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Funeral buildings located in Revash (Photo: InkaNatura Travel)
Kuelap Fortress (Photo: InkaNatura Travel)
Inside Kuelap Fortress (Photo: InkaNatura Travel)
Kuelap Fortress (Photo: InkaNatura Travel)
Kuelap Fortress (Photo: InkaNatura Travel)
Rugged region yields ruins of the Chachapoyas

By Carla Hunt
InkaNatura Travel

Contributing editor Carla Hunt trekked through Peru to view the discovered remains of an ancient culture. Her report follows:

LIEMEBAMBA, Peru -- Another chapter in Peru's ancient history unfolded with the discovery of mummies from the Chachapoyas civilization -- positioning this northeast region of the country for a tourism boom.

Archaeologists have uncovered an extensive network of ruins and burial sites of the Chachapoyas (meaning "people of the clouds") scattered on the eastern slopes of the Andes, in the Amazonas department.

The sites date from about 800 to the tribe's defeat by the Incas in the 1470s.

It's not easy to get to these ancient finds.

By air, there are two gateways: on the Pacific Coast side at Chiclayo, with its own archaeological sites at Sipan and Tucume, and in the east at Cajamarca, the site of the first encounter between the Incas and Spanish conquistadors.

Reaching the Chachapoyas dig area from Chiclayo is an eight- to 10-hour drive; from Cajamarca it is a 10- to 12-hour drive.

The route follows dirt roads that wind up mountains, thread along cliffs above river valleys and pass by Indian villages.

This rugged region was once inhabited by a half-million Chachapoyas, who fought from their mountaintop strongholds against the conquering Incas.

The Incas and the Chachapoyas were linked by common cultural traits, such as language, ceramics, weaving, terraced farmlands and distinct burial customs.

What is left today of the Chachapoyas are remnants of massive stone fortresses atop rocky peaks, of which the most monumental is Kuelap, which bears a strong resemblance to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu outside Cuzco, Peru.

Visitors can drive nearly to the base of Kuelap's oval-shaped, encircling wall and walk into the bastion via one of three passageways, which, because it was built to stave off invaders, narrows to accommodate a single person at a time.

Within the 65-foot-high city walls -- once sheltering several thousand people -- and sprawling across a mountain ridge are ceremonial centers, observation towers and 400 large, round houses adorned with friezes of geometric designs. Three of the houses have been restored, including their conical-shaped thatched roofs.

From this 10,000-foot perch above the Utcubamba River, the view is stupendous.

Next along the paths made by the Chachapoyas is the burial site of Revash, whose tombs, or chullpas, are small adobe houses with red roofs and bricked-in windows in the shape of crosses.

The tombs are built into a cliffside that rises up from the Utcubamba valley. A three-hour hike up a steep trail from the village of Santo Tomas to Revash brings into view bones strewn about the looted site and paintings on stone walls.

Our group went by horseback (about a one-and-a-half hour ride) up a facing mountain and viewed the funeral houses from a distance through binoculars.

A significant discovery from the Chachapoyas culture was a tomb of 200 mummies that were found in the fetal position, tightly bound by woven textiles.

Many of the shrouds had faces embroidered on the cloth.

The remains were carried from their resting place high above the Lake of the Condors (a 10-hour horseback ride from Leimebamba) during an archaeological rescue effort, which was filmed for the Discovery Channel's "Explorer" TV show and aired on CNBC last September.

National Geographic Magazine also featured the find in its September 2000 edition, "Lost Tombs of Peru".

The mummies are on display at the new museum in Leimebamba.

The museum also houses replicas of tall, painted sarcophagi crafted of mud and clay in which the Chachapoyas placed the shrouded bodies of their chiefs.

Around the mummies, both inside and outside the sarcophagi, archaeologists (and looters before them) unearthed a variety of artifacts that accompanied the burial, such as pottery, utensils for harvesting maize, weapons, musical instruments and jewelry.

Our group's base for exploring the land of the Chachapoyas was outside the village of El Chillo, at the Chillo Hostal, a comfortable, family-run inn with a pretty courtyard, flowers everywhere and a little pool.

Hearty but simple meals were served in the main house, and picnic lunches were prepared for excursions.

Rooms, located in a separate building, were spacious with rustic furnishings -- and plenty of blankets, as there was no heat.

The modern bathrooms also were large, but offered only cold showers; hot water was expected to be added this season, according to the owners.

Also we recommend the report "Moche Burials Uncovered" in National Geographic Magazine.


InkaNatura Travels offers programs, customized tours in Peru's Chachapoyas area.

Kuelap Discoverer - 5 days
Fixed departures from Chiclayo (every Thursday from June to October) Include visit to Kuelap Fortress, Revash and Leimebamba. Overland transportation, short treks, horse riding. US $ 899

Chachapoyas Explorer is a six-night plan, also from Chiclayo, that visits Kuelap, Revash, Chachapoyas town, Leimebamba, Celendín and Cajamarca. Departures are scheduled for June 28; July 12; Aug. 2, 16 and 31, and Sept. 13. The plan is priced at US $ 1,290 per person, double.

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