Ancient mummies amid hilltop ruins; Kuelap and the road to Leymebamba, Peru

I’m pleased to report that since battling the downpours of the Ecuadorian border, and escaping the mudfest of San Ignacio, not a drop of rain has fallen. My spirits have been high, and Ogre has been a happier bicicleta too. Our gears – mental and physical – are running considerably smoother than the days prior.

As previously mentioned, the route I’ve been following is effectively the backdoor to Cajamarca, the main city in Peru’s northern highlands. It’s a tough one, crossing the junction between the humid sprawl of the Amazonia, and the lofty peaks of the Andes.

Initially, a wide dirt road wound its way down to just 500 metres in altitude, flattering out in a river valley. Then pavement lead me slowly back up into the mountains once more, via the Chachapoyan ruins of Kuelap, set high up amongst the condors at 3100m. From there, it was just a short distance to Leymebamba – with the ride across Rio Marañón and onto Cajamarca coming up next. These last few days, I’ve camped behind restaurants, at a Guardia Civil checkpoint, and by rivers – washing away the dust and sweat of this newfound heat.

I have to admit that it’s a little disheartening to drop down so low – amongst the rice fields and mosquitoes – knowing full well that passes touching 4000m await. But as an introduction to Peru, it’s been an easy-going ride, a suitable prelude to the mammoth, rollercoasting climbs that lie just ahead…

After leaving San Ignacio, a potholed dirt road drops down, down, down through the valley, before flanking the wide, lazy waters of the Rio Chinchipe. Villages on the other side are serviced by narrow wooden boats, and motorised pontoons transport vehicles across the banks.

With the drop in altitude, rain has given way to intense heat. Coconuts and oranges provide perfect liquid refreshment by the roadside.

Down at 500m, the tropical skies are hazy, banana trees are silhouetted on the horizon, and rice fields stretch as far as the eye can see.

I’m joined by a new form of transport on the road. These mototaxis ply bumpy routes between villages, generally well packed with passengers and their assorted cargo.

In the dusty market at Bella Vista, I sat amongst a group of women gossiping as they swatted flies off plucked chickens. Crossing into a new country means sampling new local delights, so I set about my task with enthusiasm. The word for this soup-like drink sounded like champoos, and it was made from corn, panela, canela, apple and pineapple.

I haven’t had churros for a while, and couldn’t resist. These fried sticks are filled with sweet, condensed milk to satiate that Latin American sweet tooth. One that I seem to share…

Eventually, potholed dirt gave way to pavement, under the oversized clouds of tropical skies.

The restaurant where I kipped that night had a poster of Elvis – Are You Lonesome Tonight. Down at 500m, the mosquitos were a buzzin’; thankfully, the owners lent me a mosquito net so I didn’t need to pitch my tent.

Time to swap out the rear tyre for my speedy Marathon Dureme, for the road ride through an impressive gorge that climbed ever so gently towards Pedro Ruiz.

Pavement then gave way to dirt once more, as I followed another river valley to Tingo Viejo, marked by a couple of shops, a couple of restaurants and a bevy of ladies selling fruit to passing micro-buses. The good news for cyclists is that you can camp behind one of the restaurants, down by the river, for free.

A stiff, 9km hike was my means of reaching the Chachpoyan ruins of Kuelap, perched on a hilltop some 1200m above the river in the Utcubamba Valley. There, I was lucky enough to tag along with ‘local’ guide Rob, a Brit living in the area for the last 14 years, and two teachers, Jane and Quentin, from Lima.

Considering its size, surprisingly little is known about Kuelap – encased in a vast wall, it’s generally considered to be an ancient citadel, with perhaps religious significance for the Chachapoyan people. Few references were made to it over the years, until it was finally surveyed in 1843. More recently, carbon dating reveals its construction as dating back to the 6th Century. This is one of the three entrances to the citadel. The slot passageway claustrophobically narrows down in width, limiting entry to just one person at a time.

The word Chachapoyas actually derives from the Inca – the Cloud People. The population of the settlement was said to be around 2000, and the site is made up of some 400 structures, most of which are the foundations of cylindrical houses – 3-12 metres in diameter. In this particular one, you can see a small partition for the kitchen, where a guinea pig run forms easy access to snacks. Similar clusters can be found all round the high ridges of these mountains, reached only by foot.

Despite its size and importance, the whole place remains something of a mystery – it’s not even fully understood why it’s there, or why it seems so heavily fortified at a time when the Chachapoyan’s had no significant enemy. The meanings of various designs inlaid into the remaining structures aren’t clear either – whether they’re symbolic of the Cosmos in some way, or just ornamental.

Much of the area is overrun by bromeliads, which catch and diffuse the light. There’s some indecision as to whether Kuelap should be left as it is, or cleared for a more manicured, ‘Machu Picchu’ look.

Kuelap is set on two levels – uptown and downtown. The upper part includes this somewhat controversial reconstructed building, which may or may not be in the style of the houses at the time. Amongst the many mysteries, one of the rooms excavated contained the remains of 130 males, all with similar, blunt force trauma blows to the head.

They were beautiful these… llamas in the mist…

Look closely, and various reliefs can be seen set into its mighty, fortified wall. An ET-like face…

… and an animal of some kind.

I hiked in my thriftstore, $1 dollar sandals – and my feet were pretty shot after pounding back down the twisting singletrack to old Tingo. If you could get your bike up there, would make a great descent…

I haven’t mentioned Rex, an Alsatian I’d befriended in the village, and who joined me on the hike – he was pretty toasted too, and crashed out next to my tent.

From Tingo, it was a gratifyingly gentle climb by the riverside to Leymebamba, on hardpack dirt. Set amongst all these hills are yet more ruins, as well as intricate sarcophagi carved into the rockface.

I heard this section of the route can be a nightmare in the rainy season – with sections knee-deep in mud. But with the sun shining, the succession of villages I rode through all looked idyllic, their football pitches blanketed with drying corn.

Nancy’s retirement plans?

I’d intended to push on through Leymebamba, as it was still early in the day – making a start on the monstrous climbs that lay ahead. But the town had a homely feel to it, so I booked into the relative luxury of an $8 dollar room and went about my chores – scrubbing clothes and body after a few nights camping in the stifling heat.

Although the backstreets of Leymebamba were quiet, the town was ramping up for the 10 day Festival Del Carmen, where much drunken-ness and revelry were planned.

The traditional weaving style here. I like how outdoorsy it is.

This bed cover will take 2 weeks to make.

With the afternoon at hand, I rode up to the Museo de Leymebamba – a mere 5km climb. Its collection included various gourds and plant fibre bags – my favourite was the bird motif on this mini plate.


In fact, it’s the room packed with mummies – 219 of them – that makes a visit to this museum most worthwhile. Some were still bundled up, bound with plant fibre rope and embroidered with faces. Others had been unfurled, revealing open mouths, as if frozen in time and torment. They ranged from fetuses complete with umbilical cords, to adults, and had all been unearthed in the nearby Laguna de los Condores.

On that note, it was time for some food…

Fuelling up for the days ahead. This meal, with a bowl of soup, cost $2 – and tasted delicious. Next stop, Cajamarca. Starting with a 30km climb…

The Need to Know Bit:

If you’re not passing through Chachapoyas, Leymebamba has all the mod cons – places to stay, stock up on food and internet access. I managed to change some money too.

Route details and notes can be found here, along with the profile of the road.

4 thoughts on “Ancient mummies amid hilltop ruins; Kuelap and the road to Leymebamba, Peru

  1. Simon G

    That bird relief on the brick in the wall is really similar to the bird man cult of Easter Island…maybe Thor Heyerdal had a point after all. Love the mummies…reminds me of the museum in Arequipa where they have the mountain top mummies. Definitely worth a look if you are heading that way.


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