1. Chiclayo to Chachapoyas: Across the Andes to the
We drive northward from Chiclayo across Peru's coastal
plains, following the Pan-American Highway, then turn
east onto the Trans-Andean route, ascending gently
through regions of dry forest interspersed with
irrigated farmland. Our road loops towards the lowest
pass of the Peruvian Andes, at 2,135m/7,000 ft, where we
cross the continental divide and enter the Upper Amazon
basin. Following the valley of the Huancabamba/Chamaya
river system we pass broad ribbons of bright green rice
terracing, forming a striking contrast with the cactus
and dense thorn-scrub vegetation of the mountainsides.
Lower downstream we pass the massive dam and intake of
the Olmos irrigation project, ultimately destined to
divert much of this water through a 23Km/14.2 mile long
tunnel to the Pacific slope of the Andes.
We reach the bridge over the Marañon, one of the great
tributaries of the Upper Amazon, which was formerly
believed to be the source of that mighty river. Here we
enter the Peruvian department of Amazonas, former home
of a mysterious and powerful civilization, the
Chachapoyas, whose remnants we will explore during this
We follow the Utcubamba river, the main artery of the
Chachapoyan heartland, first ascending a dramatic canyon
then winding up the mountainous valley which leads us to
El Chillo, the charming hillside garden hotel which will
be our home for the next three nights.
Day 2. Chachapoyas: Journey to the Cliff Tombs of
Revash and on to Leimebamba.
We follow the Utcubamba valley upstream, spotting herons
and perhaps an Andean torrent duck in the river as we
slowly ascend the valley. At the village of Santo Tomás
we turn off the main highway, crossing the river and
ascending a side valley where vivid scarlet poinsettias
the size of trees overhang the walls of typical
Chachapoyan farms, with verandas surrounded by wooden
columns, and topped with tile roofs. Soon we meet our
wranglers and the calm, sure-footed horses that will
carry us up the trail to Revash.
Throughout this journey we gaze up at huge cliffs that
loom ever closer. These limestone formations, laid down
in even layers over geological aeons, tend to break away
in neat collapses, often leaving extensive overhangs and
protected ledges beneath them. In such places the
ancient Chachapoya built the tombs where they buried
their noble dead.
A gigantic fold in the cliffs, testifying to millennia
of unimaginable tectonic forces, lies ahead of us, and
at the top of the fold one such cave houses a group of
tombs, ruined structures still bearing their original
coat of red and white pigment. But they are far off, and
this is not yet Revash. Another hour brings us to a
viewpoint much closer to the cliffs, and here we see two
adjacent sets of caves, featuring cottage-sized
structures covered in still-bright mineral-oxide
paintwork. Some of them look like cottages, with gabled
roofs, others like flat-topped apartments. They are
adorned with red-on-white figures and geometrical
symbols -- a feline, llamas, circles, ovals -- and bas-relief
crosses and T-shapes, which perhaps once told the rank
and lineage of the tombs' occupants. They are silent,
empty, their contents long ago looted, their facades
still trying to tell us a story whose meaning was lost
Retracing our steps we continue our road journey to
Leimebamba, which we reach mid-afternoon. This
settlement was established by the Incas during their
conquest of the region, and continued as a colonial town
under the Spanish. It retains much of this antique charm
in its balconied houses with narrow streets where more
horses than cars are parked. We go a little further up
the highway and pull in to the spacious garden
environment of the Leimebamba Museum, where we visit a
delightful collection of extraordinary artifacts
recovered from another group of cliff tombs discovered
as recently as 1997 at the remote Laguna de los Condores,
high in the mountains east of the town.
The exhibits, cheerfully displayed in well-lit rooms,
offer a sample from the mass of artifacts recovered from
this amazing discovery. In 1997 a group of undiscovered
cliff tombs -- similar in style to those of Revash --
was spotted above the remote Laguna de los Condores by
local farmhands. Although they looted and damaged the
site, a mass of priceless objects and a trove of vital
information was rescued. We see gourds carved with
animal and geometrical symbols, an array of colorful
textiles, ceramics, carved wooden beakers and portrait
heads, and a selection of the dozens of quipus (Inca
knotted-string recording devices) recovered from the
site. A big picture window offers a view of the
temperature- and humidity-controlled temporary "mausoleum"
where more than two hundred salvaged mummies are kept.
Archaeologists are still uncertain as to how most of
this material came to be so startlingly well-preserved,
in tombs that during the rainy season were actually
behind a waterfall! But perhaps the most striking thing
about the tombs is that they contain burials from all
three periods of local history: the Chachapoya cultural
heyday, the post-Inca invasion period, and the post-Spanish
conquest. Archaeologists are continuing to study the
material, seeking to learn more about the Chachapoya and
their relationship with their Inca masters. The quipu
finds have been especially valuable to scholars seeking
to decode the Inca record keeping system.
After our museum tour we can visit the Kenticafé across
the street, for a cup of the best coffee in Chachapoyas,
where we may see dozens of the region's exotic
hummingbirds flitting among the strategically placed
feeders, perhaps including the dazzling and highly
endangered Marvellous Spatuletail.
We return to El Chillo for dinner and overnight.
Day 3. Chachapoyas: Kuelap, the great walled city of
We spend a full day visiting this huge and mysterious
site, beginning with a drive through places whose names
-- Choctamal, Longuita, and Kuelap itself -- evoke a
lost language and a vanished ancient people who spoke it,
the Chachapoyans. We don't know what they called
themselves, but the Incas who finally conquered these
fierce warriors knew them by their Quechua soubriquet,
Chachaphuyu -- Cloud People -- after the cloud-draped
region where they lived.
Kuelap's existence was first reported in 1843. For years
it was believed to have been a Chachapoyan fortress, and
when we first catch sight of it from the fossil-encrusted
limestone footpath that leads there it is hard to
believe it was not. The massive walls soar to a height
of 19m/62ft and its few entranceways are narrow and
tapering, ideal for defense. Yet the archaeological
evidence now suggests that this was principally a
religious and ceremonial site.
Chachapoyas was not a nation, or an empire, but some
sort of federation of small states centered on numerous
settlements scattered across their mountainous territory.
The earliest settlement dates obtained here suggest that
its construction began around 500A.D. and, like the
Moche coastal pyramids, it was built in stages as a
series of platforms, one atop the other.
It is now a single enormous platform nearly 600m/2,000ft
long, stretched along a soaring ridgetop. Seen from
below, its vast, blank walls give no hint of the
complexity and extent of the buildings above. When we
reach its summit we find a maze of structures in a
variety of styles and sizes, some of them faced with
rhomboid friezes, some ruined and some well preserved.
Here we can try to imagine the lives of the Chachapoyan
elite and their servants who lived here, enjoying a
breathtaking view of forested Andean mountains and
So distant and neglected was this region until recently
that little archaeological research has been done at
this important site, and our knowledge of it remains
vague. An adjacent site named La Mallca, larger though
less dramatic thanKuelap, has not been studied at all.
Even today, Kuelap's remoteness ensures that only a
handful of other visitors are there to share it with us.
We drive to Chachapoyas city for dinner and overnight at
Casa Vieja Hotel.
Day 4. Chachapoyas: Spectacular hikes to either Gocta
Falls, or the Cliff tombs of Karajía
Here we have the option to choose between two very
different and spectacular hikes:
Gocta. We drive to the city of Chachapoyas and on to the
village of Cocachimba, the trailhead for this lovely
walk through forest and farmland to the foot of the
world's third highest waterfall. Amazingly, the
existence of these falls was not known to the world
until they were spotted by a German explorer in 2006!
Local people lived in fear of them and stayed away,
owing to their ancient legend of a dangerous enchantress,
the siren who lived in the falls. Our walk takes
approximately three hours each way, and along the route
we have a good chance of spotting the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock,
Peru's national bird. The male of this large,
brilliantly colored red-and-black member of the cotinga
family sports a huge crest that completely envelops its
beak. When the males gather they hop from branch to
branch through the trees, insulting each other with loud
squawks and screeches in an attempt to attract females.
We hear the thunder of Gocta before we see the falls, a
huge two-stage torrent of water falling from the
towering limestone cliffs characteristic of the entire
region. When we are close they are so high that the rim
of the falls, 771m/2,528ft above us, seems to be lost in
the sky. We can spend some time here enjoying the
refreshing mist of the falls and enjoying the
surrounding forest, viewing hummingbirds, toucanets, and,
with luck, a troupe or two of capuchin or woolly monkeys.
During the dry season when the volume of water is not
too ferocious, those willing to face the chilly waters (and
perhaps the siren!) can bathe in the pool beneath the
falls. We hike back to Cocachimba and return to
Chachapoyas in time for dinner.
Karajía. We drive half and hour from Chachapoyas to the
village of Caclic, and then take a side road for about 1
½ hours, before beginning a descent of 300m/1000ft, to
the clifftop at Cruz Pata, then take a level path which
we follow for a short way to the foot of even higher
cliffs. Here we can look across a vertical cliff face to
a completely inaccessible cave where the ancient
Chachapoyans somehow installed nine tall clay figures,
up to some 3m high, inside which the bodies of
chieftains and perhaps their families were interred. One
of the figures has been destroyed by falling rocks, and
one damaged. The others are intact. The heads have
angular, stylized faces, made of clay, while the bodies
of the figures were made on site of wattle and clay,
which was then covered in brightly painted designs. On
top of the heads sit skulls, but whose skulls they were
we cannot even guess at, because these figures have been
left undisturbed, not studied by archaeologists, and
thankfully not destroyed by looters. How the ancient
Chachapoyans reached this place to create this burial
site for their elites is still a mystery.
We return to the city of Chachapoyas in the afternoon.
Day 5. Chachapoyas to Chiclayo: Back across the
After an early breakfast we return to Chiclayo by road.
We will make a pleasant stop at a suitable spot along
the way to eat our box lunch. We arrive in Chiclayo in
the late afternoon and transfer to a selected hotel.
END OF THE SERVICES