Peru: The Ruin of Me

By Ben Brazil
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 18, 2004

Here's a tip for visiting remote ruins in the cloud forests of northern Peru: If someone offers you a donkey, take it.

I am not sure exactly when I realized this. It might have been early in my first day's hike, when I noticed that calf-deep mud sprinkled with horse manure was the rule, rather than the exception, on the mule trail leading into the high Andes.

It may have come later, when Sinecio Garro Gutierrez, my guide, suggested that I fight exhaustion by chewing wads of coca leaves, better known elsewhere for their illegal, highly processed derivative. Certainly, however, my pro-pack-animal feelings had crystallized by the time the second of my quadriceps began cramping, leaving me lurching up the trail like a delusional shipwreck victim.

At least it wasn't raining. I had arrived at Sinecio's home town of Leymebamba at what I believed to be the beginning of the dry season, ready to explore the pre-Inca ruins hidden in the region's cliffs and cloud forests.

But Sinecio had shaken his head at my weather sense and repeated a local proverb: "Abril, aguas mil."

Loosely translated, this rhyme means "April, rainfalls by the thousands." To say the least, it was not the optimal time to visit.

But neither is Leymebamba an easy destination. To get there from the capital of Lima, you must travel more than 400 miles to the north, cross the spine of the Andes and brave the pitted, mostly gravel "highway" linking Leymebamba to the provincial capital of Chachapoyas. Another route exists, but it's even worse.

The trickle of tourists who make the trip have only dented the city's isolation: Leymebamba's streets still have more horses than cars, and few of its residents have access to telecommunications apart from the four pay phones on the town square.

In fact, Leymebamba might have languished in total obscurity were it not for events beginning in late 1996, when looters discovered a stash of 219 mummies in the cliffside tombs overlooking the nearby Lake of the Condors. The Discovery Channel filmed the ensuing recovery operation, introducing Leymebamba to the world (the History Channel filmed another major find in 1999).

The mummies, now housed in Leymebamba's three-year-old museum, are just the most dramatic examples of the archaeological treasures hidden in the Chachapoyas region, a densely forested area that was once home to a mysterious pre-Inca culture of the same name.

The word "Chachapoya" likely derives from an indigenous phrase meaning "people of the clouds," and this is entirely appropriate. The region sits in the area where humid air rising from the Amazon Basin collides with cold air descending from the Andes. The result is a mountainous world of heavy rains, mysterious fog and lush vegetation.

Although the region has enough ruins for a lifetime of exploration, I had only a few days, most of which Iwanted to spend in the backcountry. For advice on where to go, I turned to Rob Dover, a British guide headquartered in the city of Chachapoyas, capital of the Amazonas department. Almost immediately, he directed me to Leymebamba.

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