After the floating Uru Islands and Isla Taquile on Lake Titicaca, after Cuzco and Machu Picchu, we continue exploring Peru’s many wonders, before heading to Ecuador. Fascinated by the rich history and exotic culture of this vast South American country, curious about some of its greatest mysteries left unsolved on the face of the Earth by civilizations much older than the Incas, we visit a few more ancient archeological and historical sites which have left modern scientists puzzled with riddles: Nazca, Cajmarca and Chachapoyas.
The Nazca Lines
The Nazca Lines are series of ancient geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert of southern Peru created by the Nazca culture between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D.- a thousand years before the rule of the Incas. Scattered in the dry desert over 500 square kilometers are hundreds of simple lines and elaborate individual figures of people, animals and plants of grand proportions- the biggest some 270 m across. They can only be observed from a high vantage point- from the surrounding hills, or even better- from the sky. So we prepare to fly.
We arrive in Nazca early in the morning and immediately after exiting the bus station, we are greeted by a sleepy guy who offers small airplane excursions over the lines. We go to his office and bargain for the best possible last-minute price (the plane flies in 20 minutes and they still have space)- US$80 per person, while the regular price is at least US$100. A minivan takes us to the local airport and from there we take off. Everything is happening in a hurry. Our plane is tiny. A French couple, our family of three and the two pilots barely fit in. The plane lifts off and heads to the wrinkled dry red desert. We feel weightless, dizzy, excited and happy circling over the world-famous Nazca Lines. We have headphones in which we can hear the pilot pointing at and explaining the shapes.
A hummingbird, a spider, a monkey, a shark, an orca, a lizard, a jaguar, a condor, a man, a woman, a tree, a flower- giant very precise drawings etched on the desert’s skin by the Nazca people. With simple tools, they methodically removed the top layer of red pebbles, uncovering the lighter grey ground beneath, creating these stylized figures of lifeforms, as well as simple lines.
Seen from above, by gods or any other creatures living in the skies or visiting our planet from a distant world, the Nazca Lines would seem like a picture encyclopedia of the creatures populating our planet Earth. Why the ancient Nazca People spent day after day removing rocks in the hot waterless desert, making giant drawings? Was their intention to record their world and inform those who ruled the sun and controlled their faith about life on Earth? Archaeologists, historians, and mathematicians have all tried and failed to determine the purpose of the mysterious Nazca Lines.
Maybe they are a way to communicate with extraterrestrials, who probably have already met the Nazca people? One of the most famous Nazca geoglyphs is an astronaut waiving a friendly hand to the sky.
Another strange site in Peru is near the historical town of Cajamarca. It is a humble not very famous archeological site in the town of Otuzco named Ventanillas de Otuzco, which consists of small “windows” carved in the face of the rocky hills in the countryside, very much resembling bee hives, used as a funerary building- an ancient necropolis.
There are 337 square and rectangular niches used to house the dead, carved with amazing precision some 2,000 years ago. This City of the Dead, built by the Cajamarca people long before the Incas moved in, is another archeological wonder of which very little is known.
We are fascinated by the Ventanillas de Otuzco, the hot thermal Baños del Inca used by Atahualpa as a spa not far from Otuzco, and by the town of Cajamarca itself.
Cajamarca became our favorite Peruvian destination, with stunning colonial architecture, cool mountain climate, beautiful surrounding nature with many rivers and lakes, and friendly welcoming people. Our only regret is that we didn’t spend more time there.
An important mountain settlement ruled by Tupac Inca’s father Pachacuti during the Inca Empire, Cajamarca is the site of a famous battle which took place in 1532, when conquistadors Francisco Pizarro and Hernando De Soto defeated the Inca army and captured its leader Atahualpa- the Last Inca. They held him in a room in the main temple and promised to let him free in exchange of a ransom- the room of the captive Inca General had to be filled with gold. Within two months, the room was filled with gold offerings, yet Atahualpa was executed. This marked the end of the Inca Empire and the beginning of Spanish colonial rule.
Thanks to the CouchSurfing community, we meet John Alcalde, our host in Cajamarca and spend a couple of nights in his awesome medieval-looking house. It’s a century-old big colonial building, where we sleep in a room on the second floor. John takes us around the city and tells us about its particular architecture, its many cathedrals, its festivals, people and nature. We visit the famous Ransom Room, where Atahualpa spent the last days of his life, and an old empty church. There, in the church transformed into a museum with no visitors but us, John sings a sad area from a famous opera with majestic acoustic. In the evening, we drink beers in front of the big fireplace in John’s house, and watch a film on his home cinema system.
We also travel to Chachapoyas in the Amazon Andes – a region in northern Peru covered by dense tropical forest and pretty remote and isolated form other regions of the country. Here we visit another monumental archeological site similar in proportions and beauty to Machu Picchu, but much less accessible and still not very popular.
The fortress of Kuelap (“The Machu Picchu of the North”) is a walled city of great proportions (600 meters long and 110meters wide) built in 6th century AD consisting of over 400 buildings within massive exterior stone walls. Built on a ridge 3000 meters above sea level overlooking the Utcubamba Valley, visiting Kuelap can be an adventure.
Instead of joining an expensive guided tour starting from the town of Chachapoyas and riding in the tourist minibus almost to the entrance of the ruins, we decide to hike. First, we take a local bus to El Tingo which brings us to 1800m above sea level and from there we take the horse trail up along the left bank of Tingo river. The hike is not difficult, but is long and going steep up with some muddy sections and a small mountain village not far from the ruins. It takes us over 4 hours to reach the summit of the mountain where the heavy stone walls of Kuelup rise on a barren hill.
It’s already afternoon and all other tourists have left! We are the only visitors and the entire site is deserted.
The massive exterior stone walls of the great fortress of Kuélap reach upwards of 20 meters (60 feet) in height and possibly served to defend the city. The 400 individual houses are all made with cylindrical stone constructions as well as raised platforms built on slopes.
The Chachapoyas civilization, also called the Warriors of the Clouds, was a culture of Andean people living in the cloud forests of the Amazonas Region of present-day Peru. The Incas conquered them shortly before the arrival of the Spanish in Peru. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Chachapoyas were one of the many nations ruled by the Inca Empire. Much of what we do know about the Chachapoyas culture is based on archaeological evidence from ruins, pottery, tombs and other artifacts. Only an estimated 5% of the Chachapoyas sites have been excavated according to a BBC documentary from January 2013.
The treacherous bus-rides on winding dirt roads, the four-hour hike up and three-hour hike down the steep mountain is absolutely worth it. Joining a guided tour form Chachapoyas would also be worth it, whatever the price, as Kuelap is not a site to miss when visiting Peru. Besides Kelap, there are a few more unique places not far from the town, like the second highest waterfall in the world or the Carajía sarcophagi, so spending a few days in Chachapoyas is a must.
Carajía is an archaeological site in the Utcubamba Valley, located 48 km northeast of the city of Chachapoyas, where eight Chachapoyan mummies (only seven left today) were discovered on the cliffside, referred to by local residents as the “ancient wise men”.
Dated to the 15th century, the seven sarcophagi with their mummies still inside stand up high on a vertical cliff facing east, an inaccessible and unexplored cave behind them. They are about 2.5 meters tall, constructed of clay, sticks and grasses, with exaggerated jawlines and with human skulls sitting atop their heads, which makes them unique. Their inaccessible location high above a river gorge has preserved them from destruction by looters.
This time we do join a guided tour, as there is no public transportation to the site, and we don’t regret it. Not only we share this journey with a really awesome young Swedish couple, but our guide turns out to be a great very knowledgeable person, as well as a believer in the Ancient Aliens Theory, who tells us many interesting facts, legends and rumors about the Chachapoyas people and their mummies.
We feel like Indiana Jones; privileged and forever grateful to be able to behold these majestic and mysterious ancient sites: the Nazca lines visible only from the sky, the 2000-years old necropolis of Otuzco near the one of the most beautiful colonial towns of Peru- Cajamarca, the majestic fortress of Kuelap with its round stone houses and tall walls and the eerie sarcophagi occupied by real mummies standing on a cliff near Chachapoyas.
Watch our short YouTube video- Two Months in the Andes With Maya