Land of the Cloud People

14 Jun

Standing over the valley which the ancient fortress of Kuelap overlooks

This past weekend I traveled to Chachapoyas, a town in northern Perú which shares its name with the province which it lies in.  Although the area is relatively undeveloped and lacking in infrastructure, it features a wealth of stunning natural beauty and some impressive archaeological sites — a supremely underrated tourist destination.  The drive up from San Martin was 5 hours in a combi (shared van) from Moyobamba, itself 2 hours from Tarapoto.  Far from being taxed, though, I was enthralled by the beautiful scenery, especially the ethereal “cloud forests” we drove through on the route: lush valleys and seemingly enchanted mountains where the treetops — and at times, the highway — disappeared into the fog. Chachapoyas sits at over 7,500 feet over sea level, and the night’s chill which greeted my arrival was a firm reminder that I wasn’t in my hot-and-humid jungle anymore.

My fellow Technoserve consultant Rachelle and I had come up here to see Kuelap, the so-called “Machu Picchu of the north”. But first on the agenda, thanks to fortuitous timing, was attending the massive Raymi Llacta street festival. All day Saturday and for much of the night, Chachapoyas was the scene of a colorful, vibrant party. Thousands of people from dozens of nearby little towns participated in a snaking, hours-long parade; many wore traditional garb, danced, and sang; they celebrated native culture, agriculture, and pop culture; and at night, bonfires burned on the four corners of the town’s main square while loud music boomed out.

After all this, the friends of my Peruvian co-worker whom she had introduced us to somehow still had the energy to go out to the discoteca until 5 or 6 in the morning. As it were, on both Fri. and Sat. nights Rachelle and I only managed to grab a few hours of sleep before being roused by an incessantly crowing rooster.  (Contrary to what cartoons taught me as a child — that roosters crow once at dawn — I have learned from my time in Tarapoto that they start at 4 or 5 in the morning and proceed to screech all day long, in love with the sound of their own voices, like some kind of fowl Christina Aguilera.)

The Secret Waterfall

In the afternoon, looking to escape the madcap festivities, we decided to get out of town for a little while. We had heard a lot about Gocta, a huge waterfall that supposedly ranks as the world’s third tallest, and which was only “discovered” by the outside world in 2005. While we wouldn’t have enough time this day to hike to the waterfall itself, it was possible to take a taxi to a village a couple hours outside of Chachapoyas from where he could catch a glimpse of the falls.

The drive leaving Chachapoyas is beautiful. Much like in many other parts of Perú, including where I live, narrow highways wind sinuously over and around mountains, with hairpin turns and jaw-dropping views of valleys and rivers. One different aspect here was that eucalyptus forests and clusters of cacti dotted the landscape. Additionally, as we passed through stretches of highway in which the mountain’s rock walls hung directly over us, Rachelle commented on how much it reminded her of Petra.

View of Gocta’s upper part from Cocachimba

The view of Gocta from the flyspeck village of Cocachimba is revealing for a few reasons. One, given that the village has a direct view of the falls, it’s a little ridiculous that this waterfall was only “discovered” by a German-Peruvian expedition less than a decade ago, while the locals here have obviously known of the place for centuries. Two, while it’s hard to get an idea of the size of the falls from this distance, when i was told that we were still a 2+ hour hike from the halls, I got a good idea that these falls are rather large. (Even if, contrary to how the falls are being promoted, they aren’t the third-tallest in the world, they are in the ballpark.) More Gocta photos via Google Image search here.

Lonely, Majestic Kuelap

The jungle grows wild over the ruins at Kuelap

On Sunday, Rachelle and I rose early and hired a driver to take us on the ~2-hour drive out to Kuelap, an imposing ancient pre-Incan mountain fortress which sits high up at nearly 10,000 feet (3,000m) above sea level.  It was built over a millennium ago by the Chachapoya (“Cloud People” or “Warriors of the Clouds”), a name given by the Incas to a civilization they conquered and about whom little is now known.  While Kuelap is inevitably compared to another stone citadel that is much more well known — Machu Picchu — our visit here elucidated one critical difference between the two: from 10am when we arrived and through the duration of the 3.5 hours we spent exploring, we were two of only four visitors at the site, not counting a pack of roaming llamas.  It was as if we had our own private fortress to play around in!

Llamas at Kuelap

Kuelap, while smaller and less dramatic than Machu Picchu, remains lesser known primarily for lack of easy access — no easy train ride in from a city with a major airport, nor well-developed hiking and camping trails, two advatnages the latter enjoys.  Our driver told me that there has been talk for years about constructing a cable car system to connect Kuelap with the other side of the valley to at least facilitate the arrival of more tourists quickly from close to Chachapoyas.  For now, that idea remains a pipe dream, though I am very curious to see what this site is like in 20 years, when thanks to further economic development and investment in infrastructure I am sure it will be a popular site for Peruvian and foreign tourists alike.

At the moment though, the site’s low-key presence means it is possible to have a very solitary visit, and to experience a less-sanitized version of Machu Picchu — no concrete sidewalks and smooth staircase, no well-manicured lawns and plants. On the contrary, the jungle grows wild at Kuelap, and orchids and bromelias flourish. Looking out at the expansive panorama, one takes in a view that likely isn’t very much different from the one the original inhabitants of Kuelap enjoyed.

Hopscotching Home

Underscoring the challenges of getting to and from the site, the journey back home to Tarapoto took twelve hours from Kuelap. Lacking any direct routes, we had to hopscotch our way across various little towns and villages to get home, begging and bribing various drivers to ferry us between waypoints connected by a mix of paved and dirt roads whose beautiful scenery gave way to pitch-black darkness after sunset.

In Pedro Ruiz we were told there would be an hours-long wait for a bus to arrive from Lima, before we heard about a shared van headed out of town.  In Nueva Cajamarca an unscrupulous driver advised us against catching a waiting bus to Tarapoto only to leave us stranded in the dark at a closed shared taxi stand; after waiting/seething for some 90 minutes, a group of similarly-stranded Peruvian passengers and us had to convince a passing driver to take us out of town in his van.  I somehow became the group’s spokesperson, negotiating with the guy for a half hour, resorting to showing him on my cell phone’s calculator how much money he would earn (because he didn’t trust my fancy mental math). To seal the deal, I had to load several boxes of cargo to the roof for him.  Finally reaching Moyobamba around 11pm, we expected to spend the night there.  As we hungrily gorged on pollo a la brasa at a late-night chicken joint next to the taxi stand, though, a few other passengers arrived to head to Tarapoto, and so we piled into yet another cramped taxi — Rachelle and I jammed into the front seat — for the ride home.

It was 1:30am when we finally got back, exhausted but elated. Truthfully, the journey back didn’t seem all that long, thanks to good conversation and the fabulous scenery.  But I’m glad we got back when we did — when we reached, I was down to my final 90 cents, and Rachelle didn’t have much more pocket money on her either!  We cut it as close as anyone could have.


2 Responses to “Land of the Cloud People”

  1. Nj June 14, 2012 at 11:53 am #

    The idea of an unknown machu picchu makes my skin tingle. What an interesting place.
    Still, I think part of the value of machu picchu is that it is so well known.

  2. Andrew T June 15, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

    Damn, that must’ve been eerie but awesome. The two of you alone in the ruins with two frenchmen…the horror! Or, the sexy?

    Awesome pictures. And way to be a leader 🙂

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