CHACHAPOYAS PERU - My cabbie excitedly yells into his phone “Dónde estás se encuentra la entrada?” It’s the third call he’s made since we arrived at the ruins of Yalape in the Northern Andes of Peru. I soon learn it’s his first time here, too.
Having trudged through muddy cow fields, and then climbing a steep hill, I’m now on my hands and knees under a thorn bush and there are still no ruins, only my bruises and scratches.
The guidebook says you need a guide to help you find the overgrown ruins, but since the Incas wiped out the Chachapoyas (called the Warriors of the Clouds) around the 16th century, the forest has swallowed the ruins. But eventually I find a path alongside a section of a stone wall entwined with tree branches. Aha! Civilization. The Cloud People were here.
Halfway into my six-month journey through Peru, I find myself changing my plans to hike more in this lesser-known northern region. But, I’m torn — I can’t decide which hiking region I like more: the mysterious ruins of the Chacha, as the locals call it, or the phenomenal mountain scenery of Huaraz.
If Chacha is the lost civilization of ruins in the clouds, Huaraz — with its multitude of tour companies and fleece-wearing guides — is the Peruvian Whistler.
After my experience with the cabbie, I decide to find more knowledgeable guides in Chachapoyas — my home base and capital of the Amazonas Region. Kuelap, dubbed the Machu Picchu of the North, is the largest stone structure in South America. Three times older than Machu Picchu, and less known, myself and two other travellers are the only ones here. I feel like we’re the first to discover the 19-metre-high walled fortress full of circular homes, walkways and a tomb of human skeletons.
Left: Sarcophagus Carajia are ancient coffins for mummies. Right: Ancient faces from the past.
But this region is well known to archeologists. From Chacha, it’s a one-hour bus ride, then taxi to the town of Cruzpata to see the bizarre burial site of Karajia. After walking almost an hour down into the valley, I turn the corner and look up, squinting to see six mud/clay figurines in the middle of the mountain guarding a sarcophagus. How did anyone build a tomb up there? But this isn’t the only sign of burial ingenuity in the area. In 1997, archeologists found 217 impeccably preserved mummies in a mountainside tomb.
On my final day, I take a two-hour bus to the town of Leymebamba to see the eerie stark-faced mummies in a museum, and to hike to more ruins. This time I won’t get lost because I’m led by a machete-wielding guide hacking through the overgrown ferns and trees. It’s not long before we see stone walls from the Cattaneo ruins, some with intricate rhomboid and zigzag friezes. Further still, we arrive at a wooden door and the entrance to the village of Molinete. A lady comes out asking for five sols, (about $2 Cdn). Minutes later, she returns with a cup of warm milk, fresh from the cow. Sitting on a stool in her home, sipping milk, petting her cat and looking out onto the ephemeral clouds floating over the green valley, it all just seems like a fairy tale.
Above: Lake Laguna 69 And Chakrarahu Mountain.
That night over a plate of Chonta — pasta-like slivered hearts of a palm tree (this is the Amazon after all) — I’m the only person in the restaurant. It’s going to be quite different in my next trekking town.
The solitude of Chacha is hard to find in Huaraz, unless you hike alonem which is not advisable in these steep mountains. But luckily, there are many day hikes for the less-intense hiker.
However, at 3,000 metres above sea level, the altitude will leave most breathless. It’s best to acclimatize with easy treks such as the Wari ruins of Wilcahuaín. Starting from a nearby subdivision, you don’t need a guide for this four-hour stroll. Meadering through the various villages with lots of detours, I stop in a store for salted fava beans. Two little girls emerge from the back and before long, the 2-year-old raises her spoon of beans to my lips. Although the ancient burial buildings from 600-900 AD were amazing, it’s these sweet girls, who asked if I was returning tomorrow, that stuck with me.
By the third day my lungs are ready for the 4,550-metre-high trek to Laguna 69 — a breathtaking turquoise lake — located in the Huascaran National Park. And at 35 sols (about $15) — a steal for a full day tour — I also don’t have to worry about getting lost. It’s a two-hour drive to the trailhead and thankfully the start of the hike alongside a snake-like river is flat. Then we look up to the eerie snow-peaked mountains.
Above: Ancient ruins.
“I hope we make it before the rain,” says my new Israeli friend.
By the last hour – a series of quick switchbacks — every second step requires stopping for air. But you forget the lack of oxygen when you see the stunning blue lake.
“Forgive my language, but this is ^$%## beautiful!” says my friend.
I notice a young guy toweling his hair: “How is the water?” I ask. “Cold, but you have to do it.”
With sweaty tendrils of hair stuck to my face, and sweaty salt stains on my eyelids, I don’t need convincing.
Back in town, sustenance is top of mind — a meal of Huaracino is just the thing. It’s a mountain version of ceviche but instead of raw fish cured in lime juice, here lupine beans (a local alpine bean) replace the fish.
The restaurant is packed with fellow hikers, as is often the case in Huaraz, but scoffing down this tangy meal, with a 9 per cent local craft beer so strong it’s giving me vertigo, I happily sacrifice the solitude I had in Chachapoyas for a noisy, but sublime meal, in a popular mountain town.
Copa Airlines, Air Canada, Avianca, Delta, American or United Airlines offer flights to Peru from several different gateways in Canada. / Tour East Holidays offers a number of tours to Peru and other parts of Latin America. / For more information, go to www.toureast.com / Canadians do not need a visa to visit Peru.