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On the archaeological trail

Cusco, Peru


I got into Chachapoyas about 6.30am, after a fairly comfortable journey on a night bus (my first – but by no means last - of the trip). It was a significant detour on my route towards Lima, and then Cusco, but there was a ruins called “Kuelap” I wanted to check out. I didn't have a lot of time to mess around (as I had a date with the Inca trail), so I had a nap, and jumped on a day tour run by the hotel I was in, leaving at 8.30am. It was a 3.5 hour trip from Chachapoyas to Kuelap, and I was struggling to stay awake for most of it.

Kuelap is a mountain fortress, often likened to Machu Picchu, but without the tourists. It's about 1500 years old, and was occupied by the Chachapoyas people, until they were conquered by the Incas just before the Spanish arrived. Despite the fact that our guide only spoke Spanish, I was able to understand most of the tour, with a bit of help from the three other tourists – one of who was Chilean – who translated a few phrases. Overall I was a little underwhelmed by the site – it was very beautiful, but quite small, and nowhere near as jaw-dropping as some of the information had made it out to be. Still, it was worth the trip.

On the way back, we stopped for a traditional lunch. The car had been pretty quiet in the morning, but we were all a bit more talkative on the return trip. The Chilean guy told us how he'd just recovered from malaria. He'd apparently gone into the jungle, and joined a commune with travellers from all over the world. They wanted to live like the natives, so ran around naked, and tried to catch their own food. Not surprisingly, a lot of them ended up getting sick, as they weren't using insect repellent, or taking anti-malarials. Those who were well ended up spending time looking after those who were sick, and so got sick themselves. Sounded a bit crazy to me – like something out of the beach.

I spent the next day chilling out in Chachapoyas (not that there was much to do), before jumping on a night bus to Trujillo, one of the bigger towns in the northern part of Peru. I only lingered here long enough to check out another site, this one from the Moche civilisation (there are many different civilisations that pre-date the Incas).

This time, it was a short drive from town, to two large pyramids called “Huacas del Sol y de la Luna”. The site was very impressive, with plenty of the original artwork in tact, and a lot of excavation continuing. The guide explained how the Moche civilisation had collapsed, due to a severe El Nino year, causing massive flooding. This led the priests to demand more sacrifices (food, clothing, ceramics, etc.), which made the situation worse, eventually causing the people to revolt. The “Huacas” site – the Moche's capital – was abandonded.

Having some time to kill before yet another night bus, I found one of the few museums open on a Sunday afternoon in Trujillo. It was a privately owned collection of ceramics, mostly from the Moche period. There were about 2000 pieces, in perfect condition, all crammed in the basement of a petrol station, a few minutes walk from the centre of town. The quality of the work was pretty astonishing, with depictions of animals, aspects of everyday life, including illness, coca chewing, and very graphic sexual acts (these were hidden behind a door, which the guide opened for me - “not for the children”). A lot of these were several thousand years old. I met the owner, who was 90 years old, and had been collecting for 70.

My final stop before Lima was Huaraz, often called the Switzerland of Peru. Not surprisingly, it's nestled amongst a large mountain range. I found an excellent hostel, with a stunning view of the mountains. My main reason for visiting, other than the views, was another archaeological site – Chavin de Huantar, the second oldest in South America. The day I arrived, it was closed, so I ended up doing a short trek with an Australian couple, a Dutch girl and and English guy. They were trying to acclimatise to the altitude before attempting a tough five day trek, with no guide, porters, or even a donkey. I was secretly glad to be on a timetable, so I could leave them to it.

The next day, I took another long mini-bus trip to Chavin. Besides being around 3000 years old, the Chavin culture is interesting, because of their temple. Inside, it's a series of labyrinthine tunnels, where water was piped nearby to create loud ambient noises. The theory is, the priests administered hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus to the people, and made them walk through the tunnels, in an attempt to induce fear and awe. I'm sure it would have worked.

Until 2003, Chavin was actually thought to be the oldest site in South America. But then, a site near Lima called “Caral”, was found to be much older. In fact, it's about 5000 years old, which places it on a par with the Egyptians and Babylonians. I had wanted to visit this site too, but by the time I got to Lima, I was a little bit jaded from the night buses, and constant long day trips. It's also not the easiest site to get to, so I decided to skip it.

I breezed through Lima (stopping long enough to check out the catacombs), and headed to Cusco, where I found a comfortable hostel, and decided to chill out for a few days before attempting the Inca trail.

Actually, as I write, I've already completed the trail, and am back in Cusco beginning a couple of weeks worth of Spanish lessons. Admittedly, I'm a bit behind on the blog, but hopefully I'll now have a bit of time to catch up.

permalink written by  Sam_C on October 10, 2009 from Cusco, Peru
from the travel blog: Epic Detour
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Awesome, can't wait to hear more!

permalink written by  Andy Baird on October 21, 2009

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Previous: Guayaquil, and on to Peru Next: The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

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