Day 114 – 23 Jun, 2015
Chachapoyas was an enigma to me. I had never even heard of it a week prior to my arrival. When I first learned of its existence, I was told that there were ruins that rivaled Machu Picchu and the 3rd highest waterfall in the world was nearby but there are hardly any tourists there so it feels more authentic than the rest of Peru. Sounded fantastic! So what’s the problem? Well…it was a mere 14 hours from Trujillo by overnight bus. Awesome. We all know how much I love those! Not that I would fork out the money to fly but the closest airport is 8 hours away anyway so now it becomes quite clear why there aren’t many tourists there. Not only was I going to have to commit to 2 overnight buses (one on the way there and one on the return), but I would also need to make time for an extra few days. I had less than a month before I needed to be in Quito so I had to rearrange other destinations to make time for this spontaneous excursion. And now is when I tell you…it was 100% worth it!
Chachapoyas is an isolated city of buildings that are all painted white. Its tourist industry is only in the beginning stages so things felt a bit disorganized but the only other tourists I encountered were Peruvian and their numbers were few. I was met at the bus terminal by a long haired local named Jorge and he escorted me on foot to the tiny basic hostel on the edge of town. Brittney, the gum-smacking American girl that operated the front desk, helped me plan a full itinerary for the 3 days I would be there, giving descriptions of all the attractions this small city had to offer.
My first priority was Kuelap, the ruins from the pre-Inca period that were discovered in 1843. It’s listed as a “do not miss” activity by Rough Guides but there are other places on that same list (Tiwanaku in Bolivia for one) that are “definitely miss,” in my opinion, so I was unsure what to expect….. In short, Kuelap is nothing less than amazing. The fortress walls still stand in their original dominance. There are trees that have sprung up throughout the compound that add an authentic aura to the whole site. I felt like I was in a magical place. The lack of tourists, though, was made up for by the fact that Peruvians love the selfie stick and love selfies of themselves in every angle imaginable. In solidarity, I snapped a few of my own. When in Peru….
The Cascada Gocta, on the other hand, is a natural wonder, untouched by man. I have seen about 100 waterfalls during my months in South America, but this was one of the best. The magnitude and the power were mesmerizing. In spite of the Amazonian heat, the spray at the bottom of the falls was ice cold. If you stood anywhere within a 30 meter radius, you would be wet with a fine mist. The waterfall has been known to locals for centuries, but they kept it a secret from the rest of the world because there is a legend of a mermaid that lives there and she would put a curse on the village if her whereabouts were revealed. Now, I’ve never heard of an evil mermaid, but nevertheless I think the curse has actually been a blessing with the tourist dollars that now flow through the local community. When “discovered” in 2005, Gocta was measured as the third highest waterfall in the world. This has since been widely disputed, but it doesn’t need a title to still be a worthwhile excursion in Peru.
It was on this Gocta trek that I learned how to “properly” eat a granadilla, a tropical fruit with a hard peel and sweet edible seeds inside. The lady who sold it to me demonstrated how to whack (not sure how else to describe what she did to it) the fruit on a hard surface so as to rupture the skin, then proceed to suck the seeds out with a really loud slurp. I have since embarrassed my mother by doing this in a nice hotel. Sorry Mom!
By this time, I have spent 4 months in South America and while I don’t regret my decision to skip some things, I learned that Chachapoyas also has sarcophagi as can be found on Easter Island off the coast of Chile. The photos of the Karajia sarcophagi were likened to Easter Island’s statues in the tourist office. Sure, sign me up! I want to see this for myself!
I showed up for my English-speaking tour guide bright and early, only to find out that he spoke no English. Again, there were about 10 Peruvians who joined me and only one of them was roughly able to translate for me. My language skills have been improving but not enough to understand the history of the sarcophagi or how they came to be there. I wish I could tell you the age of these statues or the significance, but I just don’t know. Not only that, but the claim that these figures could compare to Easter Island was exaggerated at best and fraud at worst. They were nice, but no comparison to the famous Moai.
In addition to the sarcophagi, we also visited a cave with imposing stalactites and stalagmites. Considering we needed substantial safety equipment, it would have been preferable if my guide was able to explain, in English, what the safety concerns were but I tried to mimic the other’s actions and follow their footsteps in the cave just in case I was missing vital instructions, like “don’t step in this puddle because you might sink.” Our boots squished through the slimy muck. One poor girl lost her boot entirely and ended with a sock full of mud. The cave was musty and full of bats. The sound of our voices echoing through the tunnels and the smacking of our footsteps was enough to drive a person mad. I had had enough.
We returned to Chachapoyas in just enough time for me to hop on another overnight bus and begin the long journey back to the coast. 19 hours, 3 buses, 2 taxis, and a tuktuk were in my future….here we go again…