We leave Chachapoyas. It’s a quieter ride than the previous morning’s mad dash to beat the daily highway closing.
At first we drive along the river. The valley is narrow, green, and fertile. The green river rushes back the way we have come, as I drive slowly south, still thinking about the the wonder in yesterday’s visit to Karajia. [As a younger child grows unnoticed in an older sibling’s shadow, then blooms in a wholly different but equally entrancing way, so, while I am ruminating on yesterday’s fullness, this new day tugs at my sleeve, whispering that it too will be beautiful.]
Along the river it is tranquil and pleasant, and when I see land for sale as we cross a bridge, I point it out to Ragna – who laughs at me for wanting to move into every beautiful bit of country we drive through. Then we climb out of the valley, toward hills still fringed with clouds.
I am confused by a sign, Viejo Tingo to the left and Kuelap to the right. I had thought we went through Tingo to reach Kuelap, but the sign says otherwise. When we do reach a small town, it’s called Nuevo Tingo. A light rain is falling.
Driving through Nuevo Tingo, we reach a very clean, new plaza with many flowers. Despite the rain, we get out to shoot. The place is very tranquil. As Ragna shoots a little video, I wander into a store-restaurant on the corner. A small girl stands in the doorway, watching us. Inside, a man is putting fresh bread into plastic bags. He greets me warmly, and we chat a bit. A video-cassette is playing regional music, with people singing and dancing on the screen and shots of countryside. It feels so good there that I order a couple of cups of coffee, then wander out to see how Ragna is doing.
A huge green duck seems to be looking over her shoulder as she shoots. A collaborator. A prominent sign warns that animals are forbidden to enter the park – but the park is all animals, huge green animals sculpted from shrubbery.
Back in the store, our coffee awaits us. A tall, balding fellow, in to buy supplies or just to visit with the proprietor, wonders if he knows me. Not likely. We get talking. He has a hotel south of Tingo, along the river. He wants to move to Spain, so the hotel is for sale. Idly, I ask for how much. He says you have to see it. We are on the way to Kuelap, but he describes where the hotel is, and I wonder if I’ll get a chance to look at it later. It sounds like an idyllic spot, far from anywhere, in nice country.
Meanwhile, Ragna charms the storekeeper’s daughter. Her T-shirt says “Texas Girl.”
Outside, sunshine briefly prevails in its battle against clouds and rain, then begins to lose again. We rush out to take advantage, then retreat back into the store.
The woman asks if we are going to Kuelap, and whether it is our first time, then proudly informs me that Neuvo Tingo is in Kuelap’s district – or vice versa. I compliment the town. She tells me the town is thirteen years old. I can’t resist asking what Old Tingo is like. Surprised that I don’t know, she says that the river destroyed it.
We drive on, through green delightful countryside. Then, after Tingo, it is high and dry for awhile. More long, deserted dirt roads clinging to the mountains. We pass the Choctámal Lodge, which we’d heard had hot tubs and a marvelous view. It does look inviting, and we can testify to the views; but it’s still early, and we want to stay closer to the ruins, in Maria.
Maria is a mountain farm hamlet undergoing change. It’s closeness to Kuelap makes it a logical place for little hotels, and someone – the Italians again, it turns out – has been working to make it “tourist-friendly.” There are a bunch of small hostals, and others under construction [many others, for a town so small], the owners have business cards, and there’s a museum/workshop/shop for textiles, with big old looms and spinning wheels and whatnot, which can be seen in operation.
The town is perched on a hillside, with a fine, long view of the valley and the hills on the other side, along which we’ve just driven. The air is fresh, the people are friendly, and there ain’t much to it.
Our landlady says the best restaurant in town is the Mirador, less than a hundred meters away, so we wander down there. It’s simple, but someone’s working on it, trying to make it something more. To our delight, there is fresh trout. Further, an Italian couple at the next table announces that there is vegetable soup – sopa de verduras – and it turns out to be quite good. Later the Italian explains that his wife has taught them how to make it. And orders it at every meal.
We eat the vegetable soup but also order trout. The trout are good, but so tiny there’s little nourishment in even three of them.
The road ends near Kuelap. The place is deserted by now. There’s a single family picnicking on the grass. And a horse. And a great view – and to get to Kuelap we apparently have to leave the car and climb a ways. No other cars are parked there.
One woman approaches, her eyes intent on us. At first I suppose she’s a friend or member of the family, and show her what I’ve shot. But she turns out to be a guide. I am not so sure we need a guide and not so sure we trust her, and very sure that at nearly 5 p.m. we are not going to spend enough time here to warrant a guide. However, we do want to walk up the hill and at least take a first look at the place. She says it’s too late to buy a ticket, but that we can go in with her, and at first I think she’s shaking us down; but when we explain that we are just going to take a quick look today, then return in the morning, she says that’s fine.
Her name is Clotilde. She and Ragna talk as we walk. I just want to walk, and watch, and luxuriate in the fresh mountain air and the silence, but keep getting drawn in to translate for Ragna and Clotilde. The uphill walk is not long, though.
First I see the very impressive outer wall of Kuelap. It is tall and strong, and commands a long, deep view of the valley below and the mountains beyond. Bringing and placing so many heavy rocks, in such a high location, must have taken generations.
Then I see a llama. Regal, he stands at the top of a pile of sand, as if enjoying the view, or perhaps posing in the late-afternoon light. There are others, grazing here and there around him, but he stands on his pile of sand, as if announcing to the world that he is king of the llamas until someone dislodges him.
It is late afternoon. Not surprisingly, the People of the Clouds have picked a superb mountain site for their holiest city.
The Tibetans did that too. I can’t help thinking of Ganden. [picture and brief account to be inserted]
The ruins, to judge from the huge outer wall, are extensive and will be interesting. I am curious about the People of the Clouds, and already sympathize with them, 500 years too late, in their losing battle with the Inca. [They built round houses, and the Inca square houses; and they worshiped nature and sought always to live in harmony with it.] Even without the ruins, the stillness here and the vast, green view would be a delight; and there are llamas, just hanging around, not particularly shy.
A man asks what we’re doing. We explain. He asks us to come in now and pay for the following day’s ticket. Perhaps he gets a percentage if he sells it today, and some other fellow does if we buy it tomorrow. Perhaps he doubts we’ll return, and wants to make sure he gets our few soles into the coffers of the place. Maybe he’s just lonely. There’s no one else around. His name is Jose Gabriel.
I feel so relaxed here that I actually walk out of his hut leaving my camera behind – and when I quickly realize that and turn, he has already emerged to hand it to me.
We arrange with Clotilde to meet her here in the morning.
Walking back, luxuriating in the clean mountain air, the solitude, the view, and the proximity of the ruins, we just keep smiling. Hey, we’re in Peru. In the mountains. The silence is broken only by music from one of the mountain hamlets we can see, above the road back to Maria.
Soon after starting back we pick up a couple of teen-agers going back to Maria. There’s a fiesta in Cochibamba. Sports, music, and dancing. Today and tomorrow.
In Maria, we dine at the Mirador. Gassing with the local folks and looking at some locally-made ponchos and scarves. The lady who owns the restaurant seems pleased we haven’t forced her to make the vegetable soup again, but are content to sample indigenous food.
Our room is simple, but clean. Ragna makes it cozy with a couple of candles. There’s a small balcony on which she can smoke and we can admire the night air – and, in the morning, the view. When we step out onto the balcony at night, the silence is incredible.
The Hostal Toreon worked fine for us, at 30 soles the night, but certainly wasn’t luxurious. Too, with the growing popularity of Kuelap and the Amazonas effort to boost tourism, small hostals are going up all over Maria, and folks are improving the ones that exist, so looking around when you arrive makes a certain amount of sense – unless it’s the height of the season. For folks who prefer comfort, consider the Choctámal Lodge or even the Estancia Chilla. Note that there’s also a bare-bones hospedaje near Kuelap itself, and that too may be improved soon.
The Restaurant El Mirador is the best in Torreon – at least for the moment. It’s simple, the folks there are friendly, and there’s a nice view. We ate there several times. It ain’t gourmet, but it’s healthy, and served with a genuine smile.