The drunks wave a plastic coke bottle of clear liquid and urge us to drink. They are standing in front of the hostel in Valle Huaylla Belén, or more accurately, lurching and staggering. With their glassy eyes and mouths rimmed with dried green spit – the overflow from bulging cheeks of coca leaves – they aren’t the most attractive welcoming committee. Their ponchos and jeans are soiled with mud, and while they’re friendly, it’s a friendliness tinged with menace. I have the feeling if we don’t placate them it will soon turn ugly.
The hostel is locked. This is bad news because it’s the only building in the 10 kilometre long valley. The nearest village, Cohechán, is 18 kilometres away. We know this because we just hiked from there.
This would never have happened on a tour. The three day hike between Valle Belén and the ruined citadel of Kuélap was available as a tour from Chachapoyas, the capital of the north Peruvian department of Amazonas, but we had decided to do it independently. A tour would have organised the accommodation and driven us directly here, the supposed departure point for the hike, in a comfortable van. Instead we had to walk to Valle Belén guided by a rudimentary map, after series of taxi drivers refused to take us further than Cohechán saying, ‘Only horses live there.’
A drunk shambles over and takes my shoulder in a painfully strong grip. Howling at me he forces the grimy neck of the bottle to my lips. Some liquid sloshes down my cheek. The other two men have my hiking partner, Yasmin, bailed up against the wall while she bats away their attempts to hug her.
Don’t get me wrong, I normally enjoy a drink. But this brew is chicha, an all purpose word for homebrew. Chicha is traditionally made from chewing corn and then spitting the results into a bowl for fermentation. Sold for less than a dollar a bottle, it makes methylated spirits seem like Penfolds.
I evade the man with the bottle and help Yasmin fend off the lunging drunks. It’s getting dark and beginning to rain. With the rain comes a wave of cold, a stark reminder that we are at an altitude of 2800 metres. Things are looking grim.
The drunks have grouped together and are staggering towards us like extras from a zombie movie when a motorbike putters up to the hostel. A man jumps off the bike and herds the querulous drunks into a room at the back of the building.
When he returns he flashes a gold toothed smile and introduces himself as Arturo, the hostel caretaker. It’s a massive relief to have a friendly, sober local on the scene, and our mood improves further when he offers to cook us dinner and guide us tomorrow.
The accommodation is basic – no electricity, cold water, simple bunk beds – but it is clean and there are plenty of blankets against the cold. Arturo cooks dinner in a kitchen that doubles as a tool shed. Rice and tuna have never tasted so good.
The next morning Arturo ties our backpacks to his horse, Pedro. We follow the river as it describes lavish arcs across the green valley floor. Arturo is quiet but kindly, smile lines etched around his mouth and eyes. His dog Rambo runs ahead flushing out yellow-bellied birds from the spindly shrubs adjoining the track. We leave the river and turn onto an orange clay path rising into the foothills. Beneath us the shadows of the fast-moving clouds glide over the sunlit valley.
When we stop to rest Arturo offers us some dried leaves from a plastic bag. He explains coca is an import part of Andean life. It not only provides a connection to the spirit world, but has the earthly aspects of controlling hunger and thirst, providing energy and helping work at altitude – properties locals have been utilising for more than 8000 years. The leaves don’t have any of the euphoric effects of its famous cousin cocaine.
We take some leaves and Arturo shows us how to place a wad in our cheeks. The leaves taste like bitter grass and after a few minutes, much to Arturo’s amusement, I spit them out.
As we climb the clay path widens and turns to stone. This is a stretch of Incan road, a fragment of the 40,000 kilometre road system which linked their empire. Many sections are enveloped by mud or destroyed by hooves and rockslides, but this stretch is well preserved, with neatly arranged flagstones and steps. The Incas dominated this region of Peru from the mid 15th century up until the Spanish captured the Incan emperor in 1532.
We walk on a little further before Arturo takes us further back in time. Tying Pedro’s reins to a tree he leads us into the dense cloud forest, a world of moss, vines and ferns. Not far from the path we encounter a series of curved walls of finely worked stone up to 4 metres high – the ruins of a Chachapoyas village, Pirquilla. Arturo explains that these giant terraces supported dozens of huts built in tight clusters as a defensive measure against a rival tribe, the Huari.
The Chachapoyas were the dominant people of northern Peru from around 800AD up until they were conquered by the Inca in 1475. What little is known about their culture has been largely gleaned from the thousands of ruins they left scattered along these valleys. Arturo says Pirquilla and scores of other settlements hidden in the surrounding forest were only discovered in 1985, when they were collectively given the name Gran Vilaya, a name that’s also sometimes given to this hike.
He stoops to pick up a shard of pottery, part of a large earthen jug with an elegant looping handle. We admire the piece and then spy other pottery fragments scattered around the forest floor. These ruins are little visited by tourists and barely studied by archaeologists. Arturo places the pottery carefully back among the dry leaves of the forest floor.
Back on the Incan road Arturo unties our packs from Pedro and hollers for Rambo. This is far as he will go; he needs to get back to the hostel before it gets dark. He remounts his horse and says to follow the track to the village of Congon where we should ask for his cousin, Lorenzo.
We call our adios and continue along the road. Glimpses of Congon and the Rio Villa are soon revealed through tattered holes in the low quilt of cloud in the adjoining valley. The track descends towards town through deeply etched switchbacks, sprays of wildflowers cascading down the track’s sheer sides. We pass fields of bananas, coffee and sugarcane while the sounds of the river and children playing become louder. A small boy in a flannelette shirt and sandals made of old car tyres leads us to Lorenzo’s house.
Lorenzo has Arturo’s easy grin and quiet, confident demeanour. He introduces us to his mother Wilma who smiles shyly and then hides in the kitchen. Lorenzo shows us to a room in his listing two storey mudbrick house. The room’s floor slopes so steeply that one end of the bed is propped on foot-high blocks to make it level.
We sit on the balcony and drink a beer in the warm afternoon sun. Chickens scratch in the shade of the deep green coffee trees surrounding the house. Lean dogs sleep in splashes of sun. Lorenzo and his sisters are stripping the bright red fruits from the coffee trees and placing them in cane baskets. It’s harvest time and the ripe coffee is being gathered to spread and dry in the courtyard. The work means Lorenzo won’t be able to guide us tomorrow, but will instead arrange for yet another cousin, Angel, to guide us on the seven hour hike.
We eat dinner with the family. Guinea pigs cluster under the bench while a pig squeals beside the house. Wilma serves spaghetti with mashed plantain and chunks of yucca. They know that not all foreigners like to eat guinea pig, and find it very funny that both Yasmin and I used to keep the animals as pets.
‘Their meat is so tasty,’ says Lorenzo earnestly, ‘better than pig, chicken or beef. You should eat them. Everyone here keeps guinea pigs to eat.’
‘Except the rich,’ Wilma interjects.
‘Yes,’ muses Lorenzo. ‘The rich can afford to buy them from us!’
Angel is a tiny man with dirty jeans and a crumpled face. He’s so small that his machete, tucked beneath his belt, almost brushes the ground. In the early morning sun he leads us out of town through luminous green fields of young sugar cane. He turns on the battered radio hanging on a strap around his neck. It’s the size of a shoe box with missing dials and electrical wire for an aerial. It’s tuned to a cumbia station and the bright, bubbling music fills the air.
Angel is deaf, so the radio is strange. While he seems like an attentive guide, confidently leading the way and cutting us walking sticks to cross a series of streams, communication is reduced to an awkward pantomime. When he is ahead of us it is difficult to get his attention. Perhaps he feels the vibration of the music against his chest, or else the shuddering beat is for our benefit.
The track follows the river up the valley as it burbles and buckles among the boulders. We soon enter the emerald world of the cloud forest, the morning sun breaching the canopy in thick lemony beams. Yasmin points to a bird perched on a branch. It’s grey with a black mask and white ruffles on its wings, perhaps a mockingbird. In an instant Angel has whipped out a slingshot and taken a shot at it. A leaf next to the bird shudders as it flies away.
We are horrified by his reaction. Why would he try to kill such a beautiful little bird? Doesn’t he realise tourists like seeing animals alive? As we puzzle over his actions it dawns on us just how poor Angel must be. Poor enough to always be alert at the chance of a meal, however meagre.
We leave the river and begin to climb out of the valley into the clouds which shroud Yumal Pass. Angel, unencumbered by a pack, races ahead while Yasmin and I toil up the slope.
Five hours later we finally reach the pass. My T-shirt is soaked with sweat and my legs are rubbery as elastic bands. We collapse onto the mossy ground with cries of relief and begin to catch our breath. The cloud lifts slightly and we realise this is not the pass, but a mere rise among the foothills.
By miming walking and tapping my watch then pointing upwards I ask Angel how much longer we need to climb. He holds up three fingers.
It could mean three minutes, or three kilometres, but I somehow know he means three hours. We don’t take the news well. There is some choice swearing and inspired groaning.
Bringing Angel’s attention to my watch was a bad idea. He quickly becomes obsessed by its wide analogue face and leather band. He repeatedly grabs my wrist and wrestles the timepiece to where he can admire it. He strokes the watch’s face and winds the small silver knob on its side. He gestures for me to give it to him.
It is difficult to pantomime the watch was a present from my parents. He storms ahead up the path.
We have no alternative but gather our flagging energy and trail after him. The slope becomes even steeper and we have to bend far forward against the weight of our bags.
By 2 pm we reach a small meadow in the forest. As the cloud lifts we see the pass above and the puckered scar of a dirt road. Angel indicates he wants to return home – we can’t blame him, it’s been seven hours since we left the village. After we pay him he makes a final play for my watch, grabbing my arm and miming putting the watch on his own wrist. When I refuse to give it to him there is an uneasy moment while he lets his hand rest on the handle of his machete. Then he is striding back towards the village, leaving us alone in this small clearing, tired and with only a vague understanding of the route onwards.
This would have never happened on a tour. We later learn tours use horses for this section, both for the packs and the people. We eat lunch sprawled against our bags. At least things can’t get any worse.
It starts to rain and when I reach for my pack cover it’s gone from the rear of my bag, fallen off en route. That’s okay. For glum situations like this I always carry a bag of lollies. Unfortunately these lollies turn out to be flu lozenges bitter enough to make your face split.
Onwards and upwards. Through more cloud forest and then into recently cleared pastureland, charred stumps and tracks churned to mud by hooves. If you could catch a cow could you ride it? Get it to carry a pack?
Finally we enter the páramo, the grassy region above the treeline. Raindrops fall against the faces of the purple wildflowers lining the path. Eventually, with one final stumbling push we make the road at Yumal Pass.
It is cold and foggy, and outside the protection of the forest the wind lashes us with rain. We started walking at dawn and it is now 3.40 pm. Later we learn the pass is at 3500 metres and we have had a vertical climb of about 1500 metres from Congon.
Compared to the climb, walking downhill towards the village of Choctamal is a blissful slow-motion free-fall. Our debate about flagging down a car for a lift proves purely hypothetical; there are no vehicles on this isolated road.
The track runs along the side of the valley, with great arcing detours to cross gullies. As we plod on it stops raining and the moon rises behind the mountains, its silver light electroplating the road ahead.
The barking dogs alert us we are approaching town. A local directs us to a large white building, the Choctamal Marvelous Spatuetail Lodge, where we surprise the manager as she’s preparing to go home.
Yes she had room – there are no other guests. She searches for some keys and then leads us towards the room. ‘Are you here to see the marvellous spatuetail?’
‘What’s a spatuetail?’ Yasmin asks.
The manager points to a photo on the wall. A spatuetail is a small hummingbird with two electric blue disc-shaped tail feathers trailing behind it like banners behind a plane. She explains the lodge mainly hosts birders here to try and see the endangered endemic species.
Our room is luxurious. We sink into the soft, white bed as if into a bank of cloud. We both start to laugh at the extremes of the day, from despair to luxury during the gruelling 12 hour, 25 kilometre hike.
The next morning we look for a spatuetail as we wait by the road for a taxi. There are many birds in the shrubs around the hotel but none trailing outrageous tail feathers. We plan to take the taxi 19 kilometres to Kuélap, leaving us with enough time to explore the site before hiking 10 kilometres down the mountain to the town of Tingo where we can get a minivan back to Chachapoyas.
The taxi arrives and Eric, the young driver, helps us put our bags in the back. He putters along the windy road jauntily tooting his horn before each bend, the valley slopes covered in a patchwork of fields. Men at Work’s ‘Land Down Under’ plays on the radio. Perhaps the flute solo reminds Peruvians of the panpipe.
We arrive at Kuélap and leave our bags in the care of the cheery ticket attendant. The entrance to the citadel is a narrow keyhole through the 10 metre high limestone walls, a design that would have been easy to defend. The stone at our feet is scored with the indentations of llama hooves, clear as if the prints had been pressed into mud. The marks have been worn into the soft stone through the continual passage of animals over more than a thousand years of use.
Inside llamas continue to graze among the city’s tumbled walls and terraced defences. From this vantage we can appreciate the structure’s size – 600 metres long and 100 wide – built around 800AD and at its peak housing 3500 people in 500 cylindrical houses. I can now believe the claim that Kuélap is the largest stone structure in the Americas.
We walk through the remains of the city, beneath trees laden with bromeliads. Excavations have revealed tombs, as well as chambers and tunnels designed to keep guinea pigs. Some structures, presumed to be the homes of the elite, have diamond-shaped friezes or glyphs of snakes and birds.
Standing on a watchtower we get a panoramic view over the endless rumpled valleys that made up the Chachapoyas realm. The sun comes out from behind the clouds and the forest on the ridges glows. On the terraced fields beneath the fortress farmers till their fields of potatoes, maize, beans and squash, just as they would have done when the city was in its heyday.
A tour bus pulls into the car park and disgorges its human cargo. We watch two guides herd the tourists towards the ruins like sheepdogs.
I wouldn’t swap with them for quids. All the difficulties of our trip – the uncertainties, frustrations and fears – have just added to make this moment all the more sweet.
This article was first published in Wild magazine.