Looking down at the farmsteads, clusters of trees and agricultural terraces as the clouds gather above me threatening rain, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of awe. Apart from my guide, Eduardo, I’m alone on a mountaintop 3,100 metres above sea level in north Peru’s Amazonas region, which Peruvians poetically call the ceja de selva, the ‘eyebrow of the jungle’.
I’m at Kuelap, roaming among the ruins of an isolated citadel last occupied in the 15th century. I imagine how the now-peaceful site might have looked when the 300 or so circular brick houses were occupied; at one time the settlement was home to several thousand people. The houses crumbled centuries ago but the tightly packed layout is still visible – there was clearly little privacy for those who lived high up in the cloud forest.
Kuelap was built by the Chachapoyas, an ancient Peruvian culture whose name translates as ‘people of the mist’; zipping up my waterproofs, I understand why. The Chachapoyas abandoned Kuelap soon after the Spanish invaded and the site was forgotten about until, in the 1840s, it was ‘rediscovered’ by Juan Crisóstomo Nieto, the then mayor of the nearby town of Chachapoyas.
As major archeological sites go, it’s pure and unspoilt. There are no hotels, no car parks and no concrete – not even a café. The tiny ticket office stocks a modest selection of postcards and is free from mass-produced merchandise. As for the ruins themselves, the only invaders over the years have been trees, some with orchids growing atop their branches, infiltrating the cracks in the stone ruins. The twisted branches and roots lend the place a spooky, ethereal feel, especially when the clouds roll over. Far below, I can just make out the 37km single-track road we drove up this morning. The journey took almost two hours, involving spine-tingling hairpin bends.
Many people associate Peru exclusively with the Incas and Machu Picchu, but the Incas ruled Peru for just 100 years before the Spanish conquistadores arrived. Prior to the Incas, Peru had been dominated by some 120 other ancient cultures, and it was these that I travelled to Peru to find out more about. The north of the country is a tranquil counterpoint to the heavily touristed south. My odyssey begins the following day in Trujillo, a colourful colonial town on the Pacific coast that I’m using as a base. My first site is Huaca de la Luna, or the Temple of the Moon, a 40-minute drive from the town centre.
It’s one of two adjacent sacred sites (the other is the Temple of the Sun) built by the Moche people, who lived in the region between the first and ninth centuries. They were skilled craftsmen and many items – especially ceramic pots – were decorated with detailed drawings depicting everyday events. My local guide, Ana María, takes pleasure in relating their macabre cultural traditions: human sacrifice was such an ordinary part of daily life that the Moche experimented with ways of performing it. In one ceremony, men and women would scale a rocky hill and drink poison before being pushed off the side to plummet to their deaths – an act they believed would please the gods.
Northern Peru is hot and dusty. After three hours of ruin ruminating, we cool off at Huanchaco, a former fishing village popular with Trujillo residents and the occasional backpacker looking for a quiet beach break and tasty seafood. The food is top-notch and for lunch I have a crisp-fresh ceviche – diced raw fish marinated in a mixture of lemon juice, olive oil and hot chilli.
The next day I travel north along the Panamericana – Latin America’s great highway – passing fields of chilli plants, and trees bearing mango and lucoma (a fruit related to avocado). Turning off the highway we chug along a dusty unmade road through a sugar cane plantation to visit the El Brujo archaeological complex, the main site of the Mochica culture. The recently opened Cao Museum is a stylish building. The beautifully curated exhibition tells the story of the site – first excavated in 2001 – and displays the mummy of the Lady of Cao, a princess discovered on the site. Exhibits include gold and silver treasures found in her grave, and the remains of a girl who was sacrificed.
In the afternoon we reach Túcume, a dusty desert town some kilometres inland, to visit the ruins of 26 pyramids built in the 13th century. The heat is searing, my shoes are steadily filling with sand and my skin is threatening to turn into crackling if I stay outside much longer. Beginning to feel overwhelmed, I give up and retreat to Los Horocones, a peaceful haçienda-style hotel in the shadow of the crumbling pyramids.
Peaceful, majestic Kuelap is a fitting climax to my pilgrimage. In the darkling mists I ponder the life of the residents: how did they fetch water so far from the river? Where did they grow crops? It’s a privilege to soak up the atmosphere without hordes of other visitors. Getting here has been an odyssey: the northern highlands are remote, and a visit to the region requires forward planning. But I’m glad I opted not to take the well-trodden paths and backpacker circuits. Where Machu Picchu has iconic status – and footfall – Kuelap has mystery and a ghostly beauty.
‘Peru’s Challenge is a not-for-profit charity organisation that enables volunteers to mix travel with community work in what has been dubbed ‘‘voluntourism’’. In August 2009, I spent a month living and working in a small community in the Andes, taking part in one of their volunteer programmes. There were eight volunteers in our group, ranging in age from 17 to 50, from Iran, Portugal, Ireland, Australia and Malta. We lived together in the volunteer house located in Larapa on the outskirts of Cuzco. We started out as strangers, and ended up as friends.
‘Arriving in Larapa, my first impression was ‘‘Rural! Rural! Oh my God, it’s rural!” But the culture shock was short-lived. Soon it felt refreshing to forget city life and all its stresses.
‘Our days varied between teaching classes (anything from English, art, computer studies, sports, kindergarten and more) to construction work, helping with the women’s arts and crafts group, working in the vegetable garden, attending Spanish lessons and going on sightseeing trips. I managed to squeeze in a visit to Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world, where I did a home-stay with a local family. I was also fortunate to do the four-day Inca Trek to Machu Picchu – a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 and declared one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
‘Why volunteer there, all the way from Dubai? First, it’s a truly breathtaking destination. Yet despite its beauty, life is difficult for many people there. I’ve seen the impact of Peru’s Challenge on the community over the past four years and its progress. When their work is done, volunteers return home longing to return to their new ‘amigos y amigas’ one day.’ The four-week programme costs US$2,550 (Dhs9,366) and includes accommodation, transportation, sight-seeing trips in Cuzco, Spanish lessons, Peruvian cooking classes and a four-day trek to Machu Picchu. See www.peruschallenge.com for more info
Need to know
what to do Go to enjoyperu.com for info on Kuelap hotels and attractions. Getting there Emirates flies from Dubai to Lima via Heathrow and Toronto, with prices from Dhs10,917 (inc tax). See www.emirates.com. You can then take a 90-minute flight to Chiclayo or Trujillo, followed by a 16-hour trip by road to Tingo, via Chachapoyas. Kuelap is a further 20-minute walk. Phew. Visa INfo Peru has no consulate or embassy in the UAE. To get a Peruvian visa, call the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 04 404 0000, or go to www.government.ae.