August 28, 2007
I went to the main departure point for trucks going to Chachapoyas early this morning. When I got there, I met Ben and Liz, an American couple who beat me there, but had yet to get lucky and find a ride out. They have been traveling over a year in Peru and Ecuador, mainly working and volunteering. For awhile, they were getting free room and board for riding their mountain bikes around Huaraz with the tourists, a pretty sweet deal. But now they're making their way to Argentina for some more mountain biking during the Patagonian summer.
Trucks kept driving around the plaza we were waiting at, but they never quite worked up the energy to take the road out of town. A few taxi drivers sat on the other side of the plaza and watched/mocked us as we waited. We asked them about rides to Tingo, a town a few hours short of Chachapoyas that has access to the Kuelap ruins, but they all wanted way too much money. I started to question my sanity, as well as my map. The map I had of the region showed two roads of equal importance going to Chachapoyas, one that made a huge circle to the coast and back, and one that appeared to go directly there. I chose the direct road without asking about its condition. Now Ben and Liz were telling me that someone they knew had given this road the deplorable title of "Worst Road in South America." Suddenly I wished I had a guidebook that listed this kind of information like every other tourist.
Then, out of nowhere, came a ray of hope in the form of a Japanese couple. They were looking to go along the same route as us, and with five people to split the bill, hiring a taxi for the day didn't seem like such an insane idea. With a little more bargaining, we were able to talk one of the drivers down to $100 for the ride to Tingo, a fair price considering the journey on which we were about to embark. The others even graciously let me take the front seat, which was much more comfortable than being squished in the back.
As soon as we left town, we were given a thrilling glimpse of what the day had in store for us. We could see the road ahead as it zigzagged way down from the mountainous region of Celendin to the fertile village of Balsas. At the bottom of the valley, suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by trees growing mangoes, papayas, oranges, and coconuts. For the whole day, we went up over passes and down through river valleys in an incredible mixture of Andean and Amazonian scenery. The road was unpaved but wasn't anywhere nearly as bad as I had prepared myself to endure. Besides, the lack of pavement can be a good thing because it forces drivers to slow down when swinging around hairpin corners with thousand-foot drops and no guardrails for protection. Our only major pauses throughout the day were when we stopped to eat and to let the cattle pass us.
Late in the day we made it to Leymebamba, a small town that guarded a secret gem. Since I had been traveling without a guidebook, I hadn't even heard of the mummy museum, but the Japanese couple insisted that we stop there. I couldn't make sense of their guidebook to get more info, probably because it was written in Japanese, so I figured we should just see for ourselves what the fuss was all about.
The museum didn't have electricity, so we were kind of in a hurry to see everything before it got too dark. It was too bad because in my haste to see the mummies, I barely stopped to look at the amazingly well preserved pieces of textiles and other relics like quipus, which were used to register everything in a town from animal possession to tax payments. There were also sarcaphagi, and even giant ancient headbands to look at. It was an amazing collection of artifacts from the Chachapoyan culture, and we hadn't even gotten to the main exhibit yet.
Finally we were led into the mummy room. I learned that the creation of mummies was strictly an artwork of the Incas, yet these mummies were wrapped in sacks depicting the art of the Chachapoyan culture, so the two must have merged before the Spaniards arrived. We saw a few mummies with their arms wrapped around their faces, supposedly in a futile attempt to keep their mouths closed. We also saw some wrapped up bones, and even a mummified cat and rat. Then we were led into the real mummy room, which was almost pitch dark when we first entered. When my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw that I was surrounded by hundreds of mummies, ranging from fetuses and babies to adults. They were put in the cool, dark, and dry room after being removed from the caverns above the nearby Laguna de los Condores in order to preserve them, but the setting freaked me out a bit. No matter where I walked, it felt like these people were staring at me with permanent looks of terror glued to their faces. I had to get out after a few minutes.
When we all piled back into the car, all we could talk about was how amazing that museum was. A few hours later, after completing our nine-hour road trip, we made it to Tingo. The added bonus of taking this route, besides the mummy museum, was that we could stop at the bottom of the ruins rather than having to go all the way to Chachapoyas first. We'll all get up early to make the long walk up to Kuelap in the morning.
The photo album for this entry is here.