Kuelap = AWESOME!
Trip Start Apr 24, 2008
38Trip End May 29, 2008
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I was the only one at breakfast at 7:30 am. I ate, packed and paid at the front desk in a rush to be in time for my 8:30 tour departure. There was a young man behind the front desk who was most uncomfortable taking my money...he didnīt seem to believe that the rate was only 45 soles per night (that is a great rate for the hostal, thanks SAE!) and he didnīt have any change so I gave him all my small bills. The manager who had served me breakfast was apparantly out at the store but I assured him I couldnīt wait around for her to return.
I left and ran into the woman coming back from the store. I told her I paid the guy 45 soles and she asked for an additional 7 for breakfast...which of course makes sense. I only paid for 1 night but had 2 breakfasts! I gave her 7 soles in coins and then officially had NO small change at all. I crossed the plaza to the hostal where I had booked the tour and found Carlos waiting for me at the front door.
He had a worried look on his face and he asked me to take a seat on the couch in the lobby. I sat and waited...and waited...and waited. I couldnīt figure out what was going on, but clearly something was wrong! He disappeared and soon I saw him walking across the lobby talking on his cell phone. Then he walked past me a few times, smiled and said, "Un momento más, Kim..." I started to feel sure I was going to get a bait-n-switch, and I felt sure a refund would be out of the question. (I tried to get a small refund in Puno after my Lake Titicaca tour because I had forgotten to tell them Iīm a member of South American Explorers. They were like, "Are you kidding, lady? You gave us that money yesterday, itīs already deposited!") Anyway, Carlos finally came to explain that two other people, a couple, were booked for the Kuelap tour with me but they hadnīt shown up. Carlos went to their hotel and it turned out the woman was really sick to her stomach, so it would be just me today. At first I felt funny about this...just me and a guide and the driver? But it turned out to be fantastic!
My guide was Agusto, a young guy (early to mid-20s) originally from Trujillo. He is adorable and enthusiastic and speaks excellent English (and French, German, Italian and some Korean!). He guides people to Kuelap almost every day so he really knows his stuff. We got into a taxi and he immediately started telling me about the history of Chachapoyas (the town) and the Chachapoyas (the pre-Inca culture). We chatted the entire drive. He pointed out interesting plants on the side of the road, he explained why and how locals we passed were carrying their goods, and what type of farming was going on around us. He also gave me a wealth of information about the Chachapoyas culture. Honestly not a lot is known about them because they had no written language, and they were pretty much out of the picture when the Spanish arrived. But they were different in that they were NOT an empire (like the Incas). Rather, they were collection of independent cultures that lived in this area of northern Peru around 80-1500 AD. This is all cloud forest (high jungle) and the Incas actually found it difficult to conquer them. They were stubborn and caused the Incas quite a few headaches! Eventually they were conquered but not entirely subdued, and many of the Chachapoyas escaped to the low jungle to the east -- the Amazon basin. Unlike other cultures the Incas conquered, the Chachapoyas never learned Quechua and therefore the only language in this area of northern Peru is Spanish. That is very different than everywhere else Iīve been!
On our way to Kuelap, we stopped on the side of the road to see the ruins of Macro from a short distance. They are round houses that were built right into the mountainside by the Chachapoyas! Agusto explained that the Chachapoyas people always built things that fit into, and worked with, nature. Very different than our idea of construction, huh???
Our next stop was in the tiny village of Tingo, where I would be spending the night. Agusto jumped out of the taxi to find my hostal. He went to a few different places looking for one that had hot water. I stayed in the taxi and shared some Ritz crackers with the taxi driver. As I looked around from the back seat I thought "This is going to be interesting." It looked like a village with no more than a few dozen buildings. Agusto jumped back in the taxi and said Iīd be staying in a room at the Restaurant Bar Tingo because they had hot water. OK!
We got back on the road to Kuelap and then passed through another Tingo! This was New Tingo as opposed to Old Tingo, where Iīd be staying. Apparantly Old Tingo was completely covered in a mud slide about 19 years ago. The town was destroyed and many people died. Those that survived moved to higher ground and founded New Tingo. A few years later, some people moved back to Old Tingo and started the town back up again. As we passed through New Tingo I saw a beautiful little Plaza de Armas with palm trees and new buildings and I thought, "Gulp, canīt I stay here tonight?" But no such luck.
After about another hour of driving through the mountains on a narrow, dirt road only wide enough for 1 vehicle and with endless hairpin winding turns, Agusto pointed to a mountain in the distance and said, "There is Kuelap." I was dumbfounded...I saw, at the top of a gorgeous, lush mountain, a rocky summit with some vague structures perched on it. I had no idea Kuelap was perched on a mountainTOP! Soon we arrived at the tiny village of María. This is the community closest to Kuelap and we stopped here for a cup of coca tea. Agusto arranged for us to have lunch there after our visit to Kuelap, and we were off in the car again.
This time it was just about 20 minutes more and the driver stopped and parked the taxi in a small grassy clearing. There was only 1 other car there and I saw a sign indicating it was the start of a trail to Kuelap. I was astonished....this is it?! These ruins are supposed to be as big and magnificent as Machu Picchu, where is everyone? My friends, this is the beauty of Kuelap. Access to Machu Picchu requires an expensive tourist train and then regular bus service up to the ruins. Access to Kuelap means driving to this little grassy area and then hiking 1 mile up an ungroomed (but very doable) trail. Whereas Machu Picchu gets 3,000 tourists per day, Kuelap gets about 15 per day. Machu Picchu entry costs something like $50....Kuelap is $4. Machu Picchu has been groomed and prepared for tourists. Kuelap is still being excavated, still half covered by jungle, rough and still almost completely in the state it was found in by archaeologists. Incredible! In fact, the Discovery Channel was there a few weeks ago to tape a program. If you are interested in seeing, check their web site in the future!
Agusto and I hiked the 1 mile to the outer fortress wall. It is MASSIVE! One can see how this fortress would be nearly impenetrable. We then walked along the length of the fortress to the ticket office, paid and kept walking to one of the entrances. From this perspective I could see that the long wall is not straight, but curvy all down the length of it. This is because the Chachapoyas revered snakes (sorry, Mom!) and they constructed their buildings and edifices to reflect snakes. We stepped into a little building to view a small scale model of Kuelap. This was really helpful, as the site itself is so large you need the "big picture" before tackling it! I could see that the entire fortress actually consisted of 3 levels, the uppermost level being reserved for the highest of the society...the best warriors or nobility or shaman. I could also see that the fortress only has 3 entrances. Agusto explained that one entrance was strictly for nobility, and it had the smoothest, most polished stones. Another was a service entrance, strictly for llamas and food. The third was an emergency exit in case of attack by enemies!
We entered through the service entrance, as nowadays the main entrance is used as an exit. The service entrance was incredible. Itīs a steep climb up through a very narrow opening that only gets narrower the further you progress. When we were actually in the fortress, Agusto explained that this was a defensive tactic. As the entrance gets narrower, attackers would be forced to come in one-by-one...itīs too narrow even for 2 men across. In addition, when they arrived at the top of the entrance and charged forward into thick vegetation, they would soon find themselves toppling over a steep cliff to their deaths hundreds of feet below...all camouflaged until it was too late.
This and other clues make it clear that Kuelap was a military fortress, not a religious or administrative center. Warriors lived here with their families.
Agusto and I walked slowly through the 3 different levels of Kuelap and I was in awe of all of it! There remain the ruins of several hundred houses, always circular in shape (hello, snake shapes!) and about 10 feet across in size. An entire family of 6-7 would live in each house. There are 3 different kinds of house exteriors: plain, with no decoration; those with zigzag decoration (a very common decoration in Chachapoyas structures and artifacts); and those with rhomboid that signify the eyes of condors, pumas or jaguars. Those with higher stature in the society would have lived in those houses. Each house has a small hole in the center of the dirt floor. These holes were used to store food and water, and after a resident of the household died it was used to store their mummy! Yes, Iīm serious!
The Chachapoyas were big on mummifying their dead, and they removed all internal organs through the bodyīs rear end...leaving only the heart and brain. They didnīt believe in heaven or hell...they believed in the sky, earth and underground. Essentially they believed that people didnīt really die in death. Their spirit stays around us forever.
As we made our way through the ruins, Agusto showed me several buildings that served as mausoleums. He removed a rock in one of the walls and showed me a pile of bones inside! I told him, "Come on, those were put there for tourists to see" and he strenuously denied it...he claims they are the bones the Chachapoyas left in the mausoleums and they havenīt been removed. I am seriously skeptical of this claim!
Towards the southern end of the fortress, Agusto showed me one bit of ruins that had a round AND a rectangular foundation, as well as a wall with 2 doors. This was very curious! Turns out the round foundation was from the Chachapoyas. The rectangular foundation was from a building the Incas imposed over it after they conquered the Chachapoyas. The last building, with 2 doors, was from the Spanish. Neither the Chachapoyas nor the Incas would ever build a structure with 2 entrances. Right next to this ruins was the highlight of the entire fortress -- el tintero or "the inkpot." This is a tall, stone tower that looks like an inverted inkwell. Archaeologists are still examining it (their scaffolding was all around when we were there), but they believe this was a temple of some sort. Agusto said that bones were found around it and some scholars believe that people were praying for healing while suffering from the smallpox that the Spanish brought to Peru and Kuelap.
As we slowly made our way down the 3 levels I marveled at how rugged the ruins still are. There are wild orchids of all colors growing everywhere, and tropical trees dripping with moss. The downside of all this beautiful, natural foliage is that many tree roots have seriously damaged the ruins of the house foundations. But I still prefer seeing ruins in their natural state like this! It is fascinating and I feel like I got to see something before it was discovered by the rest of the world. We saw at most 12 other tourists during our visit. I have no doubt that as the roads in northern Peru improve and this area becomes more accessible, it will eventually turn into a Machu Picchu with hordes of photo-snapping tourists crawling all over it. Iīm glad I got here before all of that! I loved Machu Picchu too -- they are just completely different and Iīm lucky I got to see both.
Eventually we made our way to the exit (what used to be the main entrance). This, and the service entrance, are both incredibly dramatic. Like I said above, the service entrance is narrow and a steep, rocky climb. The walls of the fortress tower over you as you walk through it. The main entrance is the same and even more dramatic. The stones of the walls are smoother and polished, and several of them have images of snakes etched into them. Also, the main entrance doesnīt have the consistent grade. Rather, it has 6 very steep (each at least 5 feet tall) steps. This was also for defensive purposes. The Chachapoyas themselves would use hanging ladders to climb each step and enter the fortress. If enemies arrived, theyīd pull the ladders up and make life very hard for their attackers!
Iīm sure thereīs more I could say about incredible Kuelap fortress, but you get the idea. Here is a link to one site about it, which is in Spanish but it gives you 2 decent pictures. You can see how the outside fortress wall was curved to resemble a snake (and fit in with the local landscape). The second picture is a good one of house foundations.
Well, after a few hours of my tour through Kuelap, Agusto and I headed back down the path to the taxi. We chatted the entire way about languages. I answered a few questions he had about English, and he answered a few questions I have about Spanish. We climbed into the taxi and a quick 15 minutes later we were back in María for our lunch! I was starving, as it was after 3pm. We had a delicious lunch of soup and lomo saltado with rice. We gobbled it up, chattted some more about the Chachapoyas while eating, and then climbed back into the taxi to head to Tingo. I was covered from head to foot from the dust bellowing through our open windows, but I was happy with the wonderful day Iīd had!
About an hour later we were in Tingo and things went south. OK, it wasnīt really that bad! Agusto showed me to my bare-bones room behind the restaurant. He had already told me it would be "so-so" compared to the hostals in Chachapoyas, and I wasnīt expecting much because I knew it would be very basic in such a small village. My room was 4 concrete walls with a bed and a table. The walls were dirty but the floor was pretty clean, and I had a private bathroom. The owner showed us how to put on the hot water for a shower and I noticed there was no light in the bathroom at all! No problem, I would use my headlamp. Carlos had told Agusto that hot water was the most important thing for my hostal that night, so I knew at least Iīd get a warm shower to wash off all the dust. The room was one of a few around a concrete courtyard behind the restaurant, and it was full of kids riding their bikes and screaming. Plus there were workmen hammering and sawing as they finished off new rooms above mine (hence lots of stomping noises). It wasnīt even 5pm yet so I decided to go for a walk -- what else was I going to do, stare at dirty concrete walls and listen to noise for the next several hours?
The owner told me to walk up to the left and it was perfectly safe. I walked through "town" (which literally took 30 seconds, passing about 5 buildings) and crossed a little bridge over the rushing Río Utcubamba and strolled up some dirt roads in the countryside. A few little kids ran out onto the roof of their shack and screamed at me, "Gringa! Gringa!" Ha! I turned left again and climbed a small incline until I had a bit of a view over the tiny village of Old Tingo. I thought to myself, "This is a very depressing place, WHY did Agusto leave me here?!?!" I hung out there as late as I could without walking back in the dark, mostly just to pass time. Then I returned the way Iīd come, said hello to people as I passed them, and then walked past the hostal and further in the other direction. I turned left and strolled down another country road that looked prettier than the one Iīd just climbed. There was really nowhere to go...this town has no Plaza, no stores, nothing! I wasnīt even able to get a bottle of water for the night. But I walked slowly and saw something painted on the side of a building...something to the effect of "In Tingo we are working together to overcome analfabetismo." I had no idea what that last word meant, although itīs pretty easy to figure out if you look at the root of it! Just then 2 older gentlemen were half limping up the road and I decided I was determined to make the best of my evening in Tingo! So I gave them a big smile, introduced myself and asked them what analfabetismo means. To be honest I have no idea if they answered my question. They were impossible to understand, partially because of their Spanish and partially because they were slurring. But they were thrilled to meet me, shook my hand and hugged me, and asked me where I was from and where Iīm going. Then they told me (I think?) about the mud slide and when everyone had to move up to New Tingo.
Pretty soon a younger woman (maybe 40s) came along with a huge bunch of plants strapped to her back. The older gentleman went on their way and I started chatting with her. She explained that analfabetismo means illiteracy (duh) and that many people in the area havenīt had a single day of schooling, so they canīt read or write. Then she asked me all the same questions as the men, we chatted and said goodbye. I headed back to the hostal feeling much better about Tingo.
In my room I started writing some notes about my day and pretty soon the owner came to my door asking when I would want dinner. I told him Iīd be around to the restaurant in about 10 minutes and Iīd have the trout. I also noticed that his arm was in a sling (and when I say sling I mean a piece of rope tied around his neck which was lamely supporting his left wrist). I asked him if his arm was broken. He said yes, but he motioned like he broke his collarbone. I asked him if it hurts much and he said yes...heīd had surgery on it. He looked like he was in so much pain, he wasnīt even moving his head or neck at all.
I went to the restaurant and shortly thereafter they brought me a plate of fried trout -- I mean, they fried a trout and put it on a plate, head and eyes and tail and fins and all! Peter and I had a meal like that in Ecuador and I remember our guide was apalled that we didnīt eat EVERYTHING. So I did my best to eat as much as I could. I I didnīt have eyes or head, but what I did scrape out of the middle was delicious! A bunch of teenage (and younger) boys were at a table alternately watching soccer and looking at me and giggling. Then the placeīs cat walked by with a gray tail sticking out of itīs mouth. The ownerīs daughters were at the next table trying to figure out their math homework. I felt happy. :-)
I lingered over my hot tea after eating and pretty soon a group of 3 tourists walked in with big backpacks looking for a place to stay. I was astonished! Two of them were German and one Peruvian. They planned to hike to Kuelap the next day. The owners started getting another room ready (without a bathroom, I lucked out) and they disappeared to get settled. I was left almost alone in the restaurant and I watched the cat jump up on the boysī table and start drinking from a leftover cup of tea. A few minutes later the ownerīs wife came in and I asked her if her husband had any pain pills. I think she said he was going to get them soon? Iīm not sure. I offered her some of mine and she gratefully agreed. I went back to my room and got 10 Extra Strength Excedrin, dropped them in her hand and bid her a good night!
It was about 8:30 pm and I thought maybe I should enjoy my hot shower at night rather than in the morning...after all, I was covered in dust and it would be nice to go to bed clean. I followed the instructions for turning on the electric heater and I turned on the shower. It was barely more than a trickle, and cold. I waited...cold. I waited...cold. I thought, "OK, I know a lot of very basic hostals have hot water only in the morning so Iīll shower then." I washed my face (and feet!) in the cold-water sink and went to bed. I was expecting Agusto or maybe another guide to come fetch me at 8am the next morning. Although my room was nothing pretty to look at, the bed was comfortable and sheets clean. The best part, though, was that I fell alseep to the very loud sound of the river rushing almost right outside my door. People pay big money to fall asleep to that sound!