Of the three border crossings from Ecuador to Peru, I was embarking on the least travelled and most dramatic route. I spent my last night in Ecuador in the small attractive town of Zumba. My destination the next day was Chachapoyas, once home to the Chachapoya, or People of the Clouds. They are aptly named, for the bumpy unpaved roads lead high into mountain passes and cloud forests, while mist swirls atmospherically in the valleys below.
It was an all day journey involving at least 6 different modes of transport. The most charming was the local ranchera, an open sided bus with bench seats, which left Zumba at 8am. It trundled down to the frontier village of La Balsa, which is really just a few huts. After an easy exit from Ecuador and an equally easy queue-free entry into Peru, I was then in a shared taxi to the nearest town of San Ignacio. From there I had to take a sequence of three more minivans via Jaen and Bagua Grande, but thankfully they all linked together perfectly with very little waiting.
One of the great pleasures of travelling in South America is the chance to visit old archaeological sites and learn about cultures which had often disappeared well before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. With no writing or historical records, we only have the remains of their towns and cities to give us some insight into their civilisation. It’s amazing to consider how many great cultures were flourishing here in complete isolation from the rest of the world.
Chachapoyas is capital of the Amazonas region which occupies the eastern slopes of the Andes and stretches down to the great river. The Chachapoya were a warrior like race and inhabited this area for about a thousand years until the late 15th century when they were conquered by the Incas. Of course, it was only another 30 years or so, before the Incas were themselves overthrown by the Spanish.
Kuélap is a huge Chachapoya site and is now relatively easy to visit with a tour company, especially since a new cable car was opened just a few months ago. It’s not as dramatic as Machu Picchu, but it’s still a fascinating day out. The setting is superb and the llamas, as always, are photogenic.
My next destination was Cajamarca, south-west across the Andes. Most buses travel at night, which I hate, particularly since you miss the scenery. However, I found one company, Rojas, which runs a minibus leaving at 5.30am. The road was one of the most spectacular so far, with incredible views. The route clings to the side of mountains and climbs up and down valleys. If you saw these hairpin bends first, there’s no way you’d want to do this journey at night!
Cajamarca has a sad and tragic history. It was here that Francisco Pizarro arrived in the highlands and where he met the last Inca King, Atahualpa, in 1532. The latter came peacefully to meet the Spanish invaders, but Pizarro and his men turned on them, captured Atahualpa and brutally murdered 7000 local people in the name of Christianity, the King of Spain and imperialism. Yes, 7000! And that was just one day of the Conquest.
The story continues with Atahualpa promising to fill a room with gold and silver in return for his release. Over the next few months wealth arrived from all over the Inca empire, but the perfidious Spaniards still executed Atahualpa. You can visit an Incan building which may be where Atahualpa was imprisoned or where he deposited the treasures. The next day I took a tour to Cumbemayo, a site of pre-Incan water channels which were carved out in this rocky, dramatic landscape over 2000 years ago.
So far in Peru I’ve noticed far more people in traditional dress, in particular the women who wear the most extraordinary high hats. Sadly, I’ve also noticed more poverty and all the beggars on the streets are indigenous people. The Spanish conquered this continent through force, but also a lot of luck, since their arrival coincided with a civil war between the Incas. It’s fascinating to think how different things might look if the Spanish had lost and never colonised South America. There could be an Inca Kingdom still in place today.