Scrapbook: Peru’s Undiscovered North

Most visitors to Peru head south, to Cuzco and the iconic Machu Picchu. I'm taking you north, into the Utcabamba Valley, which straddles the high-Andes and the Amazon. It’s a lovely and undiscovered region. Let’s go.  (This is the third of three installments on Peru.)

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You’ve heard of Machu Picchu, but what about Kuelap? It’s a massive stone fortress in the northern highlands, larger and older than the famous icon. That’s where I’m taking you. A new cable car, opened in March, cuts the 90-minute car journey down to 20 minutes of soaring awesomeness across the velvety Utcabamba Valley. It nevertheless takes some effort to get there; commercial jet service takes you to Jaen, and it’s a four-hour winding drive from there.

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Lost city: Some 1,500 years ago, the Chachapoyas people, called the People of the Clouds, built a massive stone citadel in the clouds (altitude 9,850 feet) for ceremonial and later protective purposes. The Inca came and conquered them, but never completely. More on that later. Northern highlands of Peru.


Building blocks: The first question that comes to mind is “How’d they get the heavy stones up the mountain?” According to our guide Carlo, the Chachapoyans didn’t bring the rocks up so much as down, using the mountain itself as the source of the material. Clever they were, those ancients. Kuelap, Amazonas, Peru.

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Kuelap was built as a ceremonial center by the Chachapoyas people but over the years had to be retrofitted as the Chachapoyas had to defend against the Inca and when the Inca conquered it they in turn had to defend against the Chachapoyas, who had allied with the Spanish. There were only three narrow passages. The most significant and impressive is unfortunately currently closed for restoration. This is another entrance, slippery when wet. It’s astounding to walk the same steps pre-Inca and Inca peoples did a millennia or more ago. Amazonas, Peru.


Eye of the jaguar: Definitive information on the Chachapoyas culture is thin, as they were absorbed by the Inca and because many ruins have yet to be studied. What we do know is that the Chachapoyas built circular and quite fancy houses, some with a subterranean chamber (that acted as a fridge), others with built-in cages to hold guinea pigs (for food and warmth), and some with decorative elements such as the diamond, which may represent a feline eye. Amazonas, Peru.


Clouds, not crowds: Some 4,500 people a year go to Kuelap, the majority domestic visitors. Officials expect that number to more than double with the new cable car and upgraded infrastructure. The complex is large, and except for the narrow entrances, should be able to accommodate the increase. Machu Picchu, in contrast, is close to capacity and the daily throngs threaten both the site and the experience. In fact, to address this, new regulations limit the amount of time visitors can spend at Machu Picchu. This is the constant conundrum of tourism: drawing visitors and the income they bring while protecting the destination and its residents. Visitors must do their part by treading lightly and by supporting destinations and travel companies working to do it right. Amazonas, Peru.


Some compare Kuelap to Machu Picchu 30 years ago. I don’t know about that, but I will tell you that it’s easier to hear the voices of the ancients and see the stories writ in the stones when you're not rubbing shoulders with fellow travelers and hearing their phones beep and buzz. Amazonas, Peru.


No surprise, climbing a stone citadel at altitude makes one feel famished. A traditional lomo saltado always satisfies. Sabores del Utcubamba, near Kuelap, Amazonas, Peru.


Talking dead, or cadaver palaver: The Chachapoyas wrapped up the deceased and sometimes mummified them, and then placed them in individual sarcophagi or rooms dug into the cliff sides. Over the years, tomb raiders destroyed and discarded many, but some have survived, helped by the dry conditions. This amazing cache was discovered in 2014 in a remote area and moved to a gem of a museum in Leymebamba. (N.B.: Don't pinch and zoom this image if you get creeped out easily.)


Here’s the G-rated version of my previous photo--Chachapoyas mummy key rings. Leymebamba museum, Amazonas, Peru.


Window watching: The drive from Leymebamba to Jaen for the flight back to Lima is long, but the scenery surprises and delights at every turn. Rice fields in Cajamarca approaching Jaen. Peru.


Thanks for coming along with me to Lima, Paracas, and the northern highlands of Peru. I was surprised by the depth and diversity of this lovely country. There’s so much more there and I hope to return. All made better in the company of friends old and new.


Photos © Norie Quintos