Chachapoyas and Leymebamba Peru
The dense cloud forests blanketing the valleys around Chachapoyas, Peru hold many secrets. Swinging my machete to clear the brush we push on deeper into the unknown in search of archaeological sights shrouded in mysterious mythological tales. Above, the tombs of ancients cling to the cliffs, now and then a human skull protrudes from the brush fallen from its final resting place. Clearing off the vines from a stone wall, patterns begin to emerge, these are not natural piles of stones, they are the remnants of a civilization long gone and swallowed by the jungle. It’s remote, hot, and took a lot of effort to get here, but damn do I ever feel like Indiana Jones! This is the wilds of Peru, welcome to Chachapoyas and Leymebamba.
Preparing for the Unknown in Chachapoyas, Peru
Nestled deep in the cloud forests of Northern Peru is the small village of Chachapoyas. This was our base for exploring the uncharted valleys of the mysterious cloud people with our friend Robert from Vilaya Tours.
Here you can pick up all your essentials, machetes, rain ponchos, and snickers bars, you know all the important gear for the “wanna-be” adventurer. Its also one of the few places in the region with comfy guesthouses, decent restaurants and Wi-Fi signals that actually work, except after major earthquakes (a magnitude 8 hit while we were there!).
Chachapoyas is worth spending a day to explore. The historic pedestrian-only walkway is a fun place to meet locals and see the unique style of architecture in this region. If you’d like to try local Chachapoyan cuisine, then head to no other than El Batan de Tayta. This quirky place offers drinks made from Amazonian Ants and the famous Cui Borracho…. Yes, the drunk Guinea Pig.
The Cloud Peoples Capital, Kuelap
The fortress of Kuelap is perched atop a mountain a few hours down the road from Chachapoyas. Leaving the cloud forest behind we climbed high above to the desolate plains above 3000 meters where much of the Chachapoyan ruins can be found.
Kuelap is much different from the rest of the archaeological sights around Peru. The wall surrounding the inner city was the first thing I noticed, It’s massive and yet extremely intricate. Entering the walls through a narrow passage we climbed up to the top of the city.
Inside Kuelap you pass by many sights that remain buried in the sands of time, yet to be discovered. There is so much mystery here about the people and Kuelap their capital is the perfect place to start any adventure into the region to gain insight into who they were.
The Sarcophagi of Karajia
Heading down from Kuelap back into the cloud forested valleys there are many burial sights. Like elsewhere in Peru the Chachapoya people had a fascination with death and the afterlife. When conquered by the Incan Empire the burial rituals became more in-depth and they began to construct massive sarcophagi that were placed in seemingly impossible locations on the side of cliffs. The mummies are bound in a fetal position and placed inside a large basket which was constructed into artistic masterpieces.
Karajia for me was one of the best examples of Incan/Chachapoyan burials. The sarcophagi are some of the regions most intact and artistic. Human skulls have been placed on top of many the sarcophagi as well adding to this already intriguing sight. Archaeologists agree the skulls are placed there as a symbol to the buried one was most likely a head-hunter.
Getting to Karajia is simple, from the car park it is a pleasant 30-minute walk downhill. Parts of the trail have a steep drop off from the side of the mountain, but there are many rails to keep you safe.
Mummies of Leymebamba
Although Chachapoyas has plenty to discover, the real adventure begins in the settlement of Leymebamba a few hours down the road from Kuelap. The area is famed for its mummies and tombs which are still being discovered by farmers who dig them up accidentally.
The real reason to visit Leymebamba other than the incredible outlying sights is the Leymebamba Mummies Museum. In this museum, you will see quite possibly the largest collection of mummies anywhere in Peru. These mummies are special as well, due to how they are wrapped and how perfectly they are preserved. Many refer to the mummies as the “screaming” mummies as they do appear to be screaming, but this is just how they were placed at death.
The mummies were found nearby to Leymebamba at the Lake of the Condors. After difficult negotiating with the individuals who found the mummies, they are permanently places here in Leymebamba. This is quite possibly one of the best sights in all of Peru in my opinion!
Horseback Trek to the Cliff Tombs of La Petaca
So, the adventure begins. Driving one hour deep into a remote valley west of Leymebamba we met up with a local guide who is well recognized from a BBC Documentary on the area. Our guide brought horses for us as this trail is difficult on foot due to the muddy and rough terrain.
Believe me, I am no expert on horseback, but this was a wild trail! It was steep, covered in thick bush and lead to some outstanding viewpoints that truly give you the feel of remoteness.
The first sight is the cliff tombs of La Petaca. There is only one way to get inside the tombs and that is to rappel from the mountain summit. This requires a lot of planning, so instead, I did what any modern adventurer would do to save money, sending the drone up to look! With the drone (hovering from a respectable distance) we were able to access insight into many tombs that are not even reachable by rappelling down!
The bodies of mummies often are hanging out of the tombs and in time will fall to the bottom of the valley. It won’t be long before many of these archaeological wonders succumb to the sands of time.
Diablo Huasi Cliff Tombs
Further up the valley climbing higher to a plateau we found another cliff tomb sight called Diablo Huasi. These tombs are largely undiscovered and virtually impossible to enter due to there extraordinarily dangerous location. Once again, I sent the drone up to look, so many of the mummies can be seen, often exposed to the elements further decaying the mummification process.
Visiting here only made me more intrigued at the further hidden tombs there must be scattered around this remote region.
Cliff Tombs of Revash
Revash nearby to Leymebamba does not require as much effort to get to. It’s also a completely different style of burial sight. In Revash the tombs look to be large mud structures rather than small sarcophagi.
It’s a short 45-minute hike from the trail front that leads to these tombs. Most don’t realize that coming here you are not able to get very close to the tombs and you must see them from the distance. Nevertheless, the sight is amazing and well worth the visit.
Revash is also famed for its ancient paintings and symbols. The cliff structures are adorned in these magnificently preserved paintings. Many of the symbols showing sacrifice and intricate designs very unusual looking compared to the rest of Peru.
In Search of the Lost City of Cataneo
Entering the lost city of Cataneo I felt as if I was reliving my childhood fantasy of becoming Indiana Jones! Just south of Leymebamba the countryside is riddled with tombs, ancient cities, and adventures to be had.
Of course, it requires special expertise to explore these places, but traveling with my companion Rob Dover from Vilaya tours who has countless years of experience adventuring to these sights made it possible for me to see them!
Cataneo is one of the sights that is now possible to visit, but still requires trail navigating, bushwhacking with a machete and of course obtaining many cuts/bruises from venturing into the cloud forests to get here.
After several hours of arduous trailblazing, we cut vines down to expose intricately laid stonework of an ancient Chachapoyan city. Cataneo is very undiscovered, but it’s easy to uncover many roundhouses and what we assumed to be temples. The further you venture into this jungle, the larger and mare fascinating the structures become.
Very few have been here and I being of the first to photograph this area was privilege beyond belief! Also, as I stated above, it truly felt like I was on one of those adventurous with the great Indiana Jones. This is where adventure is made! This is the land of the cloud people, Chachapoyas, Peru!
This is THE adventure travel company for those looking into uncharted territories of Peru. Rob has countless years of experience adventuring here and will guarantee you a unique experience in this remote corner of Peru. Vilaya Tours has my guarantee to be one badass company! And I cannot wait to head back soon for the next adventure, the northern Amazon! Check out some of Rob’s exclusive tours HERE with Vilaya Tour.