Chimborazo- The Icethrone of God

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Which mountain is on the equator but is covered in permanent ice?

Which mountain is 2.5 km lower than Everest but is 2 km further than the center of the Earth than Everest?

Chimborazo.

After the few unforgettable days horseback riding in the green mountains of Vilcabamba it’s time for a more serious, much colder and much more extreme hike. Next on our adventure list is Chimborazo. In the ancient indigenous language of the people who inhabited these lands, Chimborazo means ‘The Mountain of Ice’ or ‘The Icethrone of God’.

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Chimborazo, standing at 6,263m above sea level is an ice-capped inactive stratovolcano covered with glaciers within the Cordillera Occidental range of the Andes, in Ecuador. It’s 150km south of Quito and 30 km northwest of the town of Riobamba, at the end of the Ecuadorian Volcanic Arc known as the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’.

It’s location- only one degree south of the equator on the equatorial bulge where the Earth’s diameter is greater than at the latitude of Everest, makes it 2 km taller than Everest, if you measure the distance from the two peaks to the center of the planet! For the same reason, Chimborazo is also the closest point on Earth to the Sun.

In the past, it was believed that Chimorazo is in fact the tallest mountain on Earth, even from sea level, and this reputation led to many failed attempts on its summit during the 17th and 18th centuries. It wasn’t until 4 of January 1880, when the English climber Edward Whymper became the first man to reach the summit of Chimborazo.

Even today climbing Chimborazo is not an easy business. It’s dangerous due to glaciers, risk of avalanches, and severe weather conditions. Climbers usually start at night in order to reach the summit before sunrise when the snow melts increasing the chance of avalanche and rockfall. The easiest most popular route is El Castillo form December to February and June to September on the west side of the volcano, starting at Whymper hut. The climb itself demands skill and is often on black ice.

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Our intentions are to visit Chimborazo, not to climb the summit, for which we are not prepared at all. Getting to the second base- the Whymper hut, is relatively easy and doesn’t require skill or preparation. The serious climb begins there, but for us it will be the end of the road. We take the bus from Riobamba to the village near the park’s entrance and the driver drops us off right at the door. The best thing about Ecuador, besides its friendly people, is that ALL National Parks are free for locals and tourists alike. So going to Chimborazo doesn’t cost us much more than the bus tickets in one direction (we hitchhike on the way back). The park’s entrance is at 4,386 meters and it’s already extremely cold. We have trouble breathing at this altitude. We are not used to altitude and cold anymore, after three years in the tropics, at sea-level…We have our hats, pants, NorthFace jackets and all our warm clothes on, but I am freezing. So I go to the park’s public toilets and wrap my legs with toilet paper. This should act as isolation keeping the heat between my body and my pants. Works great. Not the first time I am doing this.

Chimborazo- Park's Entrance

Chimborazo- Park’s Entrance

Fog, clouds and cold. The mountain is damp, lifeless and hostile- red soil and rocks, few low shrubs. Yet we spot life. A herd of about 20 small gentle wild vicuñas (a type of Andean lama) live in the protected ecosystem of the National Park. Shy, they keep a distance when we try to approach them.

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We start walking slowly up a wide rocky road. We have 8 kilometers to go. It’s not a steep or difficult hike, but it’s harder than it looks just because of the cold and the altitude. We walk slowly. A car is heading up to the first refuge, and it stops right away to pick us up. Did I mention that people of Ecuador are the best? We have been hitchhiking 99% of the time and it never takes long for someone to pull over. And they never asked us for money. We met quite a lot of great Ecuadorians thanks to hitchhiking and we are forever grateful to all of them! The two young guys who took us all the way up to the first refuge saved us at least 3 hours of painful walking.

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From the first refuge at 4,850m, there is no road accessible by vehicles anymore. A path leads up to the second refuge. Here we already see snow. We are excited. It has been a long time without snow and we are happy to step in it, touch it, make snowballs, and play. Nothing like good old snow! Don’t forget, we are Canadians too!

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Any young healthy person can hike to the second refuge- Whymper Hut, but for people with heart problems, elderly or out of shape, it is not recommended. If you are suffering from altitude sickness, even if you are young and healthy, you will have to turn back, unfortunately.

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We are not feeling too good, but we keep going very slowly, one step at a time. It’s getting colder and colder and for a view we have damp red rocky mountains hidden in grey clouds. A small Andean wolf is roaming about and comes incredibly close to us, shivering.

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As we reach the Whymper hut, I am done. I barely breathe. We rest inside and soon Ivo and Maya are ready to go even higher. There is a crater lagoon at 5,100m not too far from the hut, but for me this is too much. I pass. Thus, the highest point I have ever reached remains 5,000 meters. Maya went to 5,100m, and Ivo- jumped to 5,100 meters and 75 cm!

Maya at 5,100 meters

Maya at 5,100 meters

Ivo at 5,100 meters and 75 centimeters!

Ivo at 5,100 meters and 75 centimeters!

In August 1976, SAETA Flight 232 carrying 55 passengers and four crew members aboard a Vickers Viscount from Quito to Cuenca disappeared en route. In February 2003, after 27 years, the aircraft was found with the bodies of its 59 occupants at 5,400 meters elevation on Chimborazo by Ecuadorian climbers on the rarely used eastern route Integral.

Graves of people who died on Chimborazo

Graves of people who died on Chimborazo

On November 10, 1993 three parties of climbers, one ascending and two descending, were caught in an avalanche on the steep slopes below the Veintimilla summit. The avalanche buried ten climbers: six French, two Ecuadorans, one Swiss, and one Chilean, in a crevasse at 5,700 m. It took twenty people and ten days to find their bodies- the worst climbing accident in Ecuador to date.

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Horses Made Us Happy in Vilcabamba Ecuador

Horses make you happy.

– Gavin Moor

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Ivo, Mira and Maya in Vilcabamaba

In the greenest part of the Mandango mountains, where the sky meets the forest and the clouds crawl down the rolling hills to spread their mist over the valleys below, we reach a small refuge. A tiny log cabin with a pointy tin roof- perfect for amplifying the inevitable raindrop songs at night. It rains a lot in the end of February in this part of Ecuador, so we know we will get some wet weather for sure. We are OK with it. Rain is part of Nature; it’s good for the land, for the green stuff. Plus, we have jackets, we have hats (not some regular hats, but real leather cowboy hats) and we have a tin roof. And fire under the tin roof. Burritos made on the fire, sweet lemonade, which Gavin prepares with lemons, passion fruit and a hard brown block of cane sugar- the one the horses really love. He grinds the cane sugar and mixes everything with water. We can add rum.

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Hotel-Restaurant International GAVILAN

Gavin is our guide, the guy who organizes horseback riding adventures in the mountains of Vilcabamba. A skinny serious looking cowboy, he doesn’t talk much but listens a lot- the Ecuadorian Clint Eastwood, we call him.

Always a cowboy, Gavin Moore has not always been Ecuadorian. Born in New Zealand, he traveled all over the world and lived in a bunch of different countries, before he moved to Vilcabamba for good, I am not sure how many years ago. And here, in the greenest part of the Mandango mountains, where the sky meets the forest and the clouds crawl down the rolling hills to spread their mist over the valley below, he built the small refuge right at the edge of a National Park, in the heart of a lush cloud forest, where he is taking tourists on a two- or three-day horseback riding trips.

This time, we are the tourists. With us is also a young backpacker from Belgium and Gavin’s 12-year-old daughter Isabel, who came especially to spend time with Maya. They became instant good friends and still keep in touch.

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Gavin and his daughter Isabel

Our horse adventure- the highlight of our travels in Ecuador, started in the village of Vilcabamba early one morning.

Vilcabamba

Vilcabamba, a village in the southern region of Ecuador in the province of Loja, is a popular tourist destination as well as a popular retreat for retired ex-pats looking for peaceful life in a healthy evergreen scenic countryside. It is most popular with the extreme longevity of its inhabitants, where it is said that many have reached 120, even up to 135 years of age thanks to the remarkable medicinal qualities of the local plants, the mineral rich water, the steady mountain climate (eternal spring) and the healthy lifestyle of the locals in general. A few clever people have become billionaires selling healthy products all over the world made with plants, fruits and water from Vilcabamaba. The area is known as ‘The Valley of Longevity’, with the oldest inhabitants in the world.

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Tobacco – probably one of the ‘medicinal plants’

This sounds very interesting and hopeful, but is totally not true. In 1971 a Harvard Medical School researcher went to investigate the longevity rumors. He met a local guy, who told him he was 122-years-old. Three years later, the same guy told him, he was 134. In fact he was not even 100. Scientists then determined that the average age of those Vilcabamabans claiming to be over 100 years was actually 86, and the oldest person was 96. “Individual longevity in Vilcabamba is little, if any, different from that found throughout the rest of the world. Life expectancy at all ages in Vilcabamba is in fact less than in the U.S.”, the researchers concluded.

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The Valley of Longevity

The brightest example of age exaggeration in Vilcabamaba is that of Miguel Carpio Mendieta. In 1944 he was 61, but told everyone he was 70. Five years later he said he was 80 and at the age of 87, he had a reputation of a 121-year-old man. In 1974, at age 91, he was “127”! But why are the Vilcabamaba’s elderly lying about their age? Turned out, some of the old folks of Vilcabamaba are tricksters who love to gain prestige in the local community as well as international publicity, which still attracts not only many visitors, but also rich retired foreigners who come here to buy property and hopefully live longer in the miracle ‘Valley of Longevity’.

House in Vilcabamba

Anyway. We love the place, longevity or no longevity. It’s a beautiful clean village surrounded by green mountains, with colorful old and new houses, balconies, a nice little town square with a fountain and the inevitable church. Lots of hostels, shops and restaurants where we see as many gringos as locals, if not more, and there is no telling if the gringos are visitors or locals themselves.  Very relaxed atmosphere mixed with fresh mountain air and the smell of empanadas.

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Street in Vilcabamaba

Caballos Gavilan

Here, we ask a random person for ‘the New Zealander cowboy’ and are immediately referred to a small shop- Caballos Gavilan. Everyone knows him. There we meet our Ecuadorian Clint Eastwood. In fact, he really acted in a film- a Bulgarian production- something about the conquistadors, filmed a few years ago around his hut. So we are not the first Bulgarians he takes there.

Gavin is also a poet and a publish author of 10 books. You can check him out on Amazon @Gavin Moore.

The next day, we are each assigned a horse. Ivo gets an old black stallion named Tornado who will be the leader, Maya’s horse is gentle grey and as big and experienced as Ivo’s horse. Mine is a small black-and-white young and very stubborn creature, named Apache who has been up the mountain only one time and has to stay at the back of the line and keep up. I can tell he doesn’t like me much, even though I try to be gentle and loving with him. It just doesn’t click. But we manage to stick together with no incidents the entire time.

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Maya and her horse

We ride. Slowly, the horses walk on a narrow path through the forest, always up, across a shallow river and then up a steep muddy hill, always up. At places we walk next to the horses- it’s too vertical, to muddy and too heavy for the animals to carry us and all our bags with food and stuff for two days.

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The green valley of Vilcabamba is now lying at our feet surrounded by forested mountains under blue skies.

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We start at 1,480 meters. We ride and hike for about 4-5 hours before we reach the refuge at 2,500 meters. After a quick belated lunch, we leave the girls to play with their little plastic toy-animals in the hut and we start on foot for the cloud forest, Gavin, the Belgian girl, Ivo and I. But the cloud forest soon turns to a rain forest and we hurry back down, wet and cold. We surround the fireplace with our soaked shoes, socks and clothes and we spend the rest of the afternoon preparing our sleeping quarters, which are in another wooden tin-roofed building next door, and watching Gavin making burritos and guacamole. He wouldn’t let us help with the cooking no matter what. We eat dinner on candle light.

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The horses are peacefully grazing outside the hut. We can hear them in the dark, walking, eating grass, snorting, neighing. We realize with amazement that this is a completely different world away from civilization and technology, a world of hundreds of years ago, where we can be really close to nature. With sweet nostalgia, we share the immense beauty and tranquility of these fleeting moments with our gentle companions- the horses.

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 Horse Facts

  • Horses make you happy
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  • Horses can sleep standing up
  • Horses live 20-25 years
  • Horses have the biggest eyes of any other land mammal
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  • Horses can see almost 360 degrees
  • Most of the time, wherever a horse’s ear is pointing is where the horse is looking with the eye on the same side. If the ears are pointing in different directions, the horse is looking at two different things at the same time
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  • Horses make you happy
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  • Horses use their ears, eyes and nostrils to express their mood. They also communicate their feelings through facial expressions .
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  • Horses can not vomit.
  • Horses produce approximately 10 gallons of saliva a day
  • Horses drink at least 25 gallons of water a day
  • Horses are social animals and will get lonely if kept alone, and they will mourn the passing of a companion
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  • Horses are undeniably clever animals. Beyond being proficient at relatively simple learning tasks, they are also recognized as having the capacity to solve advanced cognitive challenges involving categorization learning and a degree of concept formation.
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  • The horse is one of the 12 Chinese signs of the zodiac. Anyone born in the year of the horse is seen to embody the characteristics of the animal, namely intelligence, independence and a free-spirit.
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  • Horses can fly without wings

Caballos Gavilan @Calle Sucre 10-30 C, Vilcabamba, (593) 07 0981332806

Facebook @ Caballos Gavilan

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Watch our short YouTube video- Two Months in the Andes With Maya

Find us on Facebook @The Life Nomadik
Support us on Patreon @The Life Nomadik
Watch us on YouTube @Fata Morgana

 

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Nazca, Cajamarca and Chachapoyas- 2000 years back in time

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Ivo, Mira and Maya at Ventanillas de Otuzco

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.

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The Nazca Lines

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.

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The Nomadiks will fly

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Map of the Nazca Lines

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.

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Inside the airplane

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Maya is happy to fly over the Nazca Lines

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.

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The monkey

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The spider

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.

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View from above

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The hummingbird

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.

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The astronaut

Cajamarca

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.

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Ventanillas de Otuzco

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.

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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.

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Banos del Inca thermal pools complex

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The public pool at the complex

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Clay Cajamarca figurines at the museum in the complex

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.

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Typical Cajamarca hat

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Saturday washing at the river

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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.

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Cathedral in Cajamarca

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Street in Cajamarca

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.

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With John Alcalde in Cajamarca

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Atahualpa “ransom room”

Chachapoyas

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.

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Great fortress of Kuelap

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.

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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.

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The horse path to the fortress is muddy!

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Maya found a funny bug

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Maya found yummy berries

It’s already afternoon and all other tourists have left! We are the only visitors and the entire site is deserted.

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Round houses at Kuelap

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.

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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.

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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.

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Chachapoyas

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”.

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carajia sarcophagi

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.

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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.

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Our group- friends from Sweden and the guide

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

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Support us on Patreon @The Life Nomadik
Watch us on YouTube @Fata Morgana

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