29 June, 1997, Sunday
I wake up in the cool mountain air around 5:45 and prepare to go to breakfast. We crowd into the warm kitchen and later have tasty cheese omelettes and toasted buns with butter. We are told to expect lots of pancakes from here on because we can't carry eggs -- they would break.
We begin our journey to Kuelap [also Yalape] about 7:30 a.m., driving for an hour over mountain roads with incredible vistas of forests, petite villages, and green fields of many hues. Small settlements of just a few houses each are passed: Longuita, Pueblo Maria, and Quizango. Climbing to about 9,000 feet we stop and begin walking up a path until we reach light yellow limestone walls about 50 feet high -- a veritable fortress in the sky. There are two or three series of walls, surrounding hundreds of stone round houses. Perhaps three to four thousand people lived here. The fortress occupies about 10 acres and is oval shaped and about 550 meters long by 120 meters wide. It was constructed during ~1100-1300 a.d. Kuelap has only three large entrances, shaped like triangles. Each narrows both horizontally and vertically as you go inside. They were obviously designed to keep out intruders. Stone towers are at the north and south ends. From the top of the North tower, the 360 degree view is magnificent, better than Machu Pichu!
Next, we traverse the outer wall and come to the strange south tower, perhaps 20 feet tall, 50 feet wide, with outward leaning walls of unknown meaning. These walls are braced with wood supports. We have lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A small boy is carrying a sack with two very young rabbits, his dog ate their mother this morning, so he consoles them and shows them to us. After lunch, we walk to walls with friezes resembling eyes, a female symbol, and diagonal symbols, a male symbol. The density of round houses [each ~15-20 feet in diameter] here is very high, the walls are usually only a few feet from each other. There are only a couple of larger rectangular structures, perhaps for meetings. A and I explore the interiors of several round houses, in one I find bits of pottery. Later, we walk out of an entrance on the east side of the stone fortress toward the van. The stones of this fortress [about one foot long by six inches high] are not as large and polished as Inca stonework, and they are not multi angled. They were carefully cut into rectangles, however, and have survived for centuries, so the work was very well done. What will we build that will last this long? Not much.
Walking back to the van we find Peter engaged in an animated conversation with several peasants who have grazed their animals at Kuelap -- now an archeologist has told them not to do this. They are concerned that they will have no place to feed their animals. Peter says he will meet the archeologist and see what he can do. We then begin the drive back to the lodge, this is an incredibly spectacular drive, fields of different colors spread over the folded mountains. On the way we stop at a carpenter's place, he makes beds, etc for the lodge. His tiny piglets scoot over the grass near his house and into the woods. One of our guides tries to run them back on the grass but they keep going back to the protection of the woods as we frantically attempt to take pictures! By 4 p.m. we are back at the lodge. They have heated up some water in the outside hot tub -- lukewarm water. We jump in and soap up! The water is only tepid and a bit dark but we don't care -- it feels great! When the sun starts down it gets colder so we get out and towel off. From here on, we will be on foot and on horses, so we send back anything we don't need to Chachapoyas via the van, these things we'll pick up next Friday evening.
30 June, 1997, Monday
Today we go on horseback for the first time! We arise about 5:45 and get dressed for breakfast. Again, we have omelets. By 7 a.m. we've put all our gear out for the horses. Vivian is ill and we are not sure she will be going. We begin to examine the horses to pick the best ones -- there are 5 horses to ride and 7 for gear. By 8 a.m. we mount our horses and begin our trek towards the Yumal pass at 11,000 feet. This is a spectacular ride, we look down into the valleys with many shades of green as we climb higher and higher. Higher up, we pass thru clouds with a light misty rain -- its not heavy but just enough to force you to put on rain gear. Climbing higher, it becomes colder. Around noon we stop for tuna fish sandwiches and crackers -- it would not make much difference what we had, we are so cold and hungry that we would eat it! So far, we've ridden all the way, the terrain is alpine, there are few trees. Now, however, the trail is more rocky, so we dismount and begin walking, our destination is about 4 hours away by foot. As we descend, it warms up and we enter a different climate, palm trees and lots of jungle vegetation. Clouds drift thru the forest, moving thru and over the canopy. The trail becomes wet and treacherous, in places its like a washboard with foot-high ridges of black dirt with water between the ridges. This results from the hooves of uncountable horses. In these cases, you can walk on top of the ridges, just like the horses do. Later in the afternoon, it becomes damp and cool as we split into different groups for walking. Peter, A, and I walk together; we stop at several flat areas that look like likely camping grounds but keep going -- finally at 4:45 we see the pack horses grazing near ruins in a flat grassy area surrounded by jungle! This is called Palo Seco. Wow, we can stop for the day. The crew begins to unload our horses. A and I point out where we would like our tent and Peter helps set it up. By 5:15 we have everything in the tent and Rosa is cooking over a wood fire -- wonder what's for dinner?
Well, we have canned beef stew, potatoes, and rice in copious amounts, after all, they have to feed 14 people! Dinner is by candlelight --one candle! By 8:00 most of us are in our tents and ready for sleep. Unfortunately, the horses get loose during the night and come back to the camping area -- so we hear them munching grass right outside the tent. A says that one nudged her butt during the night! Next morning, we ask them to keep those horses away during the night -- they have kept us awake!
1 July, 1997, Tuesday
This morning we are up at 6 a.m. for breakfast of pancakes but no syrup -- so we put jelly on them. Robert, from England, puts lime juice and sugar on his! The horsemen eat last, and they mix pancakes with leftover rice and potatoes from last night on their plates-- what a breakfast! By 8:00 a.m. we split into two groups, Explorers: A, myself, and Greg, and Wimps: Vivian and Nazri. Explorers will double back with Peter to explore ruins that were reported to him but that he has not seen, he calls this area Calopunta. Wimps will travel ahead on a 4-5 hour walk towards Vista Hermosa, our next camping site. Around 8:15 the Explorers start back up the "path" we have just come down yesterday. This is a pre-Hispanic [Inca?] stone road that was once flat but it has been virtually destroyed by centuries of use by horses, thus the stones are at different angles, making it very difficult to walk on -- one cannot take his/her eyes off the road for even a second, otherwise, you could sprain an ankle easily. This is a very hard climb back up, it takes us 1.5 hours to reach the area that Peter would like to explore. We stop several times on the way up to rest but finally reach the site. We begin climbing thru the jungle up the mountain, its hard going, there's not really a path, just machete marks left by peasants. After climbing 30 minutes, hand over hand, through the jungle, we encounter the walls of round houses covered or partially obscured by vegetation. The houses are tightly packed, indicating that many people lived here once. Going further into the jungle, we encounter higher walls at several levels, perhaps 20 feet high. Interestingly, the mortar on these walls is intact, almost as they were built not long ago. Peter believes that the walls, though, were coated with a layer of painted clay which is gone. We don't find designs on any of the walls, like those in Kuelap. We locate several rare rectangular structures, perhaps meeting places. Each house seems to have a central pit, about 2 feet wide by several feet deep. These were covered by a capstone. Peter believes they were used for storage, but I say they were latrines! Finally, we've explored enough and start back down the mountain, arriving at the "road" by 12:45 We are very tired!
We now have to retrace our route, maybe an hour [faster downhill] to last night's campsite, Palo Seco, plus another estimated 3 hours to Vista Hermosa, plus another hour to our campground near stream -- not appealing. Peter has not even been on the route from Palo Seco to Vista Hermosa that we will take. So we begin this trek, already tired. Once we reach last night's camp site, Spencer opens a giant can of tuna fish, enough to feed perhaps 20 people, but there are only 5 of us! We debate whether to throw out the leftover tuna or carry it back, Spencer carries it back [it eventually goes to the horsemen!]. Refreshed, we can start down a new trail through the jungle, this trail is steep, muddy, and narrow. We pass several streams and hate each one because it slows us down and gets us muddy. We become nearly lost when the trail branches -- Peter has not been this way before and has to go down both branches and hope we are on the right one. He claims he is following Robert's shoeprints! By 3 p.m. we are exceptionally tired, and feeling a little lost, though Peter believes we are on the right trail. Finally, Peter spots Vista Hermosa, we all cheer wildly because we know the campsite is only perhaps an hour from there. But to get to VH, we have to down the side of a mountain, cross a valley, and go up another mountain! Its hard work because we are already tired. Reaching this town, we find a school, several houses, a soccer field, but no store -- too bad I really wanted an ice cold Pepsi, a hamburger, and french fries, not to mention a hot bath! Continuing further downhill, we reach a grassy area by a wide stream by 4:30 -- this is our camp site! Rosa already has a welcome fire going next to a large boulder.
A and I take off our shoes and soak our feet in the cold water, and minutes later I don my bathing suit and take a quick "bath" in the steam to wash off the sweat. So today, we must have hiked for 15 miles! We have spaghetti for dinner at 6:00 p.m. -- plus a combination of Pepsi and cane rum! It is almost dark by 7 p.m. Tomorrow we are to go to the "Secret Sarcophagi" which are located on the ridge of a cliff face high up a mountain called Cuichimal. We will not be able to reach the sarcophagi but we will view them from a vantage point nearby. These were discovered in 1991 by Damian Cruz, a farmer in the area, but we will be only the fourth group to get there -- if we can make it. The sarcophagi are from the Chipuric culture. Perhaps fewer than two dozen adventurers have reached this site. Peter says this will be a very difficult 2-3 hour climb through the jungle. Spencer says it will 4 hours, so who knows. Other sarcophagi are said to be located in the area of Karajia, [Lamud & Luya]. Regardless, it will be a good night to sleep to the sound of a bubbling stream!
2 June, 1997, Wednesday
Well this is it, we've been told to expect a hard day of climbing but that the reward will be worth it! We begin with a pancake breakfast, no syrup, but lots of strawberry jelly. It begins to rain a little and the horsemen erect a bright blue tarpaulin over our fireplace using small tree trunks cut from the surrounding forest. We become concerned that the jungle will become muddy, impeding our progress. Peter, Stephen, and Robert will go, and there will be a native who is familiar with the area, also, as well as one horseman. A, myself, and Greg will make the ascent up the mountain. Our plans are to ride horses up to a "hacienda" Cuichimal and then start thru the jungle on foot. By 8:30 we mount our horses under cloudy skies. We cross the stream by the camp site and begin to climb a steep path, we're glad that we aren't walking! On the way we pass several mud/brick houses with children playing. Some houses have coffee beans drying on the ground or in the "attics" -- where one can also see large bunches of bananas. The houses usually have colorful flowers of yellow, orange, and red. We pass banana and yucca fields, and orchards of oranges. We travel past a school and can see inside because we are up on horseback -- the kids yell as we pass by! After a while we stop on the narrow path and dismount. We explain to Spencer that we want to leave the horses with the horseman until we get back. The horseman says there is no food for his horses. So its decided to ride until we reach Cuichimal and perhaps leave the horses there. About an hour after leaving camp we reach the hacienda, which is a large mud-brick house with an overhanging porch -- several men are chewing coco leaves and staring blankly at us, they look wasted. A discussion ensues about the horses, the horseman wants to go back, we insist that he stay and keep our horses. The compromise is that he will ride one horse back to camp and leave three at Cuichimal. He will then ride his horse back to the campsite and meet us in the late afternoon.
About 10 a.m. Peter, Spencer, Greg, A, and I start out without the local guide. The path varies a lot, some of it is through light woods, we pass a sugar cane mill and an orchard of oranges. Its not too hard, can they have made a mistake? Nope, now we enter dense jungle. We start up a semi-path, very muddy, very vertical. You have to pull yourself by roots or vines that are above your head. You can't possibly stand up in lots of places. In many cases, you are traversing a 45 degree hill at an angle, fall and you will roll a long way. Peter and the local guide, who's finally arrived, lead, chopping through the green, dense growth of vines, bamboo, and limbs with their machetes. Many times we separate by 20 feet or more so that if one of us falls down a steep, muddy slope, he/she won't take the others with him! By 12:30 the going gets very rough, we are tired, hot, and sweaty, I've removed my t-shirt even though we are at a high, cool, altitude. We reach a muddy, sloping grassy area, with a sharp drop off, if you fall its goodbye to this world for sure. Its probably 25 feet across. We each get on hands and knees, in the mud, and carefully crawl across -- you do not want to make a mistake here. Just beyond this grassy area is a small area more clear of vegetation where only a half-dozen people can stand.
We reach this site at 12:30 a.m. and can see the cliff face much closer -- but we are still a long way off and use binoculars for the best closeup views of the sarcophagi. The cliff face does not quite reach the top of the mountain. The face cuts back into the mountain so that the jungle area above it overhangs. This indicates that if you were to drop off the overhang by rope, you'd be far out from the face where the sarcophagi are located. The cliff face is in the shape of a giant syncline curved toward the top of the mountain-- its been pushed up by titanic geologic forces. The sarcophagi are located at two levels sitting atop ledges that are part of the layered syncline. So how did the natives get there to place those sarcophagi? Good question, perhaps they climbed along the curved ledges but it not easy to see how they would have done that. The sarcophagi appear to be about as tall as a human, they have an upturned, flat face and rounded body, the remains of paint can be seen. There are at least one dozen of them, some have deteriorated. We feel very exhausted and yet fortunate to have reached this remote spot -- its like a reunion with the people who placed the sarcophagi.
Resting, I keep wondering how those guys got the sarcophagi up there! We have canned chicken, water, and soda crackers for lunch. Our campsite is at ~5,500 feet altitude and the overlook is ~6,500 feet, so we've gained about 1,000 feet altitude, but it was very difficult! At 1:40 we leave our vantage point.
Starting back we've cooled down a bit so I put my t-shirt back on. The trip back was faster than going up but still treacherous. We have to be careful on the steepest spots and again go down separated so we won't fall on each other. Arriving at the hacienda at nearly 3:00 p.m., a problem arises. The owner questions whether we had permission to go. Peter, apparently, had given him a letter some time ago from the University stating that he is an archeologist working for Peru and has responsibility. Perhaps the owner has forgotten the letter, Peter says "This guy always causes trouble." So the owner proceeds to type up a letter for Peter to sign about our expedition with our names on it. We can hear the sounds of clicking from an ancient typewriter inside a dark room! While waiting some 30 minutes for the letter to be finished [5 words per minute typing!], we study the men outside the hacienda. They are seated on a low, decrepit, wooden bench under a porch -- a few kids are scattered about. The men are chewing cocoa leaves, each has a small container of lime which they periodically put into their mouths with a toothpick. They are happy about our photographing their children and pose with the kids at their knees! Finally, the letter is finished, Peter signs it and we mount our horses to ride to camp.
On the way back to camp we stop at a "cantina," just a house with a large porch. There is a only a small sign on the wooden front door advertising Pepsi. Spencer asks if they have Pepsi for sale, "Si, Senor." So a woman brings a table with its cloth out of the house and sets it under the porch. Then she sets bottles of red strawberry juice [highly carbonated but little taste] and a couple of bottles of beer on the table. The "Pepsi" is awful but at least it is wet, so we drink it anyway! At about 5:30 p.m. we arrive back at our picturesque campsite by the stream and find the packhorses leisurely grazing in the tall grass. Dinner is in preparation over a smokey wood fire. Immediately, I change into my bathing suit and so did A. The bath was cold in that fast stream but it was very refreshing, regardless. I threw a cold towel on A's back and she dumped cold water on my head! Everyone was laughing! Later, Spencer brings hot popcorn, this sure tastes good after so much exercise today! For dinner we have macaroni with beef, tomato sauce, and water to drink. Nazri borrows tea bags from A after dinner and she persuades a guide to open a Pepsi for me! Later it begins to darken and we have refreshing hot lemonade which is quite welcome. So we really accomplished a lot today, visited sarcophagi seen by only a very few people, "hiked" >3.5 hours in the jungle, took a nice cold bath to wash off the sweat, and had a tasty dinner! Nazri and Vivian visited Vista Hermosa while we were hiking. They had a lot of fun with kids in the village and Nazri taught a class in school about selling things to tourists! They say Rosa cooked an excellent Peruvian lunch at our campsite, far better than our chicken sandwiches, I imagine!