Bird Watching in Comfort

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.


Head on over to our website gallery for new photos + Jalene talks about Travel Tools from an inner perspective from the top bunk.

Down Through A Cloud Layer

Written July 21, 2016

I lied a bit when I left you last, or at least got ahead of myself.  Rather than heading directly onto the adventurous roads I described, we needed to ride further north through the mountainous farm country north of Huamanchuco in Peru, which means high but only moderately steep slopes, where corn and grain are grown, cattle roam, and horses find an ideal home.  Peruvian farmland means adobe houses all around, thick walls of mud and straw, with roofs of corrugated metal, or clay tiles.  The bricks and tiles were made locally everywhere we went, and it was common to see hundreds of adobe bricks laid out on the ground to dry.  Nearby, the curved slabs of clay roof tiles lay in long rows to dry, leaning one against the other like dominoes.  Black smoke would pour out of the wood-fueled kilns where the roof tiles were fired.

We left Huamanchuco and rolled north along a narrow paved road toward Baños del Incas, where we had made an Airbnb reservation at an old hacienda.  Our ride was really enjoyable that day, as it rolled along through beautiful and varying farmland and small towns and villages.  Around lunchtime, we were riding through the streets of Cajabamba, a moderate sized town, and Jalene spotted a sign for a café that somehow pulled her in.  We ended up having a terrific lunch of sandwiches and some of the best hot chocolate I’ve had yet.  Jalene also indicated that her latte was outstanding, and she loved it.  So when in Cajabamba, stop at San Vicente Sandwicheria Criolla, and have yourself a real treat.

After Cajabamba, the road opened up onto a two-lane again, and we made tracks through somewhat drier country, rising into a semi-desert terrain of brush and grasses, and we found ourselves climbing and falling through fun switchbacks and wraparound roads.  On afternoons like these, I often find myself wishing I could magically transport some of my sportbike friends here, so they could see it for themselves.  I think there would be some emigration south, or at least some serious vacation time booked.  Bring extra tires and brake pads.

In Baños del Incas, named for very old thermal baths used by the locals for centuries, we found our way to an old hacienda outside of town.  We were ushered inside the thick walls into a green grassy courtyard with leafy trees providing shady areas.  The welcoming rooms surrounding the courtyard were built along the outer wall.  Ours was large and comfortable, with rippled wood floors obviously laid down long ago.  The ceiling was of wood beams, crossed by bamboo slats, upon which were laid the roofing tiles visible to us from below, open to airflow.  We had the use of the kitchen, and the family invited us to breakfast with them in the large, formal dining room.  There was also a long, open living room, where one could relax and imagine the ladies and gentlemen in all their finery, entertaining guests a hundred years ago.  That’s how long this hacienda had been in the family of our hostess Rosario, and she and her husband made us feel welcome and comfortable in their home.  Out back, of course, were the horses and cattle, and we were treated to freshly separated cream each morning for Jay’s coffee and our hot harina de avena, or oatmeal.  Nothing like it.

People down here are incredibly helpful, and will go to great lengths to try to take care of you.  For example, Jalene and I decided to go into nearby Cajamarca from the hacienda to hit a cash machine and then have a nice dinner.  We wanted to just take a taxi, but our hosts would not hear of this, so Rosario’s husband drove us into Cajamarca, and dropped us at a restaurant of his approval.  To make sure we would make it back safely, he talked to a friend in an office next door to the restaurant, and gave specific written instructions that we would need a taxi to take us back, and here was the address, etc.  We were then told that when we finished dinner, we were to come back here and that a taxi would take us home, etc.  How we made it all the way down through Central America to here, heaven only knows.

After reluctantly departing Rosario’s family and Baños del Incas, it was time to head for the area where we had been told we could see the Peruvian mummies, and the associated cliffside sarcophagi and the ruins of ancient dwellings.  We rode northeast to the jumping-off point of Celendin.  The road that day was not difficult, a paved two-laner, but we did cross over a high pass that had us adding a layer under our riding gear.  Eventually we dropped down again into warm air, and a valley containing the town opened before us.  Celendin is a very cool town, with a great vibe and very nice people.  It’s sits in an area like the cupped palm of a hand, but with the valley dropping away steeply on one side where the river exits and falls away.  We found a fairly new, comfortable hostel on a corner of the main square, where other moto-travelers have stayed and recommended.  Wi-fi was not so hot, but the water in the shower was.

We hung out in the square for a while and soaked up the sun, with our ice cream cones.  In Peru, the ice cream tends to be much softer and lighter, full of air, and you have to eat it really fast in the sun if you want to avoid disaster. For the more solid, dense stuff, get an ice cream bar from the freezer that’s in every little store, and you’ll be happier.  Dulcetto is my favorite, rich chocolate with peanut butter inside, usually 2 soles, about 66 cents.  Grab one, find a shady bench across the street in the square, and watch the world go by.  Dinnertime found us in the restaurant adjoining our hotel, and the owner came out and introduced herself in perfect English.  No surprise as she had lived in New Orleans for years.  This kind of thing has happened several times now in Peru, where suddenly someone will speak to us in perfect English, and we find that they have lived in the US or abroad for a time.  These meetings tend to be particularly valuable to us, as these people can quickly help us understand local customs, where to find things, or just tell us about our surroundings.

Celendin sits just west of the Rio Marañon, a very deep canyon that runs northward between the two parallel ranges that form the northern Peruvian Andes.  Our ride from Celendin to Leymabamba took us on a path directly crossing that canyon, and then continued over another high pass before dropping into a sheltered valley up in the Cordillera Central range.  As we reached the edge of the canyon, we found ourselves looking down through a cloud layer at what, from that point, looked like the descent to a valley floor visible to us some distance below.  We could see the road wrapping back and forth around steep terrain, forcing its way where it could.  It was obviously a very old path that had been widened again and again over time, and it was now wide enough for one truck to drive on, about 4 “giant steps” across.  The wind coming up the mountainside swept the clouds upwards around us.  We could see a bus slowly making its way down the road behind us some distance, and so we made our photo stops short so as not to get stuck behind the slow moving turtle.  We also admitted that if we were following that bus, we’d have to watch if it tumbled off the side of the road and crashed down thousands of feet below.  It was incredible to see that full-sized buses and trucks were coming down this narrow, steep lane, portions of which were often missing.  The photos will help explain, but they don’t capture the bad parts, where we did not want to stop on the bikes, even for a just a photo, for fear of someone coming around a blind corner and hitting us, or worse, knocking us over the edge.  As it turned out, traffic was very light on this amazing road and we were fine.

But where we looked down through holes in the cloud layer, and thought we could see how far down we were going, that was all an illusion.  We could only see to where the slope temporarily flattened out a bit, and the road left our view.  It turns out that we rode switchbacks down for about an hour, dropping from one hanging valley to another, seemingly without end.  Once we got below the cloud layer, an immense canyon opened out for us, and only then did we realize how far down below us the river was.  As we descended more than 2,000 meters, the air began thin and cold, with winds that carried fog up to us, but changed surprisingly quickly to hot and thick and dry.  Just before we reached the river, we were stopped at a barricade, where we were told the road would not be open again for an hour due to blasting operations.  While in line, we had a nice chat with a botanist from one of the Peruvian universities, who was engaged in studies of the local flora with assistance of some other universities in the US.  We had a great discussion on the merits of collaborative research, and how it enables funding from our National Science Foundation for work in Peru.  For a while there came a light rain, but it was so hot that none of us took notice other than to comment that it felt good.

Finally the barrier was lifted, and we found ourselves along the Rio Marañon on a road hacked into the cliff, eventually turning to cross a bridge and enter the town of Balsas, just a few streets along the riverbank.  In the hot canyon-bottom, we cooled off in the shade of a few trees and got some water back into ourselves.  Leaving Balsas, we did a little dirt-biking along the river bank where they detoured us, and then we were once again on pavement.  For a short time we rode along a tributary through irrigated fruit trees, and then once again it was up into the dry desert surroundings as we rose out of the canyon, climbing for mile after mile, seemingly forever, to find ourselves once again high in the Andes.  This time we climbed right up into the clouds, finally topping out at 3,600 meters (11,800’) in fog and rain before descending into the steep-sided valley where the town of Leymabamba is found.  It was here that we found our first mummies.


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