Indiana Jones and the Fortress of Kuelap!

Trip Start Nov 04, 2010
Trip End Aug 10, 2011

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Our next stop was the hillside town of Chachapoyas. Poised on a plateau between two river gorges, it's 14 hours from Trujillo by bus along a winding mountain road. Chachapaoyas is the perfect base for exploring more of northern Peru's numerous Pre-Inca archeological sites. We were joined on the bus by a strange mix of local people carrying produce to this remote area and white skinned ponytailed beardies that were presumably archeologists setting off to work on one of the areas many sites of interest. After the tourist trap of Mancora it was refreshing to see real people going about their daily lives. Chachapoyas was home to the Chachapoya meaning "The cloud people". These were fair skinned people of the mountains that used to inhabit the dramatic peaks and ridges in this region. On our first day we took a walk round the small town. The main plaza and a smelly but colourful fruit market were the highlights. Later that afternoon we took a taxi to the town of Huancas nearby, a small village with only indigenous people and a great location from which to view the surrounding valleys. 

Indiana Jones and the Fortress of Kuelap
The main attraction of this area is the Fortress of Kuelap. Built high up on a ridge at 3000M above sea level it's one of the most overwhelming pre-inca sites in Peru. Although only 30KM from the town of Chachapoyas, it takes 2.5 hours by car on a very bumpy, very dusty dirt road. We were in a group of 8 with a tour guide. As the guide passed around a piece of paper asking us to write our names we noticed the usual suspects; Asmel Epoo, Peter Pants, Sue Permann and a certain Dr I. Jones.....mmmmmmmmm, guess it helped pass the time!
As the bus crossed the Utcubamba river we saw the hilltop which is home to Kuelap. An impressive 'castle like' structure 600M in length and over 20M in height, Kuelap is a collosal construction even by today's standards and would have been a formidable fortress in itīs day. It has been calculated that 40 Million cubic feet of building material was used to create the fortress, three times more than the volume required for the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Occupied by the Chachapoyas from AD 600 until Inca conquest in the 15th century, the citadel was the most impenetrable of all Peruvian fortresses. It has an outer and inner wall with long narrow high walled entrances on an incline, meaning enemies could only attack in single file and would have been easily overpowered. As we spent the best part of three hours walking through the site, it didnīt take much imagination to picture what it would have been like to live inside the fortress. The area is surrounded by huge trees covered with bromeliads and orchids that add to the grandeur of the place. Although the site is overgrown with trees and subtropical vegetation we could still make out the various watch towers, homes and walkways acting as capillaries in this huge structure. Inside each of the homes we found two pits, one was for storing grains and other food substances, whilst the other, located about a metre away from the food store was for storing the mummified remains of the inhabitants' ancestors! Deceased ancestors were venerated and kept inside the house to safe guard against evil spirits. This is great in theory, but weīd hate to think how many times someone woke up in the middle of the night a little peckish and opened the wrong storage pit......ooops sorry Great Great Grandma!

Next stop : Zombie Armageddon, The Lost City of the Dead, Pueblos los Muertos & Karajia
A characteristic of the Chachapoyas region are the sarcofagi, elaborately moulded earthenware coffins found stashed on inaccessible overhangs and horizontal crevaces along sheer cliff faces. A good example of this is the site of Karajia where 5 sarcofagi have been placed on an inaccessable ledge close to a waterfall. The sarcofagi are 2M in height and have skulls placed next to them. The skulls are apparently the enemies of the Chachapoya people, defeated in battle. We also visited Pueblos De Los Muertos (The City of the Dead), which has a number of sarcofagi placed on a natural fault in the rock face facing out over a valley for the past millenium. To get to the city, we were taken to the top of a mountain overlooking a valley, we then had to walk down one side of the mountain for 30 minutes before the track seemingly came to an end and we got our first glimpse of the sarcofagi. From afar they looked like pins in a ten pin bowling alley. Besides the sarcofagi were the ruins of rounded buildings moulded into the the vertical rock face that served as tombs for the Chachapoya. Amazingly, the guide started walking towards the tombs - the track had now disappeared and we were walking over shrubs and bushes until we got to the first tomb. Each tomb housed around 10 sarcofagi in its day. The sacrofagi held the remains of a prominent family, with the elders placed in the middle of the tomb and their family placed around them facing towards the centre. The tombs have been pillaged over the centuries, so today only the bones of the Chachapoya remain. We had thought this was the end of the road, we had got to the first tomb and were happy taking in the inspiring view of the valley in front of us, when the guide got up and carried on edging over a 30cm wide ledge with a 50M sheer drop down the valley on one side. Each tomb has been built on a man made ledge hanging precariously over a precipice. As we edged on from tomb to tomb along the ever narrowing ledge there were a couple of occasions we thought about heading back. Thankfully our intrepid guide kept us focused and we ended up metres from the sarcofagi. From here, we could see that each one was moulded into an elongated egg shape from a mixture of mud and vegetable fibres. Looking back over the territory we'd just crossed it seemed impossible that anyone could have built and carried these 2M high sarcofagi to this serene location, passing one at a time over a 30cm man made ledge. This remote spot would be the perfect place to sit out a zombie apocalypse, zombies approaching on the thin ledge could easily be swatted down the valley like flies!!!
Later on the same day we travelled by taxi to Valle de Belen, a beautiful light green valley with a meandering river. The scene looked like something taken from a children's fairytale. Cows and horses roaming the valley, lush green grassy plain and best of all, no cars, buildings or other people in sight! Valle de Belen is the starting point for the trek into Gran Vilaya, otherwise known as the "Lost City of the Andes" - we hope to return to venture into this city of cloud forest and pre-inca sites in the future....

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