Lost Cities of Amazonia --- July, 1997 Part I

~~Lost Cities of Amazonia~~
Chachapoyas, Peru --- 27 June- 7 July, 1997

In January of this year, I traveled to the southern tip of South America, Patagonia, the land of wind, rain, and cold, in no particular order. You could be certain that you would experience all of these -- at the same time if you were unlucky. It would be nice to go somewhere on this continent that was isolated, yet not so windy and not so cold, but where? Because I'd never been to Ecuador, and I had heard that Quito was nice, I focused on this country. Barbara Canavan of Earthwise Journeys, who arranged my Patagonia trip, sent a brochure describing a trip "Running through the Andes." One would rise early each morning and run for perhaps an hour before touring the mountains. This trip, however, did not work out so I began searching for something unusual in the Amazon area. I located an Internet site with a description of an expedition, "Lost Cities of the Amazon," which seemed intriguing. This site was sponsored by Travel Innovations of Austin, Texas. I contacted Teresa Austin there to learn more. She was very helpful in explaining the trip and pointed out that it was not easy. One would search/travel through territory about 500 KM northeast of Lima, Peru where the Cloud People [Chachapoyans or Sachapuyos-- indicating cloud forest] lived. These people preceded the Incas, living perhaps from 800 A.D. to about 1475 A.D., after which they disintegrated, perhaps due to the Incas and Spanish. The Cloud People constructed large stone structures but their style of building did not use very large, multi angled stones like the Inca. The area, in general, was called the Gran Vilaya Valley and has been described by Gene Savoy and Peter Lerche. This entire area is part of the Amazonas region of Peru. The archaeological remains of the Cloud People are found mostly in high altitudes of the provinces of Chachapoyas and Luya.

The advance information about the trip was that you would fly from Lima to Chachapoyas on a Peruvian military flight, then camp for several days among the ruins of these people; also two or three days were supposed to be spent in remote lodges. The web site mentioned that they would visit Kuelap, a mountain fortress with large numbers of structures it was said to rival Machu Pichu. Two things appealed to me, firstly, the travel to observe the culture in this remote area of Peru, rarely visited by tourists or adventurers, and second the concept of exploring some little-visited sites. I had experienced the Inca culture in Cusco, so I wanted to observe an even more ancient people in Peru.


Amazonia Expeditions, and in particular, Spencer Beaver and Peter Lerche, did a wonderful job of leading this expedition. This trip involves difficult hiking in the jungle, climbing, and camping in primitive conditions. Don't expect to see bathrooms once you leave Chachapoyas! Don't expect to take baths, except in cold streams, while camping. Due to the remote location, the variety of food is limited. But you will be tired and hungry so the variety of food will not be a great issue! Take your own snacks, coffee, and tea. Drinking water is filtered and plentiful. You may want to bring pennies, caps, candy or other items for children you will meet. Expect temperatures ranging from cold in the morning, even ice [Belen] to being hot and sweaty while doing strenuous hiking. You will be at altitudes ranging from 6,000-11,000 feet once in Chachapoyas. A and I decided to take sleeping bags and Therm-a-rest mattresses. To save weight we did not take a tent. I packed raingear [two light waterproof jackets and rainpants], several polo shirts and t-shirts, and convertible trousers. A brought several lightweight expedition shirts [the kind with webbing] and jackets. I did not expect it to be cold or even cool so I did not take any sweaters or heavy jackets. We did take lots of snacks such as granola bars and chocolate and A brought packs of English tea bags because she doesn't drink coffee. Being in a remote region, we took a first aid kit, antibiotics, and antiseptics. Also, we took anti-malarial drugs. As a precaution against rain, all items were packed in plastic water-proof zip-lock bags.

27 June, Friday, 5:00 a.m.

Its wake up and move out time! Yesterday I ran for about 35 minutes late in the afternoon to burn some excess energy. A got up early and ran this a.m., she has been running much more and can now run up to an hour. I figure all this running will help as the hiking on the trip is expected to be difficult. At about 6:00, K, our 16 year old daughter, drove us to the Dunwoody MARTA rapid rail station for a 30 minute ride to the Atlanta Airport -- we had joked about whether K would be able to get up this early but she was happy to be rid of us for a while so getting up was not a major problem for her! We weren't sure the house would still be standing when we got back but K was working and figured she would keep busy with her friends -- also, there were the Internet and soap operas to keep her busy! It was about 7:10 a.m. by the time we arrived at the American Airlines luggage check-in for the 7:50 flight to Miami. The problem was that the lines were miles long and moving very slowly. After a few minutes, I took the luggage outside to check in what I thought was a short line, however, I did not notice that it doubled outside. It was getting debatable whether we would make this flight. In desperation, at 7:20, I spoke with an attendant about the lack of time and he was kind enough to take our baggage to the plane personally! Rushing to gate T-11, we boarded just in time!

At 9:30 a.m. the American Airlines flight touches the hot Miami concrete runway under partly cloudy skies. The question is did the luggage touch down with us? ... will find out shortly. After traversing a couple of escalators to a lower level, I call my friend BD and we talk for a while, as it will be a long time apart. Meanwhile, the luggage has arrived!! Great!!! Now the waiting begins, its about 10:00 a.m. and the AeroPeru flight isn't scheduled to lift off until 6:30 this evening. A & I find the AeroPeru ticket counter, luckily, its near a food stand! For hours I read, write, and stare at the passengers. We eat sandwiches, I dream of Mexican food! I call my friend BD several times and wait. AeroPeru is supposed to allow baggage check-in four hours prior to the flight so at 2:30 we lug our stuff to the counter. Should one have that plastic wrap put on -- will luggage thieves steal all of your camping gear, or worse perhaps your clothes -- will you have to go naked in the jungles of Peru -- who knows -- anything can happen. The luggage check-in is already crowded, people are nervous and a bit angry, one man checks eleven bags. Finally, we reach the counter and check-in two duffel bags, there are only three more hours to wait until boarding! What a day!

At 5:30 we amble up to the gate, probably too optimistic about boarding on time. Actually we don't board until 6:30, the time the flight was to leave. The pilot kicks the tires, uses his VISA card to procure fuel and combs his grey hair -- pilots aren't young anymore, you know! Passengers carry huge bags on board and attempt desperately to cram them under seats or in the overhead bins -- they are taking lots of America to Peru! At 6:55, we push back from gate A7, better late than never!

The flight to Lima was uneventful and made easier by the vino rosa served with the meal. At midnight EST or 11 p.m. Lima time, we touched down with a soft landing. There was a mad rush to get thru customs. I noticed their computer terminals were not even turned on -- I suppose they were there to give the appearance of a modern society. Finally, arriving in a cavernous room with large signs advertising cellular phones, we began to search for our luggage. It took a good 30 minutes to arrive, and it had been shrink wrapped! Exiting the crowded terminal, I spotted the "Amazonia Expeditions" sign held by Ada Martinez, who spoke no English -- this would be interesting as I spoke un poco Spanish! We proceeded to her van and began driving down a major thoroughfare. Communicating in broken Spanish, we learned that the van was to meet us at "ocho ahora manyana" and that breakfast was at "siete ahora." Good, would hate to miss breakfast! After some 20 minutes we arrived at the Guest House hostel. There was a problem however, apparently, the manager did not realize that we were arriving. There ensued much animated conversation between the manager and Ada, also several loud phone calls were made. Apparently, he had rented our room to a valued female customer for a short period of time. So in order to obtain the room, they had to move them out and put new sheets on the bed! But at 2:00 a.m. "local time" [1 a.m. Lima time] after a long, long day, you tend not to be very concerned about the nature of the room -- you just need sleep! The manager was wearing a purple sweat shirt labeled "Harvard University, " he appeared to be an unlikely alumnus, however. The one important item we had forgotten was an alarm clock. So Ada made sure to ask the manager to wake us at 6:00 a.m. next morning. During the night, there were assorted sounds such as dogs barking, traffic, and other unidentifiable noises, however, I slept well.

28 June, 1997, Saturday
Around 6 a.m. I awake to the sound of Lima traffic. At least the hostel had agua caliente, supplied by an electric shower head. By 6:30 I venture downstairs and find the manager asleep on a couch, so much for waking up the customers! About 7:00 a.m. Greg Mandel, a banker from Denver, also on the trip, arrives, he believes the van will arrive at 8:00 and thinks the flight to Chachapoyas is at 9:00 a.m. By 8:30 Ada arrives with the van, of course we've had no breakfast, coffee, or tea yet but Ada has brought sandwiches. Two redheads from California are also going on the trip, Vivien and Nazri. Vivien immigrated from New York and Nazri is from Spain. We exchange our knowledge about this trip: camping for 4 days, 3 nights in lodges, a military flight to Chachapoyas. We learn that Vivien and Nazri have not brought their passports and money -- we can't believe this-- this is something you never do in a foreign country. They joke about marrying Greg to get around this problem! Arriving at the airport, no one can say when the plane will leave, Ada visits the counter with our luggage, there is no sign at the gate, how does she know where to go? Finally, she returns with flimsy tickets labeled "OCET." The 5 of us proceed to gate 8, where perhaps 30 people wait. Since we've had no beverage yet, I pay $5 for coffee and hot chocolate.

A few minutes later, we walk outside toward an ancient turboprop labeled "Calibri" [an Antonoy-AN-32 Russian aircraft] that makes the trek to Chachapoyas once per week [who knows where else it goes?]. Walking up the ramp, we enter a dark cavern with a mountain of cargo in the center. You have to sit on webbing squeezed between the airframe and the cargo -- its hot and dark. Because the cargo is stacked from floor to ceiling, the plane sure looks overloaded. Finally we begin to taxi, some passengers do not have a place to sit so they stand, we can't see anything because the few windows are fogged up. A word of advice, bring earplugs, these planes are LOUD! We leap off the runway and, after becoming airborne, its a pretty smooth flight. Initially, its hot and smelly on board but once we reach cruising altitude, it begins to cool down. A and V chat about their occupations, V is a social worker. I study the inside of the plane and try to figure out what all the exposed fittings are. Above my head there is an apparent electrical outlet, but looking on the other side over the cargo, I note a similar "outlet" with an oxygen mask connected. So I suppose this side of the plane must do without oxygen! Oh, well, the oxygen bottles were removed long ago, I figure! About 3 feet from my position, I note a sign saying "Chop here with axe for crash exit." The axe is missing from its holder, however! As we approach Chachapoyas, it becomes more turbulent and we bounce around a bit. But overall, its a good flight of about two hours.

Upon landing, we proceed past the cargo toward the backdoor. A discovers and then we see a number of wooden boxes, each filled with large numbers of buzzing, angry bees. Thank goodness these things did not out, I abhor bee stings! Exiting, we discover a number of uniformed police [soldiers?] carrying automatic weapons. Curiously, there is a large concrete terminal but no one uses it -- perhaps its haunted! The area is very mountainous and green, quite beautiful. Where is the bathroom, we did carry a toilet on the plane but it didn't seem to be connected to anything! Oh, yeah, the bathroom is just beyond that clump of trees! Our group gathers back of the blue and white airport terminal. We begin to meet several folks that will be coming with us, Peter [archeologist], Rosa [cook], Spencer [AE], and others.

After the guardia write down our passport numbers and occupations [I think Vivian and Nazri make up their numbers], we gather our luggage and board a small Nissan van, which can hold about one dozen passengers. Our luggage is placed on top of the van. We begin a spectacular, winding drive over a dirt road into the small town of Chachapoyas, about 15,000 people. Its a pretty town, nestled in the mountains. Most roads in this village are dirt but some are concrete. We stop at the Chacha Restaurant and have excellent chicken soup, yucca root, rice, potatoes, and beef. We now face a four to five hour drive to our lodge near Choctomal over spectacular, winding, dirt roads. The mountains have cultivated patches of many shades of green. After a couple of hours we pass the Rio Utcubamba and spot the ruins of Macro, up a cliff. Its located on the left bank of the river, in the district of Magdalena. Macro is a residential complex built with stone and mud mortar probably between 1100 and 1300 AC. It spreads over about 7 acres. Macro is thought to have sheltered ~100 people during the flourishing of the Shashapuyo civilization. We stop and decide to cross the river and hike up the cliff to reach the ruins. The river is up to three feet deep and one of our guides helps us across the cold, swift current by standing upriver from us. The guides, having no bathing suits, strip to their underwear! A and I are wearing REI convertible trousers and just remove the lower portions -- worked great! Once across, we hike thru tall fields of corn until we reach the bottom of the cliff [about a 30 minute walk], we begin climbing and afterwards reach walls of yellowish stone, about 10-15 feet high. Each stone is about 6-8" high and concave on the outside. They are placed together tightly and the walls are intact. The remains of many round-houses are at the top. Its difficult to see why they would have put this place so far from the water below without a good purpose, this may have been some sort of religious site. Regardless, the quality of construction is very high -- friezes [eye shaped] can be seen in some walls. Macro means "twisted" and this refers to the winding nature of the walls on the cliff. Leaving this interesting site, we continue along a narrow dirt road clinging to the sides of the mountains. Occasionally, we pass a white wooden cross by the road, indicating a site where someone ran off it, tumbled far down the steep mountainside, and was killed. There is virtually no traffic here, mostly trucks with many passengers in back barely hanging on, no cars are seen. Once we spot a very large truck coming toward us. There is not enough room, so we have to back up to a wider spot to let it pass. Sliding off the road on the side away from the mountain would be fatal here. We come to the interesting town of Tingo. It was built originally on the Rio Utcubamba but was inundated in a flood and partially abandoned. So, it was rebuilt higher up. We go through the lower part with structures still showing their blue and green paint. Many of these are empty but a few people still live there -- we wave to them as we pass. We notice their chickens and sheep are still wondering among abandoned structures. We can see the new town far up the mountain.

Later, we pass the little settlement of Choctomal and drive on toward the lodge. We stop for firewood at a house where a man, woman, and a couple of boys are in the yard.. The man makes "firewater" and seems to be consuming all that he makes! He chews cocoa leaves as do many men in this region. The leaves are carried at the waist in a 6 inch high cloth sack hanging by a long cord from the neck. The two boys there have heavily patched trousers, in fact, there are patches on top of patches! Nazri attempts to talk to the old man in Spanish but says he is unintelligible. Further on, we pass a woman weaving a colorful rug of orange, white, and brown. Its about three feet wide. The "head" with yet unwoven parallel strings is attached to a tree. She leans back against the fabric nearest the shuttle to keep it taut and pulls the cross threads across the parallel threads to make it. The shuttle is highly polished from so much use. Going into her mud-brick house, I step inside one of the 2 dark rooms. There are dishes against a wall but I do not see any table. In one corner some large rocks form a little barrier for several guinea pigs that are eating stalks of corn. Apparently, they eat guinea pigs here but only on special occasions, they are considered a delicacy. Outside, an elderly woman chats with Nazri, the woman doesn't know how old she is, she's never been married but has a "common-law" husband, now deceased. We finally leave the house and arrive at the lodge at six p.m. The brick-stucco lodge has two stories with about 4 rooms each. Covered porches are on both sides. One porch faces west toward the ancient fortress of Kuelap, which lies across a valley and on top of a mountain. On the top floor is a dining room with a small, painted, corner fireplace. Unfortunately, the latter is unusable because it doesn't draw correctly -- too bad because we are cold, so we warm up by the kitchen fire! The kitchen is next to this room. Cooking is done over a fireplace with horizontal metal surfaces for the pots. Water is heated using a metal container above the fireplace, but apparently it would take a long time to get the water hot enough for a hot shower. We had tuna fish, rice, and potatoes for dinner. Afterwards, we chat with Peter about the Chachapoyans -- they inhabited these cloud forest from perhaps 800-1500 A.D. They constructed many villages with conspicuous round houses and the fortress of Kuelap. Not many details are known about them because they did not have a written language and their spoken language has been completely lost. Apparently, they did not have kings or royalty because there are no remains of palaces in the ruins. It begins to get cold and because we face a long day of horseback riding and hiking tomorrow, everyone goes to bed around 8:30.

  • Click for My Home Page:

  • Click for Lost Cities Travelog [1997] -Part II