Adventure in the Andes: Exploring Pre-Incan Ruins of Kuelap in Peru

On the way up to Kuelap! From left to right: Carolin, Lea, Daniel, Me, Bea

On the way up to Kuelap! From left to right: Carolin, Lea, Daniel, Me, Bea

The morning started with the typical chaos of five people getting dressed, eating breakfast, and checking out of the hostel at 7:30am. It was especially complicated because our clothes were still soaked from the Amazon trek the day before. Nevertheless, we made do with what we had, dressing in clothes that were wet, or damp at the very least. I grabbed my shoes and cringed. There’s nothing worse than having to wear wet shoes… I wracked my brain to think of any solutions. There were no dryers at this hostel, no hair dryers

Never thought I'd ever wear bag socks again... Thanks mom!

Never thought I’d ever wear bag socks again… Thanks mom!

either… I seriously contemplated putting my shoe on a skewer and roasting it over the stove. But then something amazing happened. I remembered the last time I was stuck in a similar situation. Growing up in a tiny town with high elevation in California, we experienced rain and snow, but not often. Instead of buying proper rain shoes for the rare occasion that we would use them, my mom insisted her alternative method of keeping our feet dry. Socks on first, then plastic bags tied tightly around the ankles, then shoes. Yep. And you thought your parents embarrassed you. Imagine running on the playground with the latest edition of wal-mart bags following you around. It was terrible, but it kept my feet dry. Never in my life would I think that mom-trick would ever come in handy. But as my friends and I gratefully shoved our dry feet into bags of plastic armor, the childhood embarrassment transformed into intense appreciation. Moms just know.

With our bags packed and our feet comfortably dry, we jumped in the van for our tour of Kuelap. Our group of 5 consisted of: Lea from Kenya, Carolin from Germany, Bea from Brazil, Daniel from Ireland, and myself, Gina from the US. A lovely Peruvian family joined us. The father happened to be a professor of German and English, and was from the city of Pimentel, where we all lived and worked! A chattering mix of Spanish, English and German filled the kombi and along with interesting bits of information from our guide Jaime about the region. It was the perfect soundtrack to the breathtaking scenery that unfolded before us.

The windy road to Kuelap

The windy road to Kuelap

We arrived after a 2-hour bus ride that tightly hugged the mountains and climbed elevation rapidly. Luckily, we stopped halfway through to enjoy a cup of coca tea, an ancient remedy used to cure illness and prevent altitude sickness. More commonly, it’s known for containing a small natural chemical component, called cocaine. Chill out, it’s not what we, in the west, know cocaine to be. Coca leaves have such a small amount of cocaine that intense highs don’t happen. Our whole group had the tea, and some of us even ate the leaves but didn’t feel any different. But we also didn’t get altitude sickness, so we can’t complain! I just hope I don’t have to take a drug test anytime soon…

Coca tea leaves, commonly used to treat altitude sickness.... among other things...

Coca tea leaves, commonly used to treat altitude sickness…. among other things…

Ah Kuelap! We exited the van and proceeded to climb the trail to the ancient ruins. This inland and northern part of Peru was the home of the Chachapoyan culture, a Pre-Incan tribe that lived high up in the Andes. They were a comparatively peaceful culture that didn’t believe in slavery or human sacrifices. These ruins date back to around 500AD. It really baffled me that I was able to take wide-angle photos without any curious tourists wandering into the shot. True, February tends to be off-season because of the rain, but I didn’t expect it to be nearly empty up at the Kuelap ruins.

We wandered around the impressively high ancient stonewalls, and made our way through the main entrance. It opened up to a beautiful stone path, projecting upwards, decorated by ancient glyphs and young grass at the same time. That mysterious feeling of interconnection took over. The feeling I got when I visited the ancient temples of Ankorwatt. The feeling I got when I visited my great-grandfather’s village in Italy. I had never met him, but I met his first house and the church he was baptized in. It’s a somewhat nostalgic sentiment of curiosity, amazement, and gratitude for the people who wandered about before.

The top of the settlement consisted of an abundance of circular stonewalls that used to be living quarters. I pondered the reasoning behind only choosing circular rooms. My philosophical mind

Circles? Why Circles?!

Circles? Why Circles?!

wondered about the depth of their knowledge, of the connectedness between the Chachapoyan people and the universe. Was it a decision based upon spirituality, a circle, symbolizing connectedness, fullness, and balance? Was it an ancient practice of aligning with the stars, similar to the ancient pyramids of Giza? Or something else? Why circles? Why not squares or rectangles? What do they know?! Then the guide explained that it was merely to diffuse wind and rain. -_-

Nonetheless, it was beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it. At the very top we found one “room” that was a rectangle. Apparently the Incans put it there after the Chachapoyan civilization ended. We wandered over to another room where the medical routine of drilling holes in peoples’

The symbol of the Chachapoyans

The symbol of the Chachapoyans

heads was practiced. *Shudder* A few times we came across a diamond symbol, sometime with a cross in the middle, on the sides of the walls. Apparently, the Chachapoyans had three animals they held in high regard; the serpent, the jaguar, and the condor. The symbol represents the eye of the animals and is meant to define the character of the Chachapoyan people. Our tour group explored the area, spotted some llamas grazing in the distance, and stared down the massive cliffs of wet green. Here in Kuelap there were forty buildings surrounded by this massive wall… and we were 3,000m above sea level!

We spent a few more moments in awe.

Then we slowly made our way back to the van. We winded down the hill and made our way back to the coca leaf place where they had a lovely lunch waiting for us. Eggs again! Oh what a surprise…. (if you can’t sense the sarcasm in my writing, just know that being a vegetarian in Peru confines your options to scrambled eggs, omelets, and egg sandwiches.) We also had some interesting warm juice with our meal… not bad.

A few more hours in the van and we were finally back in the city of Chachapoyas. Although my

They really do exist!

They really do exist!

heart wanted to stay another day and explore the city further with my new local friends, we scrambled to book a night bus and said our goodbyes to Jaime, Alonso (the friendly pizza guy from the night before), and the hostel owner. Since we booked our bus so last minute, we ended up with the last 5 seats available, scattered all over the bus. I was fortunate enough to have someone agree to switch with me so I could sit next to Beatriz and Daniel. A few hours into the bumpy, windy ride back we came to a sudden complete stop. We stayed still for about 10 minutes and finally, the impatient woman behind us went to find out what was going on. She came back and shouted “No pasa!” at me. Beatriz and I looked at eachother. “No entiendo” I said. “No pasa!!” again. Clearly she was upset… like, really really upset. After trying to communicate further we found out that there had been a landslide in the road (a fairly common occurrence for the only road to Chachapoyas). Rumors spread that we would be stuck there for 2 hours, 5 hours, 11 hours.. in addition to the 9-10 hour drive back. No one really seemed to know for certain. I just wish I had packed more food and water.

Senora checking out the steep hills

Senora checking out the steep hills

After about 30 minutes of hearing people share speculations and previous experiences, I decided to take a break from it all and venture outside the bus. I met a group of English and Australian tourists doing the same. They assumed that we would be there for upwards of 5 hours. Apparently they had walked down to see the landslide damage and there was only one person working on clearing the road. My friends joined me outside and we unanimously decided to stroll over to landslide damage ourselves. I grabbed my headlamp and we proceeded to follow the line of stationary vehicles until we found some rocks in the road. It didn’t seem like much but we knew there had to be more ahead… and we heard a few rocks still falling… It occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to be in the path of potentially falling rocks, but we continued on anyway for a little bit.

Climbing the ruins of ancient Kuelap

Climbing the ruins of ancient Kuelap

The massive brown river next to us sounded like it was rushing at full force that night. After a few more minutes of walking and noticing cars creeping forward, we thought it would be best to abandon the idea of finding the mass of damage and make our way back to the bus instead. Only a few minutes after we jumped back on, the bus started to creep forward as well, bit by bit. It was then that the cough syrup started to kick in and I was lulled into a deep sleep.

Chachapoyas = Success