Chachapoyas – The People of the Clouds – in their own language, or perhaps the Inca language.
We breakfast comfortably in the Hotel El Bosque and drive for two or three uneventful hours through the now familiar rice paddies, then turn South at Pedro Ruiz. On the way out of Pedro Ruiz we notice a lot of small furniture-making shops, the first thing of interest we’ve noticed in the town, which seems just a crossroads. We also notice that even the simpler buildings on the outskirts of town boast very fine doors provided by the local carpenters.
Initially the road is paved; but a few kilometers from Pedro Ruiz the road is blocked. Across the street a female police officer or highway official is talking on a walkie-talkie. It appears to be another flag-man situation, and we wait for the traffic.
The road is closed until 6:30 at night!?!?!? It is about ten minutes past twelve. Quickly we survey our options: we could spend the day in and around Pedro Ruiz, but we haven’t seen much to appeal to us there; or we could drive toward Moyobamba and take the first side road and just see where it leads us, and at least see some obscure place outsiders never venture to.
The policewoman tells us there’s a waterfall off to the right a little ways back. Cataracta Gocta. We’ve never heard of it. She says it’s beautiful and not far away. There’s a poster of it on the wall. “I’m not going to spend six hours at some goddamned waterfall,” snorts Ragna, in whose country I once counted 23 waterfalls within my sight at the same time, several of them quite impressive.
The turnoff is indeed just a few hundred yards back toward Pedro Ruiz. I pull off the road there. Ragna insists that we drive back the way we came and down some other road to Cajamarca, then back North if necessary. I know the map a little better, and know that even if we drove like hell for the six hours we’d waste waiting here, we’d be further away from anywhere we want to go. Besides, I don’t see the big deal. Sure, it’s a major pain in the ass that we can’t go through; but our only reasonable option is to check out the waterfall, then maybe drive up to PR and either get a hotel room for the afternoon or drive a little way back toward Moyobamba, and perhaps down some dirt side road, shooting video and photographs of people. It’s what we do.
Iceland and waterfalls. “I’m not going to spend seven hours at a waterfall!” she insists.
Finally she says, “Okay, we can check it out.”
So we drive up to the little village near the trailhead. Cocachimba. Even before we reach it we can see the waterfall in the distance. It’s tall.
Nice country, too. A lush, green valley surrounded by high hills.
As we enter Cocachimba, a laughing woman runs to close the barrier. They charge 10 soles for admission for two. The woman is laughing, perhaps because she had been some meters away from her post and has to run to reach it. An older woman smiles warmly at us.
As in so many places, there’s a log book. Signing in, you need to include your age and profession and home-town and passport number and a bunch of stuff no one would much care about at Yosemite or Bryce Canyon – just the bucks, please. But then, even Bryce gets a good deal more traffic than this place. Ahead of us today, exactly four people have signed in, apparently in a group. From the U.S., identifying themelves as a dentist, an ornithologist and a cartographer. Ragna makes two cartographers, 40% of the foreign population of the place today.
We joke that perhaps the folks who run the waterfall are in cahoots with the road folks, closing the road every day so that people have to go to the goddamned waterfall. As we pass one newer house: “See, that’s from the profits from stopping the road every day.”
We drive through the very small village, with some sort of restaurant at the end. Then the road begins to dwindle. We would normally not drive further, but some of the roads we’ve driven on lately stretch the definition, so who knows?
We drive in a little further. It’s narrow. After 100 meters I barely fit the car between a couple of huge boulders, after which we reach a house, and the road becomes definitively a path. There’s barely a place to turn around. We do. As we do, we meet the Americans and their guide, on the way out. They have come here to see a special hummingbird that lives nowhere else. They have been swimming in the waterfall.
After I park the car back in the village, we start walking. The narrow dirt path gives way at times to stone steps, and suddenly I recall Nepal. Walking miles, climbing or descending thousands of meters, much of it on wide, ancient stone steps.
Moments later an axe strikes wood just above us, and we see a man chopping firewood. There are four or five men under a roof on poles, in a wall-less still, and several wooden pots with liquid gurgling away in them. It’s chancaca, they say. Boiling, we can see. It’s an alcoholic drink apparently made from sugar. The explain the process. They offer us some. From a leaky bowl [wood or a split coconut?] with twigs in it. It has a sweet taste. They are full of good cheer. So am I.
We walk. And walk. The illusive waterfall hardly appears any closer for a long time, then is mostly out of sight for awhile. We meet a guy with burros, then a few minutes later his brother. Each asks us the time. I have a watch Ragna gave me. For years I had none. I had thrown my last one away in the Organ Mountains in New Mexico. High on mescaline, I noticed it on my wrist and laughed. What did time matter in the mountains? Or anywhere? Apparently it matters to them. And now I have a watch, and can answer them.
As we continue our walk, it begins to feel like a very fine day. This is an incredibly fertile valley, and beautiful. It could easily be from some other century, walking as we are beyond the roads and electricity, yet past occasional small farms, planted crops, etc. Some of the small buildings have signs, new and neat and probably inspired by whoever is helping this place prepare to attract and please tourists. The signs, with
positive sentiments [e.g.], strengthen my sense that someone is organizing this place for imminent tourism, and doing it nicely.
Almost two hours in, we pass what looks like a place to buy juice or sodas. Then we meet a huge turkey with chicks on the path, making plenty of noise. The chicks try to investigate Ragna. The mother calls them back, with mixed success.
There are only two problems. One is that we are probably not going to reach the waterfall and return before dark, and I will not get to swim in its pool. The other is my worry about Ragna: her eye can hurt a lot with exertion, and her pulse can get suddenly much too high. She also doesn’t have ideal shoes on. I repeatedly suggest that we turn back, although I want very much to swim in the waterfall. Consistently Ragna declines to turn back, even when the path gets steep and slippery.
And it does grow slippery. We descend into a dry ravine where they seem to be building a bridge or something. We are not entirely sure how to proceed, but manage to find what seems to be the path onward. It is so slippery with mud and donkey shit that I have to help Ragna.
The waterfall is grand, but too far for us to reach today unless we want to return long after darkness. We shoot some photo and video, marvel at the waterfall’s size, and notice the bromeliads clinging to tree branches in the foreground. We’re impressed – although it will be days or weeks before someone mentions that it’s the tallest waterfall in the world. I will be amazed that the Lonely Planet folks, usually so accurate and complete, seem not even to have mentioned it; but then, we stumbled on it only because the road closure forced us to.
We start back. At the dry ravine, we see a strange figure, a local man with a strange walk and a peaceful face. I greet him, but he appears to speak something other than Spanish.
Climbing back out. Shirt sweaty. Resting. At times wanting to curse the uphill. Ukaalo and Oraalo. Memories of that. Her memories of Austria, Gunter, old ladies.
By now thirsty, we approach the juice place. At first it appears abandoned. A million hens and chickens and a few turkeys loudly greet us, and I sense someone moving through a dark room with rows of sodas and beer bottles. Eventually a woman emerges, shushing the chickens away from us, and invites us in. The room is dark, and with a mud floor, but there’s a stove and she apparently cooks food there for folks. We buy a couple of cokes and some cookies and such.
Sitting feels good after so much walking. We talk to her about volcanos and earthquakes, Iceland and the last big earthquake around here. We also talk about the walk: she doesn’t live here. She is quite old. She walks all the way out here every day, and although her legs must be in shape for it, that’s an hour and a half each way (although she doesn’t stop to shoot photos and video). So far as I can tell, about four foreign tourists and a very few locals have been out here today. Even if they all bought something, that’s a pretty limited income, although I guess she sells eggs and chickens and turkeys as well. But carrying everything in and out on that path can’t be any picnic, either.
Ragna videotapes more on the return walk. A cloud slips across the waterfall. We see a variety of flowers along the path, and at one point a pair of beautiful green birds flying together – almost as if they are chatting and laughing on the way home after a day’s work – right past us. At some point we see the village again, and it’s a cheering sight.
Across the valley to our right, the late-afternoon sun silhouettes a line of small trees on top of a ridge. Right behind them are more mountain clouds, with the sinking sun just above them. The trees themselves, marching up the distant ridge-line, look like a straggling line of hikers. The people of the clouds, silhouetted by bright clouds.
The chancaca guys have gone home. The path is deserted, but we keep pausing to look back at the waterfall.
The little restaurant at the edge of town looks deserted, but the door is open. A small and frightened boy, just a few years old, is the only occupant. Eventually a woman emerges from the back, and I buy a water and a coke. I ask whether they have rooms as well, and she says they will have two rooms open in September – and lights. I resolve to return then, stay in this village, and walk early one morning to the waterfall for a swim.
Outside, I photograph whatever I see in the strong light before the sun disappears behind the ridge.
In the middle of the village is a bigger building that seems to have something to do with tourism. I wander in, interested in a little more information about the place, in case I write about it. I run into Rafael again, the fellow we’d met hours ago on the trail.
He tells me the town’s name, and confirms that an Italian organization is helping the town prepare for tourism, and for relating to tourists, with neither fear nor undue greed. He’s actually from Lima, and is here working with that project, which is operating throughout Amazonas. The Hungarian girl is a volunteer, the first to teach English here. She shares with her sister a dark bedroom in a house without electricity at one corner of the field in the middle of the village. She will be here until June, and has been here for weeks already.
Rafael invites us for coffee in that house. Pedro and Maria, the occupants, make us welcome. It’s a dark house, with a wood fire going. We sit on small wooden benches at the rough wooden table in the main room, while Maria makes coffee. Again I think of Nepal: the smell of wood cooking fires, the simplicity, the pleasure of rest after a long walk.
Ragna says she could kill for coffee, which I translate to Maria as “my wife will be very happy” to have some.
We chatter a bit more. We talk with Rafael about the tourism project. Amazonas had done little in the way of tourism until seven years ago, and still does very little. Most everyone goes to the big names: Macchu Picchu, Cuzco, Lake Titicaca.
Outside, Orshe shows us her room. It is tiny and dark. It reminds me of rooms I stayed in in the Mississippi Delta country as a civil rights worker, even younger then than Orshe is now. Moscow, Tennessee. “White Lightning” was stronger than Chancaca, and without the sweetness.
We say our good-byes, and exchange e-mails with Rafael and Orshe. The clouds in the western sky glow with “just-after-sunset” reds and pinks.
At 6:38 we reach the spot where the road was closed, and begin the drive to Chachapoyas. It is a mad dash, through what we infer is beautiful countryside, along the river. It is dark. Most of the traffic is huge trucks, along with a few pickups and the occasional white taxi. We go through tunnels and overhangs with little clearance for the huge trucks. There’s almost no visibility, with road dust so thick it blocks vision like a thick fog, but everyone’s in a hurry, having waited all day to make this run. I drive mostly a little to the left of where I should be, so that at least my side of the windshield isn’t completely covered by the dust from the trucks. The drive has my full attention.
They are paving this road, and possibly repairing it after an earthquake. I’m not clear on that. The whole thing seems surreal, the speed and controlled madness of the drive, the dust as thick as smoke from hell’s fires, the occasional huge earth-moving equipment by the side of the road. Too, it’s a lot of traffic after a quiet walk and after days of having the roads mostly to ourselves.
Then suddenly the solace of a paved road. Some visibility again. The full moon peeking over a mountain at us just as we first see the lights of Chachapoyas, or at least some outlying village, strung out along the top of a ridge.
Chachapoyas has a nice Plaza de Armas. It is not at all frenetic, at least at 8 in the evening or so. A block away from it we check into a very fine little hotel. (S./ 120; Internet and hot showers, wooden furniture, nicely appointed. It costs slightly more than we expected; but we will be in no hurry to leave. The room has windows overlooking the garden, and all along the balcony are pleasant chairs and tables to sit drinking coffee in the morning or wine in the evening.
At first glance Chachapoyas looks quiet, colonial, inviting. Better-off than Huancabamba, with more appealing architecture than Tarapoto, it’s quieter and smaller than Tarapoto. (It’s not a place for folks who don’t eat meat, though: the first evening, although I could use a good meal, I’m pretty much limited to salad at the best restaurant in town. No fish.)
The drive is delightful. The bumpy dirt road climbs rapidly, with each switchback bringing a new view of Chachapoyas and the countryside, each view so appealing that I’m constantly wondering how it would be to live out here.
The town itself has a good feel to it, more than most, and the hills are green and not too crowded. In an hour’s drive we see a few horses and perhaps one other car.
We drive to the end of the town, and leave the car where the road ends. There’s a round building, a reconstruction of a Chachapoyas building, just where the trail onward starts. We set out. We ask people where _____ is, the ruinas, and they point us this way, but when we run into a fellow trying to fix the harness on his oxen, he seems never to have heard of the ruinas, then agrees that there are ruinas somewhere along the path, but he has no idea how much time the walk there takes. You could say that along most trails in Peru.
He points back the way we’ve come. I ask whether there are also ruins ahead. He says there are.
“Mas o menos, cuantos minutos?” I ask. About how many minutes’ walk?
“No se.” He doesn’t know. I am not sure Spanish is his first language – I’m told that many in these mountains speak Quecha. Maybe ruins are not something he gives a shit about, and he knows they’re down there, but has never paid attention to how long it takes him to walk from there to here. Maybe we’ve missed some turn-off for the ruins we’re seeking, and he was pointing us back that way, but there are some other ruins ten or twenty or fifty kilometers away, down this path. If you follow any path long enough in these mountains, you’ll probably hit some ruins eventually.
It’s a fine walk through fine countryside on a fine day. We do not see any ruinas. The closest we come is something I spot that might be an old building or just an oddly squarish bit of rock cliff, high up to the right. I make my way up there, increasingly sure it’s not the ruins but enticed by an abundance of orchids and bromeliads. In the woods I pass wild orchids identical to
some I’ve bought in San Francisco.
We stayed in the Casa Vieja Peru S./ 120 [breakfast included]. Pleasant room, pleasant courtyard, pleasant place, pleasant people. Quiet!