Chachapoyas, Peru
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Discovering Archaeological Treasures in Peru

The images below are from a 1999 expedition into the remote Chachapoyas region of northern Peru. The trip arose from my interest in Latin American history and archaeology which developed while preparing material for the Amazon Adventure schools project. The Chachapoya (Cloud People) lived in the cloud forests of the Andes, bordering on the Amazon rainforest. Although conquered by the Inca, they were fiercely independent - mounting several large rebellions. They were one of the subjugated tribes which aligned themselves with the Spaniards - providing much of the manpower and local knowledge leading to the final defeat of the Inca Empire. Sadly, they fared even worse under the Spaniards - becoming extinct through slavery, forced relocation, and introduced disease. Their remote strongholds were de-populated and returned to forest.

In the 1970s, an unconventional American explorer called Gene Savoy travelled through the area - uncovering ruins such as Gran Vilaya and Gran Pajatén. Although it was a significant achievement, Savoy lost credibility based on fantastical claims, including that the Chachapoya were descended from Vikings. He found glyphs which appeared to be Scandinavian longboats, and cited conquistadors' claims that the Chachapoya were a fair people. Additionally, there had been reports of blond blue-eyed children inhabiting the area in more recent years. Although stories of wayward vikings settling in South America seem appealing, they've never been proven and seem increasingly unlikely. Through the 1980s and 90s, the region was closed by the military having become a stronghold of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). A remarkable discovery was made in 1997, at a location called Laguna de los Condores (Lake of the Condors). Unfortunately, archaeologists only became aware of it when a large number of artefacts suddenly flooded the local black market. Investigations traced them back to a remote cliffside ruin overlooking the lake - and a cache of about 200 mummies. The sheltered cliffside provided a dry microclimate protecting the mummies from the humidity of the nearby rainforest … at least until the looters and their machetes arrived. By the time the archaeological rescue team arrived, the site was strewn with vandalised mummy bundles unceremoniously hacked open with machetes in the hope of finding riches. A major operation was then made to evacuate the remaining mummies to a hastily arranged facility in the nearby town of Leimebamba. In 1999, I joined a trip with archaeologist Dr Peter Lerche to learn more about the region's history. Tombs that we located during this expedition were subsequently revisited by Peter, and took the September 2000 cover of National Geographic. My own story and photos about the trip were published in Destinations travel magazine back in New Zealand.

For another interesting take on the "frontier" nature of this region check this Peruvian Gothic article from Outside magazine. Keith Muscutt's Warriors of the Clouds is another great reference if you can find it.

Elderly lady and mule, Chachapoyas

Rainbow above the village of Levanto.

Patchwork landscapes in Chachapoyas

More patchwork landscapes in Chachapoyas

Outside the Chachapoya fortress of Kuelap

Internal view inside the walled fortress of Kuelap

Carved face of the moon, on Tintero. Kuelap.

Chachapoya, Diamond frieze. Kuelap.

Restored Chachapoya dwelling. Kuelap.

Old Inca road, still in use between Levanto and Chachapoyas

Local woman and child. Remote mountains outside Chachapoyas.

Local woman and family. Remote mountains outside Chachapoyas

Modern tourist hut, Chachapoya style.

On archaeological expedition into the mountains of Chachapoyas

Mule train, crossing through the mountains in Chachapoyas

Mule train, crossing through the mountains in Chachapoyas

Our expedition team resting at Orphedon, Chachapoyas.

Early morning at Orphedon, remote mountain settlement in the Chachapoyas

View of Orphedon. Remote mountain settlement in Chachapoyas

Packing mules for travel. Orphedon, Chachapoyas.

Taking a break. Trekking in Chachapoyas.

River crossing. Archaeological expedition in Chachapoyas

View of Orphedon. Remote mountain settlement in Chachapoyas

Packing mules for travel. Orphedon, Chachapoyas.

Ancient Chachapoya burial platform and glyphs

Lunch break. Trekking in Chachapoyas.

La Petaca. Cliffside tombs. Chachapoyas

La Petaca. Cliffside tombs. Chachapoyas

Cliffside tomb close-up

Expedition team after climb up to tombs

500 year old ropes from mummy bundles

Ropes are put back in place before we leave

Rescued Chachapoya Mummies

Burial cave in another location

Bones strewn outside the cave (either by animals or grave robbers)

Headed into the forest at a location called Chequillo

Trekking through thick forest

Chachapoya ruins hidden in the forest at Chequillo

Looking down on the village of Atuen. Location of springs once used by the Inca

Kids looking at a Polaroid I took of them.

Atuen pre-school class

Local kids posing for a photo

Julio and Alvin contemplating the trek ahead

Dr. Peter Lerche cutting vegetation away from Chachapoya lintel at La Joya

Clearing vegetation away from forested ruins at La Joya

Stone heads. These are common amongst the walls at Chachapoya ruins

Atuen school

Elderly women carrying firewood along a road in Chachapoyas

Local children in Leimebamba, at a festival celebrating Chachapoya heritage

Children at festival celebrating Chachapoya heritage in Leimebamba

Me and my favorite hawaiian shirt. After our expedition. Hotel in Leimebamba

Local kids in Leimebamba

Family of a local artisan in Leimebamba

Transport out. Step up from the Peruvian Air Force An-32 military transport I arrived in.

Banner image: Shutterstock/Yolka

© 2015 Andrew Mercer