In front of me was an image I knew so well. It was Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, mouth frozen open in terror, hands clasped against cheeks, skin as taut as a drum. Yet this was no expressionist painting of a tortured soul. It was a real 12-year-old girl. And she’d been dead for more than 500 years.
Nobody knows for sure why the Chachapoyas people of far-northern Peru – a civilisation that began around 800AD and ended with the arrival of the Incas in the late 15th century – bound up their dead like this. Theories include the idea that, placed in a foetal-like position, they departed the material world for the afterlife as they entered it, evoking the idea of death as a second birth. Whatever the reason, the sight of that girl – along with the dozens of other faces flanking her – was chilling to the bone.
As I fished for my camera, Rob Dover, my guide, told me how the bodies had ended up at the museum in the rural district of Leymebamba; how, in 1996, in a cave on a ledge 100m above the remote Lake of the Condors, farm labourers had happened upon the mummies, perfectly preserved by the cave’s dry microclimate; how they’d slashed at the protective cloth sacks with machetes looking for treasure; how the authorities brought the bodies to Leymebamba. I raised the camera to my eye, finger poised over the shutter button. “One of the looters went mad, another used to wake up screaming,” said Dover. “It could have been guilt at what they’d done. But many believe it was some ancient curse.” I looked at the corpses through the viewfinder, staring back at me, and returned my camera, unused, to its bag.
Northern Peru, where the Andes tumble west into the Pacific and east into the Amazon rainforest, had long been off the tourist trail. This was partly to do with the region’s inaccessibility, and partly to do with Peru’s poster-girl sites – Machu Picchu, Cusco and Lake Titicaca – drawing most tourists southeast from the capital Lima. Mostly, though, it was because of a perception that there wasn’t much to see.
But around 30 years ago this started to change. Just outside the coastal city of Chiclayo, 450 miles north of Lima, archeologists discovered pyramids almost on the same scale as those at Giza, with 16 tombs containing some of the greatest treasures in the Americas. Then came the mummies at Leymebamba, then the immense mountain fortress of Kuelap at Chachapoyas, swiftly dubbed the “other Machu Picchu”, lying largely unheralded 3,000m up in the clouds.
My trip started at Sipán, 20 miles from Chiclayo, where, after a drive through 20ft-high corridors of sugar cane, we arrived at what looked like two giant, weathered termite mounds, but was in fact the most holy site of the ancient Moche people, who lived here from 100-700AD. In 1987, archeologist Walter Alva found many tombs, miraculously missed by grave robbers, including that of El Señor de Sipán, the Lord of Sipán.
Dover explained how Alva found gold and silver goblets, breastplates and crowns, and exquisite jewellery of lapis lazuli. These had been buried with the dead to accompany them to the afterlife, along with, in El Señor’s case, a live warrior, a priest, three female concubines, a child, a dog and two llamas. Replicas of their skeletons lie in the tombs, around which we wandered virtually alone.
We headed east from Chiclayo, across the coastal desert, punctuated with giant mounds (only a tiny percentage of the area’s archeological sites have so far been excavated). We drove through rich, agricultural valleys and forested canyons dotted with ancient terraces. Along the road, women walked, spinning wool on a pushka (spindle) with one hand, like candyfloss, a kallwa (loom) strapped to their back. We had left Moche territory and were entering the once-secret kingdom of the shaman-like Chachapoyas, known by the Inca as the “Cloud Warriors” for their resistance.
At Gocta, in a hidden valley of dense cloud forest so pristine one half-expected to see pterodactyls wheeling overhead, we walked for two hours along a muddy trail, picking our way through giant ferns and hibiscus. A noise, at first a sibilant hiss and then as loud as a Boeing 747 taking off, and we were at the base of the Gocta Falls, a mighty cataract crashing down through half a vertical mile, its existence unknown to the outside world until a German “discovered” it in 2005, hitherto kept secret by locals, fearful of the curse of a mermaid reputed to live in the pool. I stood there barefoot, risking the curse, battered by the hurricane-strength winds. That night we slept in the beautiful Gocta Lodge, drifting off to the sound of the falls and the forest frogs’ xylophone-like call.
We arrived in Chachapoyas, a Spanish colonial town of adobe houses, on the day of the Raymillacta festival. At this event, held every June, townspeople and farmers meet up to celebrate their culture, play music, dance wildly – and drink a lot of beer.
People in ponchos stood proudly showing off their wares – sweet bread, clay pots, and cuy, the Peruvian delicacy of guinea pig. Dozens of brass and drum bands played simultaneously, while boys wearing animal skins and antlers shuffled through the Baile del Oso, or dance of the bear, a ritual of pre-Inca origin. As day bled into night, the mob moved to the colonial main square, a fire lit on each corner, around which revellers swirled, the laughter and music reaching up to an inky, moonless sky.
After such life, the next day once more belonged to the dead. At Karajia, 50km northeast of Chachapoyas, we walked along a deep canyon and there, halfway up a cliff, gazing mournfully out from a ledge over the raging Utcubamba river, stood six figures, each three metres tall, faces brooding like the moai of Easter Island. These were Chachapoyas funerary statues, dating from the 13th century. Rob, 43, a Cumbrian who has lived in Peru for 17 years, explained how, inside each of the bellies of the clay figures, was found a corpse, bundled up in the foetal position. These spaces, he said, would have been reserved for only the highest-ranking Chachapoyas.
At my feet was a bone. I picked it up. “What animal does this come from?” I asked. “That’s a human femur,” said Rob. “They sometimes fall off the ledge as the cliff crumbles.” I thought back to wading in the mermaid’s pool and now this, handling illustrious ancestors. I was chalking up some serious curse points.
We drove up desolate mountains, plunging into cloud before emerging to see precipitous drops to the valley floors, spikes of limestone above us. So remote was this area that the villages we passed through had to stop their volleyball games and dismantle their nets strung across the road to let us pass.
“There,” said Rob, pointing to the sky. “The great Chachapoyas city of Keulap.” Two hours later we were staring open-mouthed at one of the most formidable fortress cities in the Americas, the statistics as breathtaking as the 3,000m altitude: built around 800AD, making it 600 years older than Machu Picchu, and bigger, the cliff-like walls stand 20m high. Some 5,000 Chachapoyas lived here, accessing the citadel through 60m-long alleyways that tapered such that only one person at a time could enter.
Whereas Machu Picchu, over-run with its 1.2m visitors a year, has been smartened up, Kuelap, with barely a 40th of the footfall, has been largely reclaimed by nature. Trees, garlanded by orchids, rise up through the ruins of the 400-odd roundhouses. Staring out over the immensity of the Andes from the mountaintop, it was easy to feel like the first explorers to happen upon the place.
That, explained local guide Roberto Vargas Silva, could be about to change. A cable car is being planned to whisk visitors up the mountain in minutes. “They want to get 2,000 people a day up here,” said Silva. “That will cause the ruins to collapse. Why is this happening?”
The cable-car company might perhaps proceed with caution. Keulap’s last major invasion had been more than 500 years ago, when the Incas subjugated it, and the Chachapoyas, in 1470. The Inca reign lasted only 60 years, before they in turn were conquered by the Spanish. From this land filled with ghosts and legends, it was not hard to imagine a narrative that saw the Incas cursed.
The next day we were at the museum at Leymebamba, and I’d decided not to risk photographing the dead. I asked Rob what he thought the future held for the region. “Many tourists these days don’t want to drive for hundreds of miles along twisting mountain roads,” he said. “There is a small airport in Chachapoyas. They’d need to develop that, but it is frequently closed because of the clouds.”
It seemed a sweet irony that, for centuries, the Chachapoyas were hidden from the world by the mountains and the clouds. And that the very thing that gave the Cloud Warriors their name might ultimately, like their ancestors gazing down from the cliffs, protect them.
De THE FINANCIAL TIMES, 27-28/09/2014
Imagen: estatuas funerarias chachapoyas en Karajia (Fotografías de Mike Carter)