22 May, 2008:
We want to see Karajia, where six sarcophagi stand somewhere on a cliff. Each of the six [originally eight, but two have fallen over the centuries] is in the shape of a long face staring down on the fertile valley below. We cannot drive there because the bridge over the river has been out for months. We must walk across at Ch_____ then find our way to Luya. The first step is to go back up a bit of the road toward Gocta that is closed during the day, and thus we must drive to Ch____ before 6 a.m.
We breakfast early, speak briefly with some Australians who are up early to go up to Gocta, and rush out. The hotel-keeper’s directions for leaving the city are accurate and precise, and we drive the fine paved road through darkness. Others are rushing to make the same deadline. We also see early-morning joggers. Jogging seems a symbol of affluence, in a country where people pull wagons, carry huge bundles, walking with animals, or walking miles along the side of the road with a scythe or a spade; but perhaps we’d see joggers in other places too, if we were up so early.
Ch___ is extraordinarily lively for a tiny hamlet before first light. It’s full of road-workers and highway police, as well as a variety of travelers hoping to get into or out of the area before the road closes for the day. We park the car in front of a lady’s home and small restaurant, agreeing to pay her S./ 3 when we return, and set off across the footbridge. It is a wooden suspension bridge, swaying a bit – and just upstream we can see the ruins of what must have been the bridge for cars.
People carrying huge bundles are crossing the suspension bridge. On the other side, perhaps a hundred people are camped out, sitting on baggage or rocks or just standing around. There are also a few parked trucks, and one taxi is being loaded with more people and goods than one might have imagined it could carry. Mostly people are waiting, with the look of people who have been waiting awhile and are prepared to wait awhile.
It reminds me of some way-station in Tibet or China.
Ragna shoots a little video of the bridge. We’re a curiosity to our fellow loiterers. The only non-Peruvians in sight.
There are no taxis. After five or ten minutes, one appears, and swarms of people surround it. It leaves with perhaps nine or ten people crammed into it. I had supposed that one of these large trucks might start up, carrying a cargo of people standing in the bed of it with their things; but neither shows any signs of life.
We ask how long the walk is to Luya. Ten kilometers, an hour and a half. (In fact we learn at the end of the day that it’s fourteen or fifteen.) We start walking. There’s no sign of an imminent abundance of taxis, and if a taxi comes down empty looking for passengers, perhaps we can flag it down and make some arrangement for the whole day.
It’s a nice morning for a walk anyway, and pretty countryside. As we walk the first kilometer toward Luya, we see one red car heading down to the landing. It ignores us, and after awhile passes us on the way up, more than full.
After about a kilometer’s walk, though, we see a white station wagon approaching. A taxi. We flag it down. The young driver gets out to talk with us. His name is Darwin – after “el scientifico.” For no particular
reason, this seems a good omen. After some discussion, he agrees to take us around, to Karajia and elsewhere, for the whole day, for S./ 150. I am pretty sure that this is an excellent day for him; but we are very far from complaining.
Off we go, rattling away up the dirt road. The car makes so much noise we seem to be hearing it fall apart as we ride. Yet it’s more comfortable hitting the bumps than ours is. Darwin and I make sporadic conversation, and the road twists upward with deeper and deeper views into the long canyon the road and river run through. We begin to see the country we drove through at night two days ago, and it looks very fine.
We pass through Luya, where it’s market-day, but don’t stop to explore. As soon as we snag a few soft drinks, we’re on a high plateau heading for Pueblo de los Muertos, which Darwin has suggested we see first. Idly I wonder whether the lone cloud we seem to be heading for hangs always above Pueblo de los Muertos.
When we reach a cattle-gate, Darwin explains that they are to keep the cows from escaping. I explain that we have them in the U.S. too. For some reason I recall that when I arrived in Las Cruces in 1969, a very old professor said that during his first years teaching there, they had cattle-gates on Solano, the main street running to the university. That was hard to imagine then, and unimaginable now. But then, the trails on which we dirt-biked, always careful to close the cattle-gates after ourselves, are now driveways to million-dollar homes.
As we approach the second gate, Ragna offers to get out and open it, but Darwin jumps out before she can. At the third, though, I say I’ll do it and open the door before he does. I open the rest of them. As we approach the last of them Darwin says we needn’t bother to close it, as it is the last one. A hand-painted note on the gate implores us to keep it closed. As we pull away I ask him if he’s sure. He stops the car again and gets out to close it. Moments later we reach the end of the road.
Pueblo de los Muertos. We park near a path down the steep face of the mountain.
Marvelous view. The high hills on the other side show no sign of humanity. They are green with underbrush, and occasionally a heroic lone tree or a small band of them has somehow found enough nutrients to survive high up. Far below, yet up a steep climb from the road and the river, there are little plateaus where folks have set up small farms. They look tiny from here. Peaceful, though. It is not clear whether there’s access to them other than by horse or burro.
We can see the river winding through the canyon now, perhaps 2,000 meters below us. The beep-beep of large machinery backing up, and sometimes the growls of their motors, reach us. Otherwise, it is still.
Surprisingly, we can see Gocta. Darwin points it out, and immediately I recognize its shape from two days earlier. We joke that if we had the Australian couple’s e-mail address, we could send them a photo of them – as they are hiking up toward the waterfall right now, or soon will be. But it is 30-40 kilometers away.
We start down a trail along the open face of the mountain. It is not dangerous, but would be impossible for anyone who feared heights, as the world drops off sharply just beside the path much of the way, and the footing is sometimes slippery. We are also descending rapidly, and begin to understand that the climb back up will be steep. And hot.
When we are still several dozen meters from the entrance, where an iron gate is visible, Darwin shouts that it is closed with a key. Indeed it is. A sturdy lock holds it shut, and fresh cement anchors the iron gate. He says it must be just a week old, as he was here less than 15 days ago. It has always been open, and they must have closed it to dissuade robbers. (I’m mildly surprised, having supposed that what was there to be robbed had been robbed long ago.)
We can see Pueblo de los Muertos — but apparently it was formerly possible, if one were both gutsy and careful, to walk right up to where the dead are.
We’ve been bounced and jounced over ten or twenty kilometers of dirt road and hiked down here, and now face
a long climb back up, and we’ve failed to reach our destination. Yet we are quite cheerful. We do complain a bit on the way up, but we’re laughing at ourselves.
Darwin, on further thought, decides that the danger of the place was probably the motive for closing it off. He explains that the walk in is very dangerous, that often one is edging along a very narrow rock ledge. “Muy peligroso.”
Stop. Steps. For the rest of the way up this set of steps, and again later when we reach an occasional step, Darwin repeats this like a mantra under his breath: “steps . . . steps . . . steps.”
As we enter a small pueblo on the way to Karajia, Ragna inquires whether there’s a restroom she can use. There is. Darwin mentions lunch again, and we tell him that we have sandwiches but that he should eat. He does.
We sit on a bench in the Plaza de Armas of Cohecan. It looks empty; but soon we are surrounded by curious children. When Ragna videotapes them and shows them the videotape, they demand so many replays I worry that she’ll run out of battery.
Darwin asks if he can take some fellow up to get his father, or some such thing. He makes clear he’s just asking, and that we can veto the plan, but promises it’ll take no more than ten minutes. We acquiesce. The ten minutes stretch past twenty, sitting in the town square. We eat our sandwiches, and I buy Ragna a coke, but we’re marooned in a hot, dull plaza for longer than we might like.
Cruz Pata is an isolated small village. The trail down toward Karajia is marked by two signs. [A newer one, claiming the walk is 1 km., nearly covers the old, which admitted it was .67 km.] There’s a tiny store where a lady sells snacks and small souvenir knick-knacks, as well as home-knit ponchos and such.
Ragna needs to change her shirt, and goes back into the home to do so. Two girls follow her, fascinated to have a more intimate view of such a light-skinned body
Three girls follow. One in a pink sweatsuit, and two more.
[Names] and Fiorella. 8, 7, and 6. The one in pink is soon holding Ragna’s hand, helping her walk down toward Karajia, even before the path gets steeper and slippier for awhile. They are captivated by Ragna, and we them.
Solemnly she shakes her head no.
“Do you know where Europe is?”
She shakes her head.
“Do you know where the Atlantic Ocean is?”
She shakes her head, and appears never to have heard of it.
Finally I explain, not quite accurately, that of all the countries in the world, Iceland is the one farthest north. I add, quite accurately, that it is very far away. Perhaps they are impressed. Perhaps they are not: everything is very far away. (I do not think to ask them, but wish as I write this that I had, whether they have ever even been to Chachapoyas. And do they have television here?)
Watching them with Ragna is a delight. They battle for the right to hold her hand, helping her down the path. One is carrying her empty camera bag, proudly. Later when they are picking orchids I spot it on the ground, and pick it up so that we will not leave it behind; within moments the girl approaches me and stretches out her hand, with silent dignity, to resume her awesome responsibility.
The narrow path winds around the face of the cliff, and suddenly we see the figures above and in front of us. Of course I marvel at how people got up there without modern equipment and walked around up there without falling off. Too, they didn’t just leave the dead there, they went back and visited them, exhibiting dead leaders or elders to others watching from below.
We stare up at the faces in awe. A few moments later, the oldest girl climbs onto a small ledge, a foot or two above the path. The other two join her. They giggle when I feign excitement and shout, “Tres mas! Tres mas! [three more!]”
Before we turn around, the girls tell us there’s something else to see. Huesos. I’m guessing it means “bones.” I look it up to confirm that, then tell the girls the English word. It seems ironic to be teaching these sweet little girls “bones” as one of their first words of English.
On the way up, the girls pick orchids to give us. This magical place is their world. Childhood is a place without cities or paved roads, a world of dramatic cliffs and waterfalls, of orchids growing all around them, and of strange ancient figures looking down from high up in the rocks, guarding the
dead. The girls are curious, smart, and sweet. They perch casually on rocks, above a precipice, or scramble like little foxes through the underbrush to bring Ragna another orchid.
Back in Cruz Pata, the woman who took our admission fee is spinning yarn, just as every other woman seems to do when sitting, walking, or talking in these mountains. [It’s no surprise she has a few home-knit ponchos for sale inside.]
Cruz Pata is remote enough to serve us well as a spot for a few more photographs of country life in Peru.
Meanwhile, the woman who keeps the store also keeps the small museum, and shows us that. From nowhere a TV journalist and cameraman from TV Amazonas show up and videotape the little museum at the same time Ragna is doing so. And videotape Ragna videotaping it. They are doing some piece on the tourist attractions of Amazonas. Outside, a woman passes, beating a disobedient lamb.
From below, toward Karajia, a horse gallops madly up the path, to approach and pass us. An older girl — mother? sister? — rides the horse, with one of our new pals clinging to her from behind. When they spot us shooting video and photographs they mug a little as they race by, easy in the saddle. They gallop on up the hill, without stopping, and we do not see them return.
Too, it is a sharp contrast with the dark little room from which we have just emerged. From dark to light, from skulls and long-abandoned corpses to the speeding horse. As we saw moments earlier, with the girls laughing and picking orchids beneath the sarcophagi, death and life have an intimate relationship.
We drive back to Luya. As we pass through, a woman addresses Darwin by name, wanting a ride. She wants, of course, to go to the bridge, where we are going. He tells her we’ve hired him for the day, and drives off. Ragna suggests we tell him it’s fine with us if she comes along, so we return to the marketplace. “She” turns out to be herself, her husband, some goods they have purchased, and a set of huge empty wicker baskets in which they had brought to the market their own product – mais, as I recall – to market. Evidently they’ve had a good day, or else thrown out what they didn’t sell, for the baskets are empty.
We cross the bridge again, at dusk, and retrieve our car. A long line of cars awaits the reopening of the road. We acquire two passengers, a couple of road-workers looking to get back to Chachapoyas for the night, and are the first car allowed to drive the road this evening. The drive back is a breeze. It has been a very full day.
S./ 120 at the very pleasant Casa Vieja Perú
pizza restaurant: not recommended
hamburger joint: ok – and 16 or 17 soles for a couple of sandwiches, drinks, and desserts.
If planning a trip here, check on the status of (a) the road from Pedro Ruiz to Chachapoyas and (b) the bridge to Luya. But do not take for granted warnings that “You can’t get there.” The Australian couple staying at our hotel in Chachapoyas had planned their shorter trip with a travel agent. Unlike us, they’d actually known about Karajia before leaving Australia, and wanted to see it, but their travel agent told ’em they couldn’t get to Luya. Obviously we could — but not without an anxious moment or two in the early morning near the river. We gave the hotel Darwin’s name and phone number / e-mail, and I’d also be happy to pass that on to anyone who wants to get to Luya and Karajia. If the bridge is still out, you might appreciate an advance arrangement with a cab-driver on the other side of the river.
Don’t bother with Pueblo de los Muertos unless you’re sure someone with you has a key to unlock the gate. It’s a nice enough hike, but if you have time here, there’s a lot of wonderful stuff on the Luya side of the river that we didn’t get to see. If I were going again I’d get into the Valle de Belen, for example.