As the clouds roll down the mountain, the dense jungle foliage emerges. Further afield, structures clinging to the mountainside appear seemingly from nowhere. Climbing higher into the cloud forest towards this archaeological site it becomes ever more apparent that not many have been here as we must hack our way through this jungle. Arriving at the site we see mummies, sarcophagi and a series of human skulls littered about. This is adventure at its finest.
In a corner of Peru you have probably never heard of, sits a series of remote valleys in Northern Peru that have remained largely off of the regular tourist path. Home to the fascinating cloud people of Peru, Chachapoyas is shrouded in mystery with ancient pre-Inca sights being discovered daily. Wedged in between Peru’s Amazon jungle and Andean Highlands makes this region one of the most biologically rich cloud forests in the country. This is an area of Peru reserved for adventurers, this is Chachapoyas!
Getting to Chachapoyas through Jaen
I lifted off from Lima international towards a city in Northern Peru that I know nothing about apart from where it is on a map. There are flights that fly directly to Chachapoyas, but they are less frequent and often full. Jaen is the closest city with an airstrip capable of having a jet land.
Jaen is a densely populated city of ramshackle redbrick buildings sprawling over a lush green valley near to the Amazon basin. Landing here from Lima I instantly felt the humid climate of the worlds largest jungle looming nearby.
From Jaen to Chachapoyas is well over a three-hour drive, if you get here by the afternoon flight as I did you won’t make it there until late in the evening. Coming alone and taking public transport you can almost assure you will have to stay the night in Jaen. Lucky for me my friend Rob from Vilaya Tours arranged a pickup to take me directly to Jaen, which I highly recommend you do coming here.
Gocta Waterfall, Chachapoyas
There are a few ways to get to Gocta, all of which require hiking up a muddy trail. The trails are not difficult, but this region being a Cloud Forest means the weather is unpredictable and you must always prepare for you guessed it, torrential rains.
We decided to take the upper Gocta trail which is located further North than the more popular tail which takes you to the foot of Gocta lower falls.
The Northern trail takes you alongside the steep cliff face with epic viewpoints a long way until you reach the misty foot of the upper Gocta Falls. It’s a gorgeous hike with spending the better part of your day, but be careful at the upper falls as a few “Instagrammers” died here from trying to get the obligatory selfie.
The Hanging Sarcophagi of Karajia
From Gocta we drove high into the nearby hills following a rough dirt road past quaint farming villages. The scenery changes fast here as you ascend in altitude. From the lush green lowlands to the grassy highlands in a matter of 1 hours drive, you enter completely different climate zones. Seeing the way people live in these different climate zones is amazing.
We were heading to Karajia. This is quite possibly one of the most famous sights throughout the Chachapoyas Region. Chachapoyas is famed for its Sarcophagi, many of which are still being found, but Karajia are amongst some of the best preserved.
It’s a pleasant thirty-minute walk to the cliff tombs, partly alongside a steep mountain path. If your not paying attention, you can miss the Sarcophagi as I did!
The main Sarcophagi of Karajia still show their original paintings and display human skulls atop which are said to have been hunted for sport! Inside the Sarcophagi are Chachapoyan mummies in the fetus position.
Chachapoyas Town – Ant Liquor
Back in Chachapoyas Town, we hit the streets in search of some local grub. In Chachapoyas, there is one well-known restaurant El Batan De Tayta where local fish ceviche, Cuy Barracho (Drunk Guinea pig) and a drink made from a giant Amazonian Ants are just some of the items featured on it’s unique menu. The forever smiling chef David excitedly greets each and every patron that enters and suggests his favorite menu items. His passion for art and food is represented brilliantly with his over the top plating style and restaurant décor.
Chachapoyas has one main pedestrian street, it’s a historic street that is great to walk in the evening. Locals come here to gossip and hang out!
That night at around 2 AM we were awoken suddenly by our hotel swaying from what was to be the largest earthquake Chachapoyas has seen in 17 years! Running to the streets and feeling the earth tremble was quite the experience! Luckily not much damage occurred to the town.
The Cloud Fortress of Kuelap
The Chachapoyan people were one of the last remaining empires that the Incan had not been able to conquer. They were a very advanced group basing their society on agriculture and were able to harness their environment mastering the cloud forests.
Kuelap was their capital if there was one. This mighty fortress sits atop a steep mountain nearby to Chachapoyas town. Its massive walls are among some of the largest in all of Peru. The stone architecture here is unique and has a lot more geometric patterns built in the walls unlike the fitted Inca stone.
Entering the massive steep gates into Kuelap you find a city of ruined roundhouses, burial sites, temples, and the odd resident lama. The views from the main temple are spectacular overlooking the entire Utcubamba Valley.
Searching for Mummies at Sarcophagus de Cerro el Tigre
Heading North from Chachapoyas towards Jaen we ventured to one of the more unknown, but spectacular sights in the Chachapoyas Region. Known as the Sarcophagus de Cerro el Tigre is a newly discovered archaeological site containing a series of unique cliff tombs and Sarcophagi.
Starting from a small mountain village you work your way up to a steep mountain path into the clouds. It’s an arduous hike and takes a strong hiker six hours return.
At the mountain summit, we got our first glimpse of the clinging Sarcophagi in the distance. From here it looks close, but you must cross a grassy field, descend to the river and move again climb another very steep mountain path.
At the archaeological site, we walked past ruined tombs and caves. The ground was littered with human skulls and materials the mummies had been wrapped in. At the sight of the Sarcophagi, I climbed up a dizzying death-defying ladder that clings to a jungle tree to get the best view of the Sarcophagi. From the ladder viewpoint, you get within a few feet of these archaeological wonders.
Back down the mountain, Rob told me of countless other Sarcophagi up the mountain. Sending my drone up in search of them we found many more! Seeing the grim clay faces peering out at the jungle brush high up in the mountains was spectacular. As if for the first time they have been seen in thousands of years!
Vilaya Tours – Chachapoyas for Adventurers
I’ve traveled with a lot of companies in my career as a travel photographer, but Vilaya is one that has stuck with me. Chachapoyas is a difficult place to do independently and I can almost guarantee if you come here on your own you will end up using a company. The owner, Rob at Vilaya, is a true adventurer and this shows in his epic tours. Vilaya tours will give you the “Indiana Jones” experience in this stunningly beautiful and remote corner of Peru.