Laguna de los Condores


In April 1997, two timber cutters working in a remote region of northern Peru witnessed a tree crash down a 100 metre cliff face. Squinting from across a lagoon, they could see a structure on an exposed rock ledge. Grabbing machetes, making their way down the heavily wooded slope under the cover of darkness, they crossed the lagoon and hacked their way through the jungle for 3 days to reach the site. No doubt inspired by the discovery of the Royal Tombs of the Lord of Sipán a decade earlier on the northern coast, they must have expected to find a swag of gold and silver. But what these huaqueros (tomb raiders) came across, were 219 mummies inside 6 chullpas (mausoleums). They made off with some of the mummies and a few artefacts before the farm owner realised what had happened and alerted the police, who eventually recovered all the items. The hapless huaqueros were prosecuted for their part in uncovering a burial site that had lain hidden for 5 centuries.

The area had been named the Lagoon of the Condors 30 years earlier by explorer Gene Savoy in his search for pre-Colombian ruins in the state of Amazonas, an area once frequented by Chachapoyan Indians. He never ventured to the harsh, craggy, southern side of the lagoon. The northern side slowly developed as farm land, though still ruggedly isolated, as I was to discover.

The Chachapoyans inhabited an area from just south of Peru’s border with Ecuador, on the eastern slope of the Andes, an area known as the “eyebrow of the jungle”. The capital of the region is Chachapoyas, a small town, nestled in a valley, a winding, bumpy, 12 hour bus ride to the Pacific coast. Further east, the road descends to the jungle, then peters out.

The pre Colombian Chachapoyas region was an area of 155,000 square kilometres, bordered on the west by the Rio Marañon, which runs further north, then swings east and flows down into the jungle to eventually join the network that makes up the Amazon River. At least 12 significant archaeological sites are now known in the area, countless more still undiscovered.

Kuelap (pronounced Kwaylap) was a city of yellow limestone, perched high on a 1000 metre long mountain. Huge fortified walls and round dwellings, many decorated with friezes, still spread over 6 hectares. It apparently has more than twice the stone of the Great Pyramid at Giza. The citadel, discovered in 1843, was built around the 9th Century. The cloud forest has reclaimed much of it. Trees are dripping in orchids and bromeliads. Llamas roam as if it’s their domain now. It’s an awesome place.

There’s an Inca road that leads out of Chachapoyas. It can be walked in a few hours through potato fields, past grazing cows, the stone path characteristically rising over the lie of the land, rather than following it. The views back to town and from the tiny village of Levanto are of rugged mountains, Kuelap perched on one in the distance.

Karijía is down a slippery, muddy slope and along a path under a high cliff face. Fifty metres up, six huge sarcophagi stand, their expressions inscrutable and proud, in a style similar to the Easter Island statues. Each long face has its own characteristic gaze as if they, at least, know why they are there. They’re 2 metres, tall, perched on a ledge, as they have been for centuries, purposefully looking out across a valley to a mountain on the other side. Huaqueros ventured there too, but the sarcophagi and the mummies inside are essentially undisturbed. Two skulls sit on the heads of the red painted figures made of mud and vegetation. It was thought that originally there were many more, only the six escaping the pressures of the environment, the perpendicular cliff, sheltering them.

Nearby, the Pueblo de los Muertos (village of the dead) hugs a cliff even more precipitous. These days only a 45 minute walk from a car park, it is still not to be taken lightly. There is no room for error, the path narrow, the drop unforgiving. Gocta falls, a 700 metre waterfall, the world’s third highest, is visible in the misty distance, across a vast valley, through heavy hanging clouds. Nearing the adobe structures, the path gets worse, all but disappears. There are no safety fences and the height is stomach turning. But it’s worth it. Though the structures, adobe mausoleums and mud-sculptured human-faced tombs wedged into crevices, have been damaged, they have endured, shedding insight into the sophisticated society.

The Chachapoyans lived in the region from 800AD under well established customs and farming practices. The Incas only arrived in 1470, stamping their authority over them, though probably not changing much of their ways. It was more likely the Spanish destroyed the Chachapoyan Indians, decimating them with disease. There is evidence that at least some the artefacts in the tombs at the Lagoon of the Condores were made after the Spanish conquest, before the community died out and were completely forgotten.

To get to the Lagoon site is no easy feat, even by the “eyebrow of the jungle” standards. From Chachapoyas it is 3 hours by road to Leymebamba, a small, but attractive town with a twin spired stone church in a little square, more horses than cars wandering the streets. A museum now houses the 219 mummies. Many of the 2000 artefacts found in the chullpas are also on display, including mummified cats with nose decorations, cane and ceramic pots and jugs, leather caps and wooden spindles. Khilpos (knotted cords that recorded information), indicated the mummies were elite classes.

But to really appreciate the significance of the find, the enigma of the “people of the cloud forest,” I felt it necessary to go to the Laguna de los Condores itself. We were told it wasn’t possible to walk. That it was too far. We had to go by horse. And we needed 3 days. We agreed, though didn’t see the need to swap our hiking boots for rubber gum boots. That doubt was soon laid to rest.

The trail led southwest out of Leymebamba, climbed steeply over a mountain and down the other side. Then the trail disappeared and the mud began. It was knee deep when we got off the horses for fear of falling. It was better to stay on. Horses in Peru do not use mouth bits. They don’t need tying up. They seem to understand what is required of them. It was lucky for us. I didn’t know horses could rock hop until that day.

The vague track continued uphill through cloud forest, the jungle thick, the path rocky, jarring, muddy, virtually impassable on two legs. We climbed all morning and into the afternoon, a steep zigzag through the Páramo (high Andean grassland) to a pass at 3800 metres where a bitter wind ripped through us, the point where I wondered whether it was all worth it. But as we went down a creek on the other side, the horses treacherously slipping down smooth rocks, we descended back into forest, steep precipices leading up to luscious green mountains. It threatened rain the entire way but our guide was right when he claimed it wouldn’t. He also assured me that the horses would never fall. I had to trust him.

We reached the refuge some ten hours from Leymebamba. Don Julio greeted us, made up a bed. He had bought the land twenty years earlier, began clearing it on what turned out to be Llaqtacocha, a one time settlement of 130 circular structures that dated to the Chachapoya and looked high over the lagoon to the chullpas. He’d spent 8 years building a track to his first shelter over the pass. It took him another 8 years until he made it to a crest above the lagoon. Spectacled bears and pumas were occasional hazards.

The next day we walked up the ridge to a view of the lagoon, lying eerily quiet at 2700 metres above sea level. Huge cloud forested mountains rose steeply around it. Waterfalls crashed down a cliff face in the barely audible distance. The condors of Gene Savoy’s day have long since gone, but it is an immense sight; elusive, solitary, impenetrable. Clambering down a rough slope, we crossed the narrow point of the lagoon on two tree trunks, pristine water running away down the valley. We manoeuvred through bamboo forest and then heavy timber and lush, glistening vegetation. Half way along the far side of the nearly 3 kilometre long lagoon, we started climbing, first up stone steps, then on makeshift tree-branch ladders, up ropes, out onto a plunging rock ledge, run-off tumbling down from above like rain.

We scrambled up some rocks to see the site of the mummies of the Lagoon of the Condores. A couple of skulls still sit there, dark hair dangling, teeth showing, almost smiling. A replica of a cloth wrapped mummy sits in one of the windows of the chullpas, some still decorated with red paint motifs. There are six stone structures facing back across to where the village was half a century before. Timber poles which held the mummies still sit in place. It was incredible that they had survived, dry and intact in a cloud forest, the overhang drizzling in water even in the driest season. But it wasn’t hard to see how they lay undetected for so long. It’s even now, a secluded, unforgiving landscape. A perfect place for a sanctuary to the dead. All we had to do was get out alive.

August 2007




~ by Drifting, Rambling on May 5, 2008.

One Response to “Laguna de los Condores”

  1. That is a very good tip especially to those new to the blogosphere.
    Simple but very precise info… Thank you for sharing this one.
    A must read post!

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