It’s easy to fall into the trap of visiting only the most popular attractions at travel destinations. We’re bombarded by Top 10 lists in travel guides and websites, and the typical vacation has to fit within a 1 to 2-week time frame. Stick to these lists, and you’re guaranteed major excitement, great pictures that match the ones in the guides, and no surprises with hotels. It’s a good bet that it will also mean crowds, well-worn paths, expensive hotels, throngs of aggressive vendors, and oh so many more pleasantries that go along with going where everyone else goes.
Like so many aspects of our lives these days, whether it’s which beach to go to, which movie to see, or what car to drive, we’re at risk of missing out completely on lifes’ subtleties, diversities, and discoveries because we’re guided by others peoples’ priorities and conclusions, and herded into paths that are predetermined and preordained. I say rebel against Top 10 lists! A travel renegade rips up the lists and heads off-the-beaten-path to make decisions for himself as to what deserves attention.
There are two approaches to off-the-beaten path travel, and they both have their rewards. The first is to research beyond the Top 10 lists. Spend the time to really think about what it is that you seek and then read everything you can and sift it down to locate what YOU consider to be the jewels. If you’re on a schedule, this works best because you don’t have the time to figure it out on the trip itself.
The second approach is to just show up and let the road make the decisions for you. It’s also known as Vagabonding Travel, and you need time, time, and more time for this kind of trip to develop, ferment, and ripen. Off the beaten path travel usually delivers unexpected treasures as well as occasional disappointments and opportunities for “personal growth.” It also delivers the kind of memories that tend to stick around, and they almost always make far better stories. Would you rather hear trip details and look at pictures of someone braving the crowds of Disneyland, or someone who backpacked across Rwanda and shared a forest nook with mountain gorillas?
On an off-the-beaten path trip to Peru, chances are pretty good that Province and City of Chachapoyas, nestled in the low Andes of northern Peru, will warrant some serious consideration.
The large majority of the tourists who flock to Peru each year head to Cuzco and the surrounding Sacred Valley, with Machu Picchu on most itineraries. I’m one of those few who didn’t visit Machu Picchu on my first trip to Peru, but, truth be told, it was only because floods and landslides had literally shut it down for a month. The Inca ruins elsewhere in the Sacred Valley, Lake Titicaca, and a jungle trip to the Manu Biological Preserve more than kept me enthralled on that visit, and I checked Machu Picchu off the list on my second trip.
By my third visit, it definitely was time to break out of the tractor beam that sucks a traveler into the Sacred Valley and do some serious prospecting of what else Peru has to offer. It was February, so the options included wilting in the stifling dry summer heat of the desert coast or steaming in the humidity and soul sopping rain of the Amazon in the rainy season. As awesome as both those sound, they may not have been quite enough to drag me away from the merciless cold temperatures and rapid fire snow and ice storms back home in Maine this winter.
My traveling companion and I hit the map and saw a huge unvisited (for us) chunk of northern Peru, and then focused on the part sandwiched between the coast and jungle, where the Andes Mountains were relatively narrow and not quite tall enough to be snow covered. It didn’t take long for our adventure-seeking eyes to focus on Chachapoyas.
There isn’t much that’s run of the mill about a trip to Chachapoyas, and like all good off-the-beaten path destinations, it’s not easy to get to. (More on getting there at the end of this article.)
A few quick facts: Chachapoyas is a city in northern Peru with a population of just over 20,000 people. Situated in the mountains at an elevation of about 2,200 meters (7,660 ft) and far from the Peruvian coast, Chachapoyas remains fairly isolated from other regions of Peru. It’s centrally located within what’s called the Amazonian Andes within the pre-Incan empire of the Chachapoyas, a name that means Warriors of the Clouds. The Chachapoyas left behind world class ruins and archaeological relicts, like the cloud fortress of Kuelap, the Sarcophagi of Karajia, and the Mausolea at Revash. Add to that the natural attractions like the 2,500-ft Gocta Falls (the 5th highest waterfall in the world), caverns, and nature reserves, and you start to wonder if Machu Whatcha-ma-call-it really needs to happen for you after all.
Vast areas of little-explored cloud forest surround the city of Chachapoyas, and it hides some of Peru’s most fascinating and obscure archaeological treasures. The ruins range from remarkably preserved through to barely recognizable, based on how much they’ve been impacted by weather over time or how trashed they’ve been by grave robbers and treasure seekers, but even the degraded ones hold great mystique. Kuélap is by far the most famous of these archaeological sites, though dozens of other ruins lie engulfed by jungle, at peace in their present day anonymity.
After a long journey to get to Chachapoyas, spend a few days getting acquainted and you notice there are only a modest number of hotels and restaurants and a scattering of tour companies, almost no souvenir shops, no street hawkers, and no other evidence that tons of tourists ever throng here. There’s a modest market, no large-scale farming, and no industry. Despite this, the town is clean, tidy, laid back, and crime-free. Sprawling new housing developments are perched around the town, many of them empty, a new and unused airport capable of landing jets (and an even newer and bigger one planned), paved roads throughout the village, and more radio and TV stations than a good-sized U.S. city. The populace is friendly and largely seems content to be lodged between the cell phone and ipod state of “western civilization.”
In the air is a sense of “If you want to visit and have a great time and drop some money in Chachapoyas, that’s cool – if not….whatever.” A mystery for sure, especially in view of the feeding-frenzy practiced on tourists throughout other parts of Peru.
It didn’t take much mixing with the locals to begin to understand this ambivalence…the secret that’s not-so-secret of Chachapoyas. In fact, the residents I spoke with were almost effusive in their willingness to talk and laugh about it, and no one I encountered seemed bothered by it. Of course, I didn’t interview the local religious representatives, and the police of Latin American countries? Well, shiny, happy crossing guards they aren’t, so I left them alone too. Second hand input had to suffice for them, and that second hand input suggested that the police were completely on board.
The secret was hidden in the beautiful mountain vistas surrounding Chachapoyas that were overlain onto productive soils, subjected to excellent moderate rainfall and weather, and which for practical purposes were ridiculously tough to get to.
It turns out that Chachapoyas is a poster child for a prospering 21st century sustainable community in a world where a significant portion of the people in “developed countries” have enough disposable income to support both a low level of tourism to a well-off-the-beaten-path destination, as well as….a chemical dependency.
Sometime in the late 1970’s to early 80’s, when America started the drug war in earnest and it became lucrative for large landowners, multinational banks, Latin American drug cartels, and American military contractors to “encourage and support” a healthy drug trade, the hills around Chachapoyas began to come alive with the sound of music….the special kind of music played by the wind blowing through expansive fields of plants used to make illicit drugs – first coca for cocaine and more recently, poppies for heroin.
(I want to make sure this doesn’t come off as another slam of coca. Coca leaves are integrally tied to the culture of the Andes; they’ve been chewed and brewed for tea for centuries, and they are nothing short of a superfood. America needs to get over its persecution of this plant!!)
Not that Chachapoyas is that unique. There are hundreds of regions like it in Latin America, the Mediterranean, and the Far East where the soils and climate, and remoteness of course, are suitable to grow what certain developed countries call the primary targets for the war on drugs.
All signs around Chachapoyas point to business being pretty good, but I’ll leave out details like names, organizations, political parties, and more, that were shared with me. After all, I would very much like to visit Chachapoyas again!
This source of prosperity almost certainly causes heartburn to some. Recently, the local Catholic Church began a campaign to raise “clean” money to support costs for the local school. In response, one person who is known as a well-off grower of the local cash crop, stepped up and paid school costs anticipated for the next 60 years. The church campaign quietly ended.
What about all the new infrastructure beyond what a community this size could possibly utilize? The locals delighted in giving me a lesson on what money laundering is all about. There is a Vietnamese firm who has yearly contracts to maintain and install more equipment for the radio and television towers, most of which have never been active. Money is being poured into new housing that no one needs. The unused airport gets new equipment every year. The list is impressive. There is a huge ski lift being planned up to the ruins of Kuelap that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars – I’m sure the tens of tourists that visit Kuelap each day will make it highly profitable.
Don’t visit Chachapoyas expecting it to be a sin city of vice. Conservatism carries the day, and it’s no party town. The plants of prosperity are sent far away for processing, and the locals apparently are way too smart to share any dependency upon the ultimate products. There is absolutely no danger in visiting Chachapoyas. Violence in the drug war only occurs when there is oppression of locals, trafficking wars, and conflicts over profits. There’s none of that here, just peaceful fields hidden in the hills.
High on the bluffs of Revast looking out over an incredibly expansive Andean valley, where the Chachapoyas people buried their dead over 1000 years ago in mausoleum crypts chisled out of a sheer cliff face, a sublime sense of peace and solemnity prevails. As one ponders the significance of the ancients and gazes upon the grand view that the dead have gazed upon for a millennium, it’s possible to peak at two futures among the mists that cloud the upper slopes of the mountains surrounding the Utcubamba River valley.
In one future, western society continues down its path of over-indulgence and over-dependence, and Chachapoyas does its share to feed the addictions, and in so doing eventually is able to pave its streets in gold to the point of fulfilling the prophecy of the long lost city of riches in Latin America, the elusive El Dorado. The other future, more hopeful but cynically less likely, is a future of moderation, where the west kicks itself in the ass and smartens up, faces its demons of dependency, moderates its thirst for consumption of all kinds, and its’ greed for profits to be made from an illegal drug trade, and poppy plants wilt in the fields, and Chachapoyas settles in to the tourism and agriculture that both hold such high potential.
You get the sense that the community of Chachapoyas doesn’t really care either way, and will be patient while the world figures it out. It’s got world class history and natural attractions, clean abundant water and great soils, and a multitude of glistening white buildings around its’ town plaza. It’s going to be just fine, even if it never breaks into anyones Top 10 list. Maybe it’s a model that could be more widely applied? An economy based on adventure and history tourism, and illicit growing that combine to create relaxed ambiance, safety, and an all around high “happiness quotient.” They might be onto something…
Notes on Getting There and Attractions – For the more adventurous, Chachapoyas deserves to be right up there with the Sacred Valley, and for those wanting to avoid crowds, start your planning now.
To get to Chachapoyas, you can fly from Lima (the hub for national flights) to either Chiclayo on the coast, or Tarapoto in the Amazon. From there, the adventure begins, as it’s a long, winding, 8-hr bus ride to Chachapoyas either way. We picked Taropoto and broke the drive up with an overnight in the Village of Moyobamba, which had a great market, an annual orchid festival timed a few weeks after we were there, swarms of moto-taxis, and no other tourists. Narrow roads and blind corners kept the long drive interesting, and several “stops” along the way while landslides were cleared actually were welcome breaks to settle our stomachs.
As I mentioned, the roads in the village are paved and well laid out. Outside of the village, the roads of the general region are another story. The roads often seemed to narrow to about a lane and a half, within which drivers somehow pass each other without slowing, and, because they beep their horns, they also speed around turns. When driving in buses and vans, I recommend you bring a distraction like music and close your eyes, because paying attention to the driver and the road will irritate any ulcers, headaches, hangnails, eye-twitches or any other condition that normally is at equilibrium. Most of the forests have been removed from the slopes and, as a result, landslides are common especially during the rainy season – expect delays. On our way to the Mausolea at Revash, it took all nine of us in the tour van to nudge a boulder to the side of the road, and allow the van to pass.
The tombs at Revash are amazing in their detail and in the engineering it took to site and build them on the sheer cliff walls, but what really struck me was the adventure to get to them and the location. The trail to Revash is narrow and steep with sheer dropoffs…don’t attempt it if heights aren’t your thing. Perch on the cliff next to the tombs and the sense of solitude is almost jarring; eyes feast on the grandeur of the mountains and valley, and ears starve in the quiet of the thin air. The great reverence for the dead is obvious; you get the sense that a good part of every living persons’ day was preparing for and working on, the details of someone elses’ death.
The falls at Gocta are reached after about 2 and a half hours of challenging up and down hiking on a trail that’s being improved by the day by the local community. The tiny Village of Cocachimba, one row of buildings around a large grassy common, is located at the base of the trail, and here you can hire a trail guide, rent horses if you don’t want to walk, or line up a sopa de pollo (chicken soup) for when you return. You won’t get near the canyon at the base of the falls if its high water.
I can’t say enough about the ruins of the fortress of Kuelap. I think I enjoyed them more than Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is fully restored, so much so that you would only be half surprised if you turned a corner and intruded upon an Inca sacrifice in progress. It’s buffed and primped, and it’s….well, it’s square – the Incas you see were all about right angles and straight walls. It’s still a wonderful place to visit and share with….thousands of your closest friends. At Kuelap, there is no questioning that it’s a ruin, and the jungle that consumed the once mighty fortress has only partly surrendered its conquest. The trees, bromeliads, and parrots on and around the ruins add immeasurably to the experience.
Unimpaired by crowds, I could feel the energy of the ages and hear the echoes of footprints that trammeled through the Kuelap compound long ago. Instead of lines and angles, the Chachapoyas built with curves; homes are circular, and walls undulating and beautifully curved. Inca architecture makes me think of a lawyers office and of updating my will – Chachapoyan architecture brings to mind a sensual dinner date and a night out on the town partying. If they ever build the ski lift, I recommend you skip it and take the drive or combination drive and hike. The fortress walls are visible for a long ways, and the periodic glimpses along the journey help to build the mystique and awe.
If you do the research for your trip, you’ll find that Kuelap is number 1 on the Top 10 list of things to do in Chachapoyas. But of course, we can discard those lists, right?