Passage Note #51: Peru II - Off the Beaten Path in The Northern Highlands
We enjoyed our introduction to regional Amazon jungle-inspired cuisine - soft-ball sized juanes (rice with fish in a banana leaf), tacu-tacu, patarashca cooked in a bijao leaf, inchicapi , chonta, and piache. We stopped into a bar called La Alternativa just to see the bottles of fabled jungle elixers, “harkening back to a time when alcohol was literally medicine.......Shelves here are stacked pharmaceutical-style with dusty bottles containing uvachado and 15 other homemade natural concoctions based on soaking roots, vines, etc. in cane liquor.” (Lonely Planet Guide). We noticed the one containing a bloated snake was still unopened.
Part II: Off the Beaten Path in The Northern Highlands
After Arequipa in southern Peru, where to next? We looked at our likely choices: Puerto Maldanado and a jungle experience? the famous Nazca lines requiring a fly-over to view the mysterious giant landscape figures from the air? return to Lake Titicaca and see the birthplace of the Incas, entering Bolivia? the northern sea coast and its ancient Moche culture?
Then we saw a photo, posted on our new Peruvian’s friend’s Facebook page, and it clinched our next destination: get Off the Beaten Path and leave the Gringo Trail. It was this breathtaking photo of Gocta Falls as well as the other marvelous treasures we read about that excited us about going to the little-traveled Northern Highlands of Peru:
It is worth mentioning at this point that most people equate Peru with the Inca Empire - end of story. But historically, the Incas were relative late-comers (14th century) and the aggressive conquerers of many pre-existing independent indigenous realms which had been powerful and rich in culture in their own right. This is why some indigenous sided with the Spaniards when they arrived, trading one oppressor for another. Here, in the Northern Highlands, the pre-Incan civilization was the Chachapoyas or “People of the Clouds”. The archeological riches they left behind included Kuelap (a fortress ruin considered second only to Machu Picchu), Karajia Sarcophagi, many cliff tombs (mostly raided and looted), and the mummies of Leimebamba. The access to these somewhat remote wonders are newly emerging and still require some effort: long car rides, steep hiking trails, - often horseback is the best way to see them.
Our specific destination was the cloud-forest encircled colonial town of Chachapoyas. Our choices for getting there were unclear. The Lonely Planet Guide described a long 13 hour bus trip from Cajamarca that half captivated us and half struck fear in our hearts; it was a wild ride on wild roads. There was a long trip enroute from the coastal town of Chiclayo. An airport purportedly existed in Chachapoyas but we discovered it was shut down because it was so dangerous. On the other hand, we could take an 8 hour bus ride from Tarapoto, a steamy little town on the cusp between the mountains and the jungle. All options required a flight through Lima and in the end we decided on flying to Tarapoto.
Motorcycles are the transportation of choice in Tarapoto and we have never seen so many!! Even the taxis were 3 wheeled motorcycle rickshaws, called mototaxis. The noise in the narrow streets was absolutely deafening. And here’s a clever little twist - instead of the bustle of “meter maids” on the street like we are used to, there were uniformed people roaming the curbs of Plaza Mayor offering the motorcycle owners a piece of cardboard to shield their black leather seats from the blazing sun. No burnt butts here! Not quite sure if they were city employees or not, but the municipal seat-coverers collected their money when the owners returned....a minimal charge by the hour.
Tarapoto itself was not much to see but it was a sweet little town and the gateway to the Amazon jungle, river running adventures, and “mystical tourism” with visits to brujos or healers. The annex at El Mirador Hostal had just been opened two months earlier and we enjoyed our stay there - the room was new, pristine and quiet, the delicious breakfasts were served on the breezy roof-top terrace overlooking the surrounding tropical hills, and the 80 year old proprietor, Talma, who spoke no english, was as warm as the ambient rainforest air. Looking at Linda’s passport, Talma insisted on calling her Linda Ruth - a name only her grandmother had ever used. Linda told her she could call her that if she could call her “Abuelita” in return - ”little grandmother”. Abuelita and Linda Ruth exchanged many laughs and conversations in spanish over the three days that we stayed there and at one point Linda even had to act as translator between her and the leaders of a large group of British students on holiday.
With tearful hugs, we said goodbye to Talma and her extended family in Tarapoto and took an 8 hour bus to Chachapoyas - Chachas for short - the charming hub of the Northern Highlands. It makes a great base from which to explore. We settled into our hostal, an old colonial mansion with a lovely courtyard, but we visited a popular backpackers hostel to seek out the owner, a highly respected guide named Jose. We hoped he would be available to take us to one of the area’s archeological wonders, the Karajima Sarcophagi, but he was already booked. Instead, he invited us to sit down, offered us a cup of tea, introduced us to his wife Dona and son Jose Jr., spent a couple of hours in enlightening and informative conversation, gave us some advice about our travel plans, insisted we return that evening to watch some National Geographic documentaries about the area ruins, and then arranged an english speaking guide for us. A real gem of a guy!
Off we went to the Funerary site of Karajia to see the spectacular sarcaphagi. The drive took nearly two hours, past mountainous terrain pockmarked with ledges and caves where other “tumbas” (or tombs) were clearly visible. How many more lie undiscovered? Once we reached a small adobe hut and paid the entrance fee, we began a long walk down a rutted, sometimes steep trail past bulls and fields of mustard yellow flowers and blue lupines. We turn a corner and we are at the bare limestone cliff sitting high above the river below, stopping at a shelf where human bones are eerily splayed out on several rocks by the dirt track. This spot is below the ledge where the effigies stand, a perch they have occupied for more than 600 years. From this vantage point you can finally look up at the painted clay figures with binoculars and see the bleached skulls sitting on their heads, placed there as an accolade.
You question how on earth they were built there; the ancestors wanted a secure place to place the mummified bodies of their leaders and noblest warriors and this was it. Almost. Sadly these tombs have been looted, as evidenced by gaping holes where the sacred contents were removed. Steeped in thoughts of ancient civilizations, we hiked the steep trail back, foregoing the horses the locals make available for tourist return transportation...and headed for Chachapoyas once again.
Gocta Falls and Cocachimba
With much anticipation, we left the next day for a nearby canyon and the luxurious Gocta Andes Lodge, facing the third highest waterfall in the world “discovered” in 2006.....and stood on the spot where the spectacular photo was taken that inspired our exploration of the Northern Highlands in the first place. Our five day experience here was idyllic - a little piece of heaven.... in fact Linda loved it so much that she even considered buying some land there overlooking Gocta Falls! Well ok - Chuck is still rolling his eyes at that one! But we met a wonderful Peruvian couple from Lima who are still in the process of building a house there. Rocio used to work at the World Bank and she is a dynamite woman! She personally is buying much of the primary forest that remains from local farmers in order to protect it from deforestation. While we were there she sponsored a Wayra workshop in the adjacent village of Cocachimba to enable the women to increase the marketability of their crafts and help them join together in a women's artisan cooperative. Rocio and Agusto's house is right below the lodge with the same view, hidden out of sight, designed by their daughter who is an architect. One day we’ll go back and visit them!
The Lodge arranged a special birding guide to trek three hours with us to Gocta Falls. Much of the trail is through primary forest paralleling the river and it was rich with bird life. The pinnacle was seeing the magnificent Andean “Cock of the Rock” - the Peruvian national bird - the male with its striking bright orange color and fan-shaped crest. At a point overlooking the base of the Falls, we rested and listened to our guide Wilson tell us of the myth of the blond mermaid living in the pool below who was responsible for various disappearances and magic. Although it was “discovered” just 7 years ago (or rather brought to the attention of the outside world), the locals had known of the Falls for generations but never spoke of them because of the legend and superstition that bad luck would follow.
Kuelap - Pre-Incan Ruins
The massive stone fortress of Kuelap has been described as a pre-Incan citadel that “rivals Machu Pichu in its grandeur but lacks its crowds” and the “most significant and impressive pre-Columbian ruins in all of South America”. Indeed, we were among only a handful of visitors. Precariously clinging to a limestone peak, Kuelap is a 700 meters-long oval fortress surrounded by a near-impenetrable wall averaging 20 meters high. There are 3 narrow gates, said to strategically force enemies to enter single file. On two levels there exists the remnants of 400 circular dwellings thought to have housed up to 3500 people, one of which has been reconstructed with a thatch roof. There are beautiful fretwork bands of stone composed of zigzag and rhomboid designs. It is eerie to walk among the ruins, made ghost-like by the mists and inhabited now by gnarly trees covered with colorful bromeliads and exotic orchids.
This was a sanctuary of aristocrats of the cloud-forest-dwelling warriors of the Chachapoyas culture that oversaw vast panoramas of mist shrouded mountains occupied by their people. It was discovered in 1843 and the fate of this citadel only came to light recently with the discovery of eighty skeletons huddled together in one part of the fort. The National Geographic film we saw at Jose’s postulates, through forensic archeology techniques, that they were killed in a “coup” by their own people who, suffering a decline from disease and bad fortune, blamed the leadership and wanted a change.
It was a long tiring fantastic day from Gocta Lodge.
Huembo Reserve and the Marvelous Spatuletail Hummingbird
The icing on our Northern Highlands journey was a successful quest to see one of the rarest and most marvelous birds in Peru. “There are 328 varieties of hummingbirds and they only exist in the Americas. Some are smaller than a locust while others have a beak longer than their body to get nectar out of long trumpet like flowers.... but the most beautiful hummingbird exists in this area: Lodiggesia Mirabilis or the Marvelous Spatuletail.”
It is estimated that there are only 1000 in the world.....their world being the very limited range of this remote area of Northern Peru, on the Andes slopes that fall to the Amazon. They were first observed at nearby Pomacochas Lake and it became the mecca for birders and ornithologists seeking this iridescent little bird.
The go-to person is a local potato-farmer-turned-birder named Santos Montenegro - the Spatuletail Guy. This truly humble and unassuming young man has garnered some fame as the endangered bird’s protector and ambassador, and has even purchased 4 hectares of land on his own to create a private reserve to preserve its habitat (which is rapidly disappearing due to deforestation).
We spent an overnight with Santos at the ECOAN (Association of Andean Ecosystems) visitor center at Huembo where he now works, singlehandedly making a difference in this hummingbird's future survival. Here he oversees a children’s environmental education program and a plant nursery for revegetation of critical habitat. Next to the vistior center is a two room building which can accommodate a small number of birders.
Santos led us through the gardens of the reserve to a hand-made feeder in the understory of some trees late in the afternoon. Here the three of us sat patiently for 30 minutes watching an assortment of hummingbirds come to feed before The Event occurred. Sure enough we spotted two adult male Spatuletails and one female. This is a small shy species; the male has a tail with a pair of filaments twice as long as its body, each ending in a racket-like blue feather. He “twirls his tail feathers like a cowboy doing rope tricks” while dancing in mid-air in an amazing courtship display during breeding season. Locally the Marvelous Spatuletail is called "el colibrí perseguido por una mariposa", the hummingbird chased by a butterfly.
What wonders the world is full of! Watch these two professional videos for some great footage:
When darkness fell and the birds were gone, we piled into Santo’s three-wheeled mototaxi and drove into Pomacochas for dinner where we were joined by his brother who returned to the visitors center with us. The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn, walking the area with Santos to look for more birds before our departure at 11:00 a.m.
What a thrilling experience! Not only were we excited to observe this rare brilliant bird firsthand - the Marvelous Spatuletail Hummingbird - but we felt privileged to have gotten to know Santos...the marvelous guy behind the marvelous bird.
Santos walked us to the road where we flagged down a shared taxi to take us into Pedro Ruiz, the transportation crossroads of the area.
It was time to bid adios to Peru so we steeled ourselves to begin our way back to Ecuador - not the normal way via the coast but by a harrowing and difficult journey through the Back Door.....
Lluis, the owner/builder of Gocta Lodge who was there with his ten year old son, painted pictures of the scenery in the wet season when the entire cliffside, from left to right sprouted with fresh streams of water and the main Gocta was twice its volume. Timing is everything sometimes and indeed, during our stay some unseasonably rainy weather broke on the high side of the cliffs sending torrents of waterfalls down the ledges. Lluis kept insisting how amazing it was that we got to see this spectacle in August! We had scheduled a few lay days here to just relax and we enjoyed reading on the balcony on our second floor room, swimming, roaming the orchid gardens and Cocachimba pueblo, and eating the fine food in the lodge dining room - all under this incredible setting and the vista of multitudes of waterfalls.
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #51
TRIP REPORT: For the details of our trip in Peru's Northern Highlands