Saturday, July 26, 2014

La Petaca

Meeting my guide for special trips is always important, but even more important is my first encounter with the lovely animal that will carry me up and down some steep trails for the next two days. 

Early on, Lázaro and I met up with another arriero (guide), delivering food to tourists camping in the high country. Fortunately, we had plenty of coca leaves to chew throughout the journey. The road is easy to navigate on horseback for the first four hours.

The most dramatic photos are those recorded in my personal memory, as the way was too rough to photograph. What a shame that I didn't have a video camera mounted on my head. I was completely focused on keeping my balance on a sure-footed (de buen pie) horse. We worked well together under challenging and dangerous conditions. After considerable effort we arrived at the scenic plateau of Tajotambo where there is a hut for sleeping and cooking. The site is an ancient Chachapoya/Inca resting place. The hut is built from salvaged stones from ancient cultures. 

This stone support has Inca inscriptions, ca. 1500 ad.
This is a roof support where I will sleep tonight.

At this elevation of about 9,000 feet above sea level my heart begins to race and it becomes difficult to take each step. We hike to get a closer view of the La Petaca cliff in the distance.

We get to a sunny spot close to the cliff, where we can view the chullpas or burial mausoleums. I rest on my back, looking up, and eventually see the burial tombs in the cliff (lower right in photo below).

On the walk back to the hut Lázaro collects firewood for our dinner and breakfast.

Ancient stones, first placed here 500 and more years ago.

Next day I survive the challenging ride down the canyon to meet with the road below. No photos means that it was a hair raising experience with no time for pictures.

Back on terra firma we meet up with the daily milk truck. The truck collects milk produced in the area every day, and that includes Sundays, holidays, and even soccer finals.

We return to our destination near Leymebamba, protected by the spirits from bad weather.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Jungle flowers in Moyobamba, Peru

Visiting for the first time to the mountains of northeastern Peru, I chose to approach the Chachapoyas region by flying to the jungle town of Tarapoto, on the Shilclayo River, tributary of the Río Mayo. At first light I was greeted by this lovely ginger lily (Alpinia zerumbet).

Later, on my return from the sierra, I enjoyed some tropical decompression at Moyobama, a regional capital city overlooking the Río Mayo.

Moyobamba is on a plateau with sweeping views of the Río Mayo and beyond. 
Ginger lily is abundant there.

This street (below) is closed to vehicle traffic, with carefully maintained gardens.

Below is an upscale residence.

A big attraction in Moyobamba is the Agro Oriente Viveros, a major orquid cultivator and exporter. I took a quick guided tour through the tightly packed nursery. This is not the orquid blooming season, but there was plenty to see and enjoy.

(Below) A spectacular Pico de loro (Parrot's beak) (Heliconia rostrata), commonly found in gardens in Moyobamba

Anthuriam in various shades of red to pink to white (below).

Anthuriam "Rex"

Here is a Staghorn Fern (Platycerium andinum)

All throughout my visit to the nursery there was a loud and screeching cry from above, where there were more than a few noisy guacamayo

The orquid nursery provides a rescue for reptiles.
Here are native caimán.

Red ginger (Alpinia purpurata)

Poolside with new friends.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

La Congona

One of the most impressive pre-Inca sites I visited in the Chachapoya area of the northeastern Andes Mountains is the mountaintop village of La Congona, named for the abundant congona plant that grows here. It has barely been studied or visited and is overgrown with thick vegetation. Experts say construction began around 1100 to 1350 a.d., then abandoned in the early Spanish colonial period in the 16th century. Today a farm is located close by with cows tramping through the underbrush, disturbing the area. There is no tourist infrastructure and it is physically challenging to arrive here.

My guide, Lázaro, provided a horse for me as he walked the entire 2-3 hours each way up and back on steep and rocky trails. We passed through the village of San Cristóbal and many cornfields. Most corn is left to dry in the fields. It's collected when dry, then soaked and boiled to provide delicious and nutritious food. The dry stalks provide sturdy poles for beans to grow. Squash plants cover the ground below.

At times the terrain is steep and rutted. People and animals regularly pass along such difficult places in the road. You can imagine what this is like in the rainy season.

After almost three hours of arduous climbing we arrive at a high ridge at about 9,300 feet elevation where the Chachapoya typically built their cities and fortresses. These locations were easier to defend from marauding hoards below.

In contrast to the Inca, who built rectangular structures, the Chachapoya houses are round, with rhomboid friezes. They even inserted large, flat stones that protrude from the structure and is thought they were exterior balconies.

Indiana Roger slashing through the jungle! This building has square corners, indicating Inca influence. The Inca conquered the Chachapoya in 1470, about 60 years before the Spanish arrived. So this structure is modern (!), probably erected in late 15th century.

After a tasty picnic lunch it's time to saddle up and head down the mountain.

This narrow ridge is only about 10 feet wide, with a steep drop off to several hundred feet below on both sides. The venerable Chachapoya ancestors and gods have blessed us with beautiful weather for many days now, with just a small amount of rain occasionally at night.

The final descent after about two grueling hours brings us to this panoramic view of Leymebamba. Even after riding on horseback my body feels battered but invigorated at the end of the trip.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


The Chachapoya people in northeastern Peru flourished about 750-1470 AD, at which time they were conquered by the Inka culture. The Inka were in the process of creating an empire that extended from Quito, Ecuador, to central and southern Chile and Argentina. A system of roads connected all points of the empire, paved with stones. The llama was their means of transport of goods.

The Chachapoya interred their leaders in tombs carved into vertical cliffs. One type of burial was mausoleums made of clay and resembling small houses where they would place several well prepared mummy bundles, wrapped in woven textiles. The above photo was found on the Internet and shows a probable reconstruction at a place known as Revash, not far from the town of Leymebamba. The site was carefully chosen so that the interred ancestors faced the rising sun, guarding the people in the many villages below. It is thought that it was built about one thousand years ago.

From Leymebamba I hired a car and driver to go up in the mountains to the village of San Bartolo, close to the ruins, at about 2,800 meter elevation (9,186 feet).

Typical construction in villages found all over the Andes. The house at the rear of the photo is not yet complete. The structure is framed with logs cut from the forest and covered with a tile roof. Then mud mixed with straw is inserted between the logs, as in the foreground. There are also some adobe bricks and some red bricks that are used less often. There is no chimney. Smoke from the cooking fire escapes between the tiles, creating a less than healthy environment.

New adobe bricks are drying in the sun along the road to San Bartolo.

A moderate hike of 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) brings us to the cliff where the tombs are located. If I knew how to insert a red arrow, it would show the location of the tombs on the lower left, where you can see a lighter color in the stone. My driver, Gonzalo, suggested we hike down to the tombs. My heart jumped a beat as I cautiously agreed.

Looking down to the valley below was a little unsettling.

Looking out on the vast panorama was awesome.

Then I turn toward the cliff and see plants clinging to the vertical rock. Can you see the path (far right, center)? That's where we will go, a muddy and narrow descent. My pulse is racing again just as I prepare this blog.

We arrive at the tombs, called chullpa in the Quechua language, but it's very difficult to get a view of the scene with our noses practically against the rock face.

What a thrill to see the chullpas up close. The surviving mummy bundles and other artifacts have all been removed and properly preserved and studied elsewhere.

As I peek inside, I see chambers on different levels. Unlike some other ancient burials in Peru that contain only one mummy, the chullpa likely contained several individuals. Concentric circles and animal figures are painted on the rock.

After an hour or so in awe of this scene it's time to return. It's a lot easier to go up this path than it was to come down. After the site was built in the 14th century, the Chachapoya destroyed the path that led to the chullpas. That was to protect the site. Unfortunately, rodents and looters eventually destroyed much of the contents.