The kingdom of Chachapoya, also known as the “People of the Clouds” covers a vast territory of the Northeastern Andean Amazonas province of Peru. The region has dozens of important archaeological sites, museums, waterfalls, and caves to explore and learn about the lost civilization.
Our first encounter with the “Chacha” culture was at the Sarcrófagos de Carajía.
Set against the cliff side, mysterious mummies perched high above the ravine, look down from an impossible location. The Sarcophagi appear small in size, what seems like statues are pre-Inca burial capsules approximately eight feet tall (2.5 meters) made of grass and clay.
Originally there were eight, now six. The figures are well-preserved considering how they’ve survived time and the elements. Today, their biggest enemies are the grave raiders.It’s time to leave and head back to the city of Chachapoyas. We walk back out of the valley at a quick pace to avoid the storm rolling in. A sheep looks up at the sound of our approach, then returns to grazing. We continue, full of questions.
“Who’s buried there, I wonder?”
“And how did they get those figures up that cliff?”
You will find the highlight of Chachapoya culture at the pre-Inca archaeological complex of Kuélap.
To get there, many tourists take an organised tour from Chachapoyas and back; a three-hour drive along rough, unpaved, curving, and dangerous roads that meander up into the Andean mountains. But since we were heading south anyways, we elected to take a colectivo, a shared taxi used as public transport, and find accommodations closer to the ruins — the small village of Tingo as our destination.
Small mistake, believe us when we say there is nothing in Tingo; one hostel, a police commissary, a roadside restaurant, and a few mud abodes. We learned that back in 1993, the village was moved to higher grounds after the nearby Rio Utcubamba flooded.
With only Hospedaje Leon as an accommodation choice, we decided to trek up towards the new town, Nuevo Tingo, to look for an alternative place to spend the night.
As we walked up, we were delighted when Janice flagged this red waggon passing by. She used her negotiating skills to spare us a sweaty hike under the noonday heat. We threw our packs on top of the wood bundles, squeezed in, and hitched a ride to the nuevo pueblo.
In Nuevo Tingo we found a better alternative, a clean hostel but without Wi-fi. What’s a few days without the internet? That evening while touring the small town, we bumped into friends we had met in Chachapoyas the day before who were staying with Roberto, a local from the village.
From Tingo, there are two options to get to Kuélap; hike four hours uphill, or take a one to two hour drive through mountainous dirt roads. As a group, we decided to tackle the big hill to Kuélap the next morning. The intent was to get up early and be on the road by 6:30, allowing time to get there before the afternoon sun became unbearable. However, it wasn’t mean to be. A rainstorm changed our plans and instead Roberto arranged a minivan for us.
Kuélap, the mountaintop fortress was settled by the Chachapoya culture from AD 500 to 1570, and it is believed to have housed three thousand people, including the elite who lived in harmony with the sacred environment.
Passing massive stone walls, we enter the upper complex of the walled city through a narrow inward passageway, designed to let only one person through at a time.
Inside the site, the Chachapoyas built circular houses, in tune with nature. Today, over 400 foundations remain of the buildings.
On the grounds, the Main Temple is a unique circular building, in the form of an inverted truncated cone with an ossuary located in the centre of the platform. Evidence suggests Kuélap Priests performed rituals and ceremonies around the cavity, filling the hole with human and animal bones.
Peru’s Kuélap, the “Machu Picchu of the North” is 700 years older than the famous Inca site. It is not as well-known, however still well worth spending an afternoon exploring the exceptional and unique settlement.
The next day, before leaving Nuevo Tingo we did a short trek to see Macro, another Chachapoya ruin. With Roberto as our guide, we followed a dry and dusty trail with flowering cactuses, and trees covered in blooming bromeliads.
Macro’s stone walls are similar to the ones in Kuélap, but of smaller dimensions and covered in overgrown vegetation.
But the day’s highlight was crossing the river, to and from Macro in this pulley basket,
and the hospitality of this lady who took a break from preparing her meal to serve us limones dulces, sweet lemons with the aroma and taste of an orange.