This story is a nice little preview of the book “From The Grand Canyon To The Great Wall: Travelers’ Best, Worst And Most Ridiculous Stories From The Road” – complete with 66 other stories from 53 author authors, it is available today in both physical book and just about all ebook formats at www.SlenkDeeLLC.com/Grand2Great.php.
Chachapoyas, Peru, is both a region and its capital city in the northern Andes of Peru. The region is covered with pre-Incan and Incan archaeological sites, beautiful hikes, cliffs, waterfalls, canyons, and rivers, and is not in any way well-developed for tourism – small towns dot the region´s landscape as you travel for hours on small dirt roads etched into the mountain sides. The city itself boasts friendly people (about 20,000 of them) and small town hospitality, a setting in beautiful countryside, and a proximity to some of the most incredible history I’ve ever seen.
On my 4th day staying in the city, I traveled to and from Karijía, a 1,000-year-old historical site of the Chachapoyan people. The Chachapoya lived in the north of Peru, fought ferociously against their Inca conquerors 500 years ago, and had a deep respect for their elders and ancestors. The land is full of their burial sites, fortresses, and ruined cities. At Karijía, they placed the remains of fallen leaders in a cliff overlooking a main agricultural valley and constructed sarcophagi to represent them, standing guard over both the valley and the tomb entrance.
As always seems to happen on the road – especially in those areas not yet developed for interested foreigners – the journey may have been more interesting, and definitely more ridiculous, than the destination……
Wake up time in Chachapoyas (I snoozed my alarm twice. 5 o´clock comes early.) – time to go catch a colectivo taxi to Cheto, a small town close by, for a 2-hour hike to the ruins of Purunllacta. Yesterday I was told by the friendliest tourist office agent I´ve ever met that cars leave for Cheto from 2 blocks off of “Chacha”´s main square, every day around 6 AM (or when full).
Walking to that corner, I´m stopped by a guide, all decked out in his company´s yellow polo shirt and slacks, who decides that 5:40 AM is a perfectly acceptable time to pitch me a 2-day trip that´s about to leave. “The bus is right around the corner!” Uhhhh, no thanks, I´m going to stick with my original plan.
“Ahhhh, autos to Cheto don´t run from here, walk about 6 blocks east and ask.”
6 blocks later… “No, no autos to Cheto today until 2 PM. But tomorrow is Sunday, and there´s one that runs in the morning on Sundays. Be here at 5 AM.”
OK – change of plans. Back to the original street corner, 6 blocks back. From there I can catch a colectivo to the town of Luya, to get to Karijía. Today will still be productive.
Found the colectivo – I´m first in line! Which means I get to wait in the taxi for 3 other passengers to fill up the car before we can leave. After a 30 minute wait, the taxi is filled and we are on our way!
We´re in Luya! Halfway there. The next colectivo taxi, I´m told, will be from Luya to Cruzpata, the tiny town directly above the cliff-set Karijía.
But once again I´m the first person waiting at the taxi line. At least I can choose the front seat and its ample leg room and wait there until…
We´re off to Cruzpata! The other passengers jump off in other small towns along the dirt road, leaving just me and the driver as we drive the last few kilometers.
Finally in Cruzpata after a little over an hour of teeth-rattling, too-fast driving on a dirt road that has been gutted and pitted from decades of rainy-season downpours. The driver brings me right to the site´s ticket office – a small wooden desk struggling to stay upright on its 4 legs in the middle of a dark, barren one-room, one-story adobe building. The 13-year-old girl sitting outside the “office” trudges in to sell me my 5 soles ($1.80) entrance ticket.
The driver tells me he´ll wait for me outside the office, and I walk the 1 km path to the site, down a small dirt trail through some small family farms and eventually around a bit of a cliff hanging over an impressively bright green valley.
The only problem is, the trail has ended and I can´t see anything particularly noteworthy. Just a tiny waterfall and a small collection of old bones lain out on a rock to my left. Where are those incredible sarcophagi I´d been promised by both my guidebook and the tourist office? I look to my left – at the cliff-side. Nothing. Maybe they´re across the valley, and I have to look to my right… nope, definitely not over there. Where are they?!? I did NOT just go through all that pain-in-the-arse transportation and waiting to not see anything. WHERE THE &*#! ARE—Oh, just had to look up. There they were the whole time.
A set of 6 faces, atop 2 ½-meter-tall conical “chests” etched out of stone and set on a ledge about 10 meters above my head. About 1,000 years old, the figures are still spectacular today. The colors and patterns carved into the stone still pop against the bright sun, their motionless faces gleaming with intricate detail – sunken eye-sockets, jutting chins focused squarely on the valley that their cliff overlooks. Some human skulls even remain, placed directly on top of the stone figures, white as snow after weathering a thousand years of sun and rain.
I took photos from every angle I could find – thank God I ignored that “travel prep” book´s advice not to bother buying a camera with a lot of zoom (because it would be “too heavy” and “too much hassle”). I stared up at the figures for a long time, wondering how they were pulled up the cliff in the first place, how they had remained intact for so long, how it was even possible that their colors were still so bright.
It must have been quite a feat for those ancient people – no clear walkways or large ledges along the cliff– maybe they had set up some sort of pulley system, maybe more than a few people fell, even died, as they tried to haul them up the cliff on their backs. Who knows. Either way, they clearly revered their leaders to have buried them in such a beautiful place, looking out over their valley, still seeing and judging from the grave the everyday goings on of their people. Sometimes imagining the construction, imagining the people´s lives as they created the relics we study today, is the most fun thing about visiting an archaeological site.
My interest piqued and the day´s effort (even the 5 AM wake-up) totally worth it, I walk back to meet up with my driver and ride back to Luya, then back to Chacha.
Yeah, driver’s not there. Big surprise. The girl that sold me the ticket an hour ago has some incredibly useful advice: “just start walking down. There will be a car again at some point.” Thanks so much. What would I have done without you?
I walk the 3 km down to the closest small town, Chocta. Trying to ask a local if I can wait here for cars to Luya, he just keeps trying to sell me food. We repeat the “seriously, I don´t want food. Just, do I need to keep walking or should I wait here?” “Yeah, yeah, here, have some food” process way too many times before I finally turn and ask someone else. Shockingly, in only one sentence, I am able to find out that, yes, I can wait in Chocta for a car. Of course, no one actually knows when one will come, but one will at some point.
I sit myself on a small bench in the main square, surrounded by school-age boys on the other benches, taking turns whispering to each other, looking at me, and laughing. After about 20 minutes of this, an older man comes up to me with arms spread, offering a firm, hearty handshake – their teacher, it turns out.
Just as his oversized cowboy hat and big smile hinted, he had a booming voice and an even bigger personality. Chiding the boys around me for not talking to the visitor in their midst, he immediately engages me in conversation, mostly asking questions about the US and her history. About 5 minutes in, we got to have an… interesting… exchange…
“…and when did the USA become an independent nation?”
*Confused look* “No, it was 1798.”
“Uhhhhhh, well, we declared our independence from England in 1776.”
*Really confused look, but still totally certain that he was correct and it was actually 1798 – more confused as in “how is he so wrong? He´s from there. He should know this”*
“Oh, oh, okay, yeah, you´re right. It was 1798.”
The big smile makes its return and the teacher seems satisfied in our exchange. I guess he saved face in front of his students, and I really don´t feel like debating US history (in Spanish) with the guy – all I want is a car back to Luya. But now, somewhere out there in the middle of the Peruvian Andes are a classroom´s worth of boys who, for the rest of their lives, will know that 1798 is the year the US got its independence, 100% certain in that knowledge because they heard it straight from the mouth of an American himself.
Oh well, at least I didn´t tell them 2+2=5.
After an interesting hour-long wait, a dump-truck sized “camión” stops next to the square and the driver decides after a few seconds´ hesitation to let me ride on top down to the next town, Cohacha.
“From there, lots of cars go back to Luya.” Mmmmmk. Not like I can be picky about which cars I take (“No thanks, I´m waiting for a Lexus to come by. One with a/c. Ooh, and leather seats.”)
For the next 45 minutes I brace my whole body against the top of the truck – right arm on the center beam, left arm locked in as well on the left side, legs shoulder-width apart, knees bent, and my butt feeling every bump from the suspension-lacking steel frame – desperately trying not to get thrown over the side as the truck driver manages the dilapidated dirt road as best he can.
Wanting to kiss the ground when we arrive in Cohacha, I get confirmation from two guys standing outside of the small town´s government building that yes, cars do come through here headed for Luya.
And finally I get a bit of transportation luck: a taxi comes along a mere 7 minutes after I´m dropped off, headed in that direction! Of course, he isn´t actually going to Luya, and waves me off as he speeds by.
But right when I was convinced my luck was just going to be awful all day, another pulls up, this one definitely headed to Luya, and with an extra seat ready for me! This is apparently such a rare event – two cars within 5 minutes going through town – that it prompts a lady sitting nearby to chuckle and mutter “¡que suerte tienes!” (“what luck you have!”).
The driver and I pass a pleasant, if bumpy, hour or so talking about Peru and the upcoming elections before we arrive in Luya in the still-early afternoon.
I must be living right out here in Peru, because another stroke of luck hits and I´m the last passenger needed to fill a colectivo headed back to “Chacha.” AND the 3 people who got there before me left me the front seat. Leg room! The driver is another talkative one, and the hour of dirt road travel goes by quickly. Northern Peruvians really enjoy bragging about their cities, towns, and states, if not quite yet their country. The topics in Chachapoyas have generally included their clean air, beautiful mountains, incredible history, and beautiful women. I can´t do anything but agree – I absolutely love this place.
Back in Chacha. It feels like 10 PM, and all I want is a shower and some time to relax. I´ll spend the rest of the day planning my tomorrow and chuckling to myself about my way-too-complex yet incredibly rewarding and thought-provoking trip from Chachapoyas to Karijía. Unfortunately, I have to leave this region in the next week, as I travel south towards Lima.
I think the Chachapoyan people would have appreciated the effort I put in today to see their sacred site, still standing a thousand years after they built it – I know it´s a day I´ll never forget.