in tombs that during the rainy season were actually behind a waterfall! But perhaps the most striking thing about the tombs is that they contain burials from all three periods of local history: the Chachapoya cultural heyday, the post-Inca invasion period, and the post-Spanish conquest. Archaeologists are continuing to study the material, seeking to learn more about the Chachapoya and their relationship with their Inca masters. The quipu finds have been especially valuable to scholars seeking to decode the Inca record keeping system.
After our museum tour we can visit the Kenticafé across the street, for a cup of the best coffee in Chachapoyas, where we may see dozens of the region’s exotic hummingbirds flitting among the strategically placed feeders, perhaps including the dazzling and highly endangered Marvellous Spatuletail.
Day 3: Kuelap, the great walled city of Northern Peru.
We spend a full day visiting this huge and mysterious site, beginning with a drive through places whose names -- Choctamal, Longuita, and Kuelap itself -- evoke a lost language and a vanished ancient people who spoke it, the Chachapoyans. We don’t know what they called themselves, but the Incas who finally conquered these fierce warriors knew them by their Quechua soubriquet, Chachaphuyu -- Cloud People -- after the cloud-draped region where they lived.
Kuelap’s existence was first reported in 1843. For years it was believed to have been a Chachapoyan fortress, and when we first catch sight of it from the fossil-encrusted limestone footpath that leads there it is hard to believe it was not. The massive walls soar to a height of 19m/62ft and its few entranceways are narrow and tapering, ideal for defense. Yet the archaeological evidence now suggests that this was principally a religious and ceremonial site.
Chachapoyas was not a nation, or an empire, but some sort of federation of small states centered on numerous settlements scattered across their mountainous territory. The earliest settlement dates obtained here suggest that its construction began around 500A.D. and, like the Moche coastal pyramids; it was built in stages as a series of platforms, one atop the other.
It is now a single enormous platform nearly 600m/2,000ft long, stretched along a soaring ridgetop. Seen from below, its vast, blank walls give no hint of the complexity and extent of the buildings above. When we reach its summit we find a maze of structures in a variety of styles and sizes, some of them faced with rhomboid friezes, some ruined and some well preserved. Here we can try to imagine the lives of the Chachapoyan elite and their servants who lived here, enjoying a breathtaking view of forested Andean mountains and valleys.
So distant and neglected was this region until recently that little archaeological research has been done at this important site, and our knowledge of it remains vague. An adjacent site named La Mallca, larger though less dramatic than Kuelap, has not been studied at all.
Even today, Kuelap’s remoteness ensures that only a handful of other visitors are there to share it with us. We return to El Chillo for dinner and overnight.
Day 4: Chachapoyas to Chiclayo.
After an early breakfast we return to Chiclayo by road. We will make a pleasant stop at a suitable spot along the way to eat our box lunch. We arrive in Chiclayo in the late afternoon and transfer to a selected hotel.
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THE LOST WORLD OF THE CHACHAPOYAS
The Pre-Columbian Chachapoyas culture, conquered in the 15th century by the Incas, has left a landscape scattered with villages and burial sites which until recently has been largely overlooked by archaeologists.
Situated in the cloud forests around the town of Chachapoyas in Peru’s northern Amazonas Department, these sites are dominated by the mighty fortress of Kuelap, perched majestically atop mountain-top cliffs overlooking the verdant Andean landscape.
In Chachapoyas, remnants of the past invite discovery by the bold adventurer, and the cultures of the present extend a friendly welcome.
These programs are new and are specially designed for those people with a special interest in archaeology, or for those with a taste for adventure.
The area is still new to tourism, but we have taken every care to provide as comfortable a stay as possible, with air-conditioned vehicles and expert guides.