Chachapoyas is a city situated in the northern Peruvian province of Amazonas. Chachapoyas is also the name given to an indigenous civilization that has thrived in the area for hundreds of years before being conquered and destroyed by both the Incas and the Spanish conquistadores. Although no mention is ever made about how the people of this civilization referred to themselves, they were referred to by the Incas as ‘the people from the clouds’.
Warriors from the clouds
There is not much known about the Chachapoyan civilization apart from tainted sources such as the Spanish or the Incas. What we do know is that the Chachapoyas built their settlements in mountain walls and on steep hills covered with dense rainforest. The remote location of their cities plus natural obstacles as rivers, dense forestland and mountains kept the Chachapoyan civilization isolated and kept enemies away. One of the main Chachapoyas towns, named Kuélap had a length of 600 meters and contained dozens of circular-shaped houses. Below the floor of the houses, guinea pigs were held as livestock. Kuélap is completely surrounded by a massive stone wall giving the town the appearance of a European fortress. In some parts of the wall bones and skulls of ancestors have been buried. It is quite possible that they believed that by doing so the spirit of their ancestors would in return offer guidance and protection.
It is sad that most that is known about the Chachapoyas civilization is about their demise. Around 1475 the Chachapoyas were conquered by the Incas in an attempt to expand their empire. Beautiful Chachapoyas women were taken to Cuzco or Huaraz and due to many revolts to their oppressors many civilians were forcibly moved to other parts of the Inca kingdom to work. Thus splitting up the complete Chachapoyan society leaving the young and the elderly. When the Spanish arrived Chachapoyas leadership sided with them against the Incas. The Spanish betrayed the Chachapoyas though, stealing their land and valuables and obliging them to live in Spanish style towns. Diseases and hunger diminished the Chachapoyas population over the next 200 years.
Most of the houses, temples, artifacts and burial sites were abandoned and old tales about this great civilization were forgotten. Over the course of time all structures were overgrown with dense rainforest which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Many Peruvian people are poor and consider grave-robbing for ancient artifacts to sell an additional way to add to their income. Because of the remote location of Chachapoyas sites such as Kuélap, Revash and Laguna de las Momias were intact and a treasure for archeologists.
Visiting Chachapoyas and surroundings
Although Kuélap is often told to be the Machu Picchu of Northern Peru it is not nearly as famous. Nor does it attract the same quantity of tourists. There is a reason for that. Due to its remote location, high up in mountains, travelling to the city of Chachapoyas will take you a minimum of eleven hours by bus from either Chiclayo or Trujillo or seven hours from the higher up city of Cajamarca. At the time of my travel no flights were flying to Chachapoyas from any major airport in South-America even though the city does have a small airstrip. If you are fine with being slightly uncomfortable for a few hours this bus trip is definitely worth it. Chat up the locals, exchange some sandwiches and enjoy the scenery and the experience. The bus I took got stuck in the mud, due to heavy rainfall, and therefore we experienced a delay of five hours.
The city of Chachapoyas is relatively small and constructed in the traditional way many Hispanic cities have been built. The Plaza de las armas is the centre of the city, consisting of a central square surrounded by a few restaurants and two travel agencies offering tours to Kuélap, Revash or Laguna de las Momias. Sitting in the Plaza de las armas I was approached by a cute little boy offering me a flyer of one of the local travel agencies. After proudly handing me the piece of paper he turned around and ran back inside one of the travel agencies. And I followed later that day and booked two tours: one to Kuélap and one climbing a mountain to the Revash burial site, visiting the Leymebamba museum later on the day. After that it started raining, the whole city turned pitch-dark due to a power blackout and I returned to my hotel.
If your driver has to beep several time before every turn in the road, just to prevent a head-on collision if a car comes from the other side, you probably already realize that the road to Kuélap from the city of Chachapoyas is not for the faint-hearted. The view could not be more beautiful though. After about a one-and-a-half hour drive we reach Kuélap. Since the ancient fortress of Kuélap is built on a hillside we first have to climb up an improvised pathway. The pathway is surrounded by wild orchids and other flowers and slowly the outside walls of Kuélap surface. Except for a group of llamas we have the fortress all to ourselves, no other tourists coming here today.
Most of the stone circular constructions, once used as houses, have been overgrown by nature. The sheer size of the fortress makes you wonder what it used to look like a few hundred years ago. And even though I will never find that out. I do know that the view I was looking at is the same as the Chachapoyas must have looked at every day.
Revash is an old sacred burial site of the Chachapoyas high up in the mountains. To get there you have to climb up the mountain yourself. Up and down should take you about three hours if the weather is good. In this area it rains a lot turning the mountains muddy tracks into slippery slides. Do not underestimate the climb, bring good hiking shoes, raingear and a set of clean clothes to change into when you are off the mountain. Being a totally inexperienced mountain climber (plus nobody at the travel agency warned me!) I did none of these things. The climb up the mountain went fine in sneakers, however, as I was just admiring the statues of Revash rain started pouring out of the sky leaving me soaked. Turning the muddy path down the mountain into a slide. It created an extremely dangerous situation for not just me, it was even tough for the experienced mountain climbers on the tour. I made the descend off the mountain slipping through the mud and holding on to trees and bushes in order not to fall. Just like many travel adventures it made for a good story afterwards but I have to admit that while standing on top of the mountain looking down I felt pretty scared.
Chachapoyas and its surrounding area are one of Peru’s hidden gems. It is estimated that only about 10% of all ancient sites of the Chachapoyas civilization have been discovered. Nature is abundant in the area and the climate is moderate, making it a good destination for hiking and mountain climbing. Sitting in a bus for eleven hours to get to a location is not peanuts, however the discovery of Chachapoyas, its beautiful ancient cities, burial sites and nature makes it all worth it!