Leymebamba was a fun town. As we often do, we rolled in needing to find a place to stay. iOverlander, a web app for overland travelers, showed us a few places, and as often happens we had to look around a bit before realizing that it was either go find a place to wild camp or take the hostel that seemed way out of our price range, but had the only room with secure parking for the bikes. A little bargaining got us a room for almost half-price, so we did it. There was a festival going on, which led to a very fun evening in the town plaza, but the hostels and hotels were jammed. In the plaza square, there was a huge Bingo game happening, with prizes of all sorts of locally made things, the cakes being the most popular. A 9-km race was run, with the finishers coming into the square and circling round before coming to the toilet-paper tape stretched out for every finisher. All should get a medal just for finishing at this altitude, and the warm applause and cheering for every single runner was something to see. Nobody left until the very last had finished and been welcomed in.
We met a group from the US who had just returned from a multi-day trek with horses to supply a remote village with solar panels and a computer, allowing them to communicate via a satellite internet link. I would think this is valuable for very basic reasons, such as medical needs, but also for the kids and education. I’m no expert, and I have stated that I think it is critical to make sure that your “help” really does benefit the village, but in this case they seem to have researched the need thoroughly, and I hope it proves to be a help to the community. They have done this in several remote sites, and plan more. On this occasion they had three foreign students along as well. We also benefitted from their detailed local knowledge, and as a result got much more out of our visit to the Leymebamba Museum, and also visited the nearby ruins of the fortress city of Kuelap.
Museo Leymebamba is well worth the visit. Take a moto-taxi (similar to a tuk-tuk) a few kilometers back up the hill to the museum, and after your visit walk back to town along the old road used by locals and horses that follows a straighter line back down the valley. The museum does an excellent job of preparing you for the mummies and sarcophagi that you will be seeing more of as you travel north along the valley, visiting ruins and burial sites. You will learn about the culture of the Chachapoyan people, and understand something about why and how the mummies were prepared and positioned, and see many actual mummies and the associated artifacts (ask to turn on the light in the room where most are stored). Most are seated with the legs drawn up, and the arms wrapped around the body or over the head. They were then placed in a cone-shaped covering of wooden slats. After the museo, walk across the paved road to have coffee or hot chocolate while watching the colibri (hummingbird) feeder by the garden table. We saw no fewer than five different species, some thimble-sized, and others as big as your hand. The extremely tiny booted racket-tail with it’s long tail, shaped like twin tennis racquets, which often appears at this feeder, was sadly not on hand for us. Bird watching at 2 meters in comfort with South American hot chocolate surrounded by orchids and flowering trees, an afternoon doesn’t get much better.
Our walk back down the old road from the museo took us through potato fields and then down a dirt path with great views of the surrounding valley. We passed through a village a short ways above the main town, and soon found ourselves back at the hostel. While walking down, we shared the old road with a cheerful local woman and child, carrying a gathered bundle of wood and sticks back downhill.
Leaving Leymebamba the next morning, we followed the paved road down the river, which had begun to level out. We enjoyed a beautiful ride, with the road flowing along and our pace quite a bit faster than when we came down into the valley. The river was fairly high and rushing along, lined by green fields and pastures alongside, with horses and cattle. On the advice of others we’d met, we stayed the night at El Chillo, a rather luxurious (for us) hostel along the road just south of Tingo, only an hour or two from Leymebamba. With thick walls, heavy doors, and water flowing through gardens of orchids and trees dripping with flowers and bougainvillea, it has the protective hacienda feeling to it, and the people and friendly dogs there were wonderful to us. This place was more expensive (again!) than we would have liked, but it was a treat, and they allowed us to drop off all our camping gear and other stuff, and enjoy riding up the 24-km dirt road to the ruins of Kuelap on lightened bikes.
Kuelap is a mountain top fortress-city built in the 6th century, and occupied through the 1500s by the Chacapoyan people. With its massive walls, the only way in is up through one of three narrow slots, easily defended from above. To get to the topmost level, a similar slot is barely wide enough for one person up steep, high steps, making it seemingly impossible to fight your way in. The outer walls surround the remains of roughly 400 circular stone dwellings in various states of decay, once the houses of the people, along with larger structures. Most houses once had tall, conical roofs over them of wood poles and thatched grass, with what looked like an inverted clay pot over the peak to seal it. The setting atop a 3000-meter ridge provides incredible views of the valley below and the Andes beyond. A teleferico (cable gondola) is being built from just above Nuevo Tingo, and should be an amazing ride once finished, but you’ll still have to walk the last 2 km, which should preserve the isolated feel. You can see the terminals and towers already in place in some of our gallery photos. I hope this doesn’t lead to big crowds, we loved the silence of the ruins as we explored on our own.
We rolled back down the dirt road to El Chillo, which is a fun and easy ride, and also gives some fairly safe thrills in the way of big drop-offs, twisty switchbacks, and narrow spots cut under overhead rock. Overhangs are actually quite common in the Andes, and we commonly ride underneath thousands of tons of unsupported stone above us, sometimes extending out over two full lanes of roadway. Traction is generally very good on these roads, and standing in the tight switchbacks makes the front end bite even more securely while letting you see way down into the canyon below. We returned to our luxury digs just before dark. Dinner was in the big dining room, and afterward we were shown into the lounge area, with its unique chairs made from twisted driftwood recovered out of the nearby river. No worries, that mummy peering out from near the doorway is a replica, it was finally admitted.
After a tranquil night in El Chillo, we continued up the beautiful river road along the Rio Utcubamba toward Chachapoyas. This is a very cool mountain town, with a wonderful plaza area, where we found a clean, cheap hotel that other moto-travelers had stayed at and enjoyed. In every town, no matter how big or small, there is the plaza square. You can always find it by simply looking for the cathedral tower. The square consists of a park (the plaza) taking up a city block, with the streets around it always directing you around one-way. The cathedral is always on one side, and often a main government building, too. Around the square are shops and restaurants, and vendors with carts roaming the area. This is a place for family and friends to meet, and we have grown fond of settling on a bench in the shade with local ice cream, and just watching the world go by. Many travelers agree that this is a great way to absorb the local culture, and often we stumble into a parade or some sort of ceremony – they always take place in the plaza, it seems.
On the plaza in Chachapoyas is Café Fusion, where Jalene and I had our first Pisco Sour. It’s a funky little place, popular with locals, too, where we found good food and fine atmosphere for a great price. We’ve traveled to Pisco itself now, and we still consider the Pisco Sours we had at Café Fusion the best. Chachapoyas served as our base for the exploration of a couple of notable ruins – the Karajia cliffside sarcophagi, and the ruins deep in the canyon near Wanglic. We took one of the tourist vans to the trailhead to Karajia, and with several other French guests from our hostel walked down about a mile, dropping below the canyon rim and along under the cliffs above. As we turned a final bend we were greeted by seven 2-meter tall sarcophagi above us on a cliff ledge, some with paint still intact after 500 years. In various pockets in the cliff around them, other sarcophagi can be seen, some quite small. Human bones are on the rocks next to the trail, I’m not sure if they are props or came out of a sarcophagus, but they sure fit the scene.
In the afternoon, the same group of us, with a guide, hiked down a steep trail deep into a canyon. It narrowed to a slot for the final 100 meters straight down, where we crossed to the other cliffside over two huge boulders that had wedged between the narrow canyon walls, forming a natural bridge crossing the gap. A misstep meant a long, long fall to the river below. We found ourselves amongst several circular house foundations and walls, very similar to those we had seen at Kuelap a few days earlier. There was only sandy bare rock to walk on, which rolled away into the deep slot canyon. It appeared that once upon a time there may have been a narrow trail hacked into the cliff leading down the river, but today there was no way out but back over the two boulders. Even at the bottom of this super-steep canyon where only a poor foot-path leads, we found lots of graffiti and vandalism of the ruins. It’s frustrating to work so hard to see ruins like this, and have someone’s name painted in bright red letters on the walls. On the hike out, our guide made a special effort to point out rock paintings across the canyon that had not yet been defaced, only because they were almost unknown except to the local guides and nearly impossible to reach. Tread lightly, fellow travelers.
Once we had crossed again, the rest of the party went upriver a short ways to a pool below a waterfall, while I hung back and photographed the canyon walls and the narrow ledge where the ruins perched. We hiked out by following the canyon upstream, with the trail rolling up and down until, after five hours on the trail, our van picked us up at the trailhead. Tired and a little footsore, we were proud of having made this steep trek to see ruins that very few have the privilege of visiting. Jalene proclaimed a Pisco Sour should be in our future when we finished the hike, and that evening our hiking group met to savor the drinks together.