Lake of the Condors

Lake of the Condors.

This was about all that remained of a village built by an ancient Peruvian culture known as the Chachapoya, when I traveled there in 1999. Ranchers had uncovered the village in 1997 when clearing the forest for cattle, huaqueros (grave robbers) subsequently raided the nearby burial tombs searching for valuable pottery and gold.

The main chullpas, or burial tombs, are perched in cliffs high above a lake, across from the village.  The overhanging cliffs and high altitude (10,000 ft.) helped preserve the burial tombs and their contents.  It’s impossible to say exactly what the huaqueros made off with, but we know what they left behind.  Over two hundred of the most well preserved mummies ever found.

Not to fret, pictured here is a replica mummy.

The mummies had been removed by a previous expedition and were stored, safely awaiting the completion of the Museo Leymebamba for display.

It was a bit difficult to get good pictures of the burial tombs. Perched high on the cliff, I kept wanting to step away to get a better view. But when you see how we got there, you understand why we stayed close to the cliff face.

The trail started out along the lake edge innocently enough, but then quickly turned up the cliff, a gentle rain ensuring no surface was dry.

This set of burial tombs is comprised of seven structures.  Familiar with Anasazi ruins back in the States, I was immediately struck by the similarities of both the construction techniques and the wall paintings.

On another day we were fortunate to visit a smaller, but undisturbed burial tomb deep in the jungle.  While this site had been spared a visit by huaqueros, piles of animal bones and hairy scat suggest that large cats have been using the site as shelter, which adds to the excitement of jungle exploration.

It seems appropriate that one of the undisturbed pieces of pottery we saw at that site was that of a large feline.  This small vessel has been still for so long there appears to be lichen growing on it.

Founder of the Museo Leymebamba, Adriana von Hagen, gave us a tour of the partially completed museum.  In the photo above, the use of stone and rammed earth walls showcase the regional building techniques and masonry styles of the Chachapoya.

The diamond shaped stone inlay in this picture is a typical masonry detail of the Chachapoya, who thrived in the region for some seven centuries before they clashed violently with the Incas and fell to the empire.

Inca Trail and Machu Picchu

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Peruvian train workers went on strike just hours after I hopped off the train at km 82, and started up the Inca Trail.  That first day I passed several groups of tourists who had hired guides and porters for what is usually a four day hike.  I had neither the time nor the money to hire a guide.  So I packed light, a bivy sack and some protein bars would have to sustain me.   After descending down the second 14,000 foot pass of the day, I was racing to find camp before dark.  My legs were cramping and I was exhausted, but I stumbled into a clearing just before total darkness.  Other groups were camping there, mostly Europeans, none showed interest in a ragged American hiking solo.  A group of porters guiding some Australians showed me a space to throw my bag, not far from their campsite kitchen fire.  Things were looking up.  After their clients had retired, I joined the porters around a fire where they passed me a plate of food.  Couldn’t tell you what was on that plate but to this day I remember it as one of the best meals of my life.  I gave them a pack of cigarettes in return.  They couldn’t believe I was out there camping alone, with no tent.  Sometime in the middle of the night wild dogs scoured the camp looking for scraps, at which point couldn’t believe I was out there alone, with no tent.

The dogs showed interest but ultimately passed me up as a meal.  The next morning I hit the trail early in hopes of reaching the ruins of Machu Picchu later that day.  My estimation of how long it would take to hike that section of trail didn’t completely add up.  The terrain is not only extremely vertical (as you can see in the photo above), but also at high altitude.  The Rocky Mountains of Colorado where I grew up don’t really stack up to the Peruvian Andes.   Hiking this section of the trail in two days would be like summiting three fourteeners in two days back in Colorado.  Not impossible, but definitely a challenge.

As I got closer to Machu Picchu, the ruins became more frequent and elaborate.  Where others stopped for a leisurely lunch, I would snap a few pictures and keep moving.  Not the best way to take it all in, but I was more interested exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu, preferably without a pack on my back.

As it turned out, the reservation I had made for a room at one of the hostels in Aguas Calientes was pure gold.  The trains weren’t running which meant hundreds of tourists who had planned on leaving were stuck there.  Those with the means were hiring helicopters to fly them out to Cusco.  There is no road to Aguas Calientes.  Stranded tourists were sleeping on the floors of restaurants.  With no end in sight to the strike, people started walking the train tracks back towards Cusco, some twelve miles to the nearest road.

The train workers going on strike turned out to be the best part of the trip.  Thousands of daytrippers from Cusco had been cut off, as well as the supply of hikers to the Inca Trail.  One of the biggest tourist attractions in the whole world was nearly deserted, and I was stuck there! In the photo above you can see just one person, a rather bored park employee, in an area that would normally be teeming with tourists.  For the next few days I would explore every nook and cranny of Machu Picchu with skecthbook and camera in tow trying to document a unbelivable experience.

Temple of the Moon

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