I have gotten to know one of the world’s most dangerous roads intimately this past weekend. By bus and car, horse and hitch, and of course, by foot. A fourteen hour overnight bus ride takes me, Todd, and Meg from Trujillo to Chachapoyas at 7,500 feet on the jungle side of the Andes Mountains. The driver checks his tires in front of the sign that marks passage into the Amazon jungle before a terrifying 2.5 hour, 5 am ride in a cab along sheer cliffsides with more blind spots than pavement leaves us at Choctamal Lodge. As the sun comes up, the clouds slowly rise above the mountaintops and the shadows reveal a deep valley.
A nap and breakfast of eggs, rolls and tea await us. Then a 6 hour hike to an ancient fortress on the top of the highest mountain, the Chachapoyan skyscraper of a different sort, Kuelap. Well, it started out as a six hour hike. We decided to try hitchhiking, and grabbed the first van to take us to the top of the mountain. Arriving at the small parking lot at the base of Kuelap, I spy a group of horses. It isn’t hard to convince Meg and Todd to forsake the rocky path for finer friends, so we ride up to the fortress on horseback.
Kuelap was the defining feature of Chachapoyan society, which was conquered by the Incans, who thirty years later fell to the Spanish conquistadors. It holds the central temple, and plenty of houses, but the two level fortress was designed to keep watch over the valleys filled with people below. I found a bamboo walking stick, so we walked around tailed by a group of Peruvians who kept asking for pictures with Meg. Kuelap has some of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen. I literally walked around saying wow every time the tangling vines and trees cleared. After a few minutes meditation at a more secluded, but equally beautiful spot, I went down the mountain and had lunch—leftover Pollo Arroz Chaufa (chicken fried rice) that Meg cleverly placed in a bag for easy transport.
Our real lunch was spent in the nearby town of Maria, known for its proficiency in textiles. A surprisingly tasty steak was preceded by Todd, who was not feeling well, going to the town clinic and getting a cocktail shot of god-knows-what in a most sensitive region. Let’s just say it was really hard to walk. Or sit. After lunch we began hitchhiking back over the mountains, but a sudden rainstorm hit, which would have drenched us had we not been passing an abandoned house.
After crouching under the roof of the home built with planks of wood (a rarity, as most here are built with clay bricks) I realized I had left my stick in the restaurant. I walked back to get it while Todd and Meg went about hitchhiking home. I didn’t think this was a problem until I realized I did not know the name of the lodge we were staying at. I began hiking back, attempting to flag down cars before realizing I wouldn’t know what to say to them. So I kept hiking. An hour or so later I reached another town. Having long ago finished my water supply, I attempted to use my one sol to buy water. Everyone I met up there was friendly, and I was offered water, but had to decline since it wasn’t bottled. Finally I found a little bodega, and was greeted by two young boys who called their grandmother. Her name was Juana, I later found out, and their nombres were Harvey and Carlos. I practiced my Spanish for a few minutes before moving on, as mountain darkness arrives early.
Finally arriving at the lodge after a two hour hike and successful completion of the entirety of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” I sat down to carve my walking stick. Somewhere I have seen a stick in which a man carved all the interesting places he had taken it right into the stick, so from a picture in my camera, I carved a vision of Kuelap. It was amateurish, but good enough for a first try. Not thinking I’d need a picture of it, I didn’t take one.
The next morning, we slept in a little bit and woke up, ready to go to the third tallest waterfall in the world. I didn’t sleep very well, I’m still not sure why. After an hour’s walk and failed hitchhiking attempts, we arrived at the nearest town. Then we spent 2.5 hours waiting for someone to pass by who would take us. We tried coca leaves, listened to flute music, talked to the locals, then finally got the privilege of hopping into the cramped back of a taxi cab taking a lawyer and his girlfriend down from Kuelap. As I was trying to fit my stick into the back of the cab, the cabbie, whose face was more wrinkled than any I can remember seeing, said “No!” and unceremoniously tossed my hard work into a ditch and slammed the trunk.
So that wasn’t great. It got worse when the driver said that there was no way we could reach the waterfall, since it was a lot further away than we thought. Hungry, we stopped for the worst lunch so far on the trip, of which I ate every piece of soggy rice, hard yuca, and fatty, rigid pork. Not because it was tasty but because I was starving. The tour guide who had been touring the Peruvian couple recommended a different way to spend the afternoon: more ruins. Apathetic at first, I got into it when the route to the ruins was over a river with a hand pulley cart.
The ruins turned out to be pretty awesome, carved into the mountainside using the same rocks as the mountain itself. More interesting though were the tombs, still containing bones and pot sherds dating back 600 years. Pieces of pottery were found all over the place, and I was happy to find a place relatively untouched by archeologists and civilians alike, a place with caverns undiscovered, and secrets still kept. So long as there are places like that left in the world, I know I’ll have something to do. It was a bit of a climb to the tombs, and my boots kept slipping, so I went tomb-raiding in my socks, which in turn got full of mummy dust. When the tour guide took us down to field filled with fossils, I got even more excited, and ended up finding a small fossil of some organic something he said I could keep.
After that, the trip was pretty uneventful. A routine cab ride back to Chachapoyas, a nice dinner (though everything was cold for whatever reason,) and another 14 hour bus ride back to Trujillo. Only this time I had a coach seat at the very front, meaning that every cliff we almost careened off of, I got to watch. That said, in between Spanish versions of Eight Below and ConAir, I had plenty of time to think about my upcoming plans. Stay tuned as we finish the wind turbine later this week.