The Chachapoyas People excelled as an isolated agricultural society from 800 AD until their conquest by the Incas in the 1570's. The origin of the name Chachapoyas was possibly a variation of Sacha Poya, which means "Cloud People" in Quechua, the language of the Incas. In a possible effort to maximize the utilization of cultivatable lands, the Chachapoyas built their cities, monuments, and massive stone fortresses on the summits of mountains.
In concurance with the conquest of the Chachapoyas by the Incas, European diseases ravaged the native population. By the end of the 1500's the Chachapoyas Peoples were gone. Their lands, culture, cities, and fortresses once one of South America's most populative and progress civilizations, disappeared into the mountain mists. Only in the last 20 years has the grandeur of the Chachapoyas People begun to come to light with the archaeological excavation of Kuelap.
Kuelap, a mountaintop fortress city, rivals any ruins in the new world complete with living quarters for thousands of residents and a most impressive stone wall fortification reaching 60 feet high in circumference to the city. Surrounding Kuelap lies the mountainous and remote Vilaya Region.
Mountaintop Kuelap Fortress
~ Shubet Mountain Expedition ~
Some men and women dream to Explore...
To challenge their bodies, to strengthen their minds. To find within themselves their Spirit in harmony with mankind's past and present. Perhaps for a brief moment touch the future in joy with our Earth.
Flying over the Andes Mountains has always been more than an exciting experience for me. 4500+ miles of continuous and seemingly endless valleys, deep rock gorges and ice-capped mountain peaks rising from the Caribbean Sea stretching the length of South America to a descent into the Antarctic Regions.
The winding rivers and creek beds carve the terrain, headwaters of fuel for the mighty Amazon River. The few and far between roads and paths scar a landscape where ancient civilizations arose and fell. Remote and oasitic stone ruins hide beneath the bromeliads, festering my imagination, driving my curiosity again to visit a land of Cloud Peoples and Mysteries. A journey this day to Chachapoyas, marked deep in a lost civilization that cries for discovery, giving freely of questions and demanding vigilance by the traveler in a quest for answers.
Our Expedition Objective: The Vilaya region of forested tributary valleys east of the Maranon River in the department of Amazonas, Peru.
With a vista overshadowing one of the deepest mountain gorges in Peru rises one of the highest mountains in Amazonas, "Shubet". At well over 12,000 feet Shubet can be seen from all of the valleys which form the Vilaya region.
In an unmistakable presence, Shubet stands topped with a huge stone monolith 500 feet high. Local legend whispers the monolith to be hollow with a city inside. Shamans and curanderos were said to make secret pilgrimages to the summit to harvest magical herbs. What was this stone monolith? Why were stone walls built to fortify such a remote and inaccessible mountain summit? Our Journey for answers was to begin.
Leading the expedition: Anthropologist Peter Lerche, a mountain savvy explorer and authority on the religious world of pre-Inca Chachapoya.
The Players: A motley crowd of photographers, mountain climbers, archaeologists, writers, and Adventurers all. Soon to be lashed by the harsh, unpredictable elements of the Andes. A testing of our wills yet a bringing together to a comradeship in exploration not only of the ancient Cloud Peoples but also of our own Spirit now at the door of Mystery and Challenge.
We flew from Lima to Chachapoyas over the highest mountains in Peru. Snowcapped volcanoes and glacier mountain peaks barricade Chachapoyas to the south. Impassable river gorges cut the Andes Mountains parallel to Chachapoyas on the west. Amazon jungle lands push to the east and north boundaries of the Chachapoyas region. Even in our modern-day geographical boundaries isolate the Chachapoyas region.
Chachapoyas, capital of the department of Amazonas, is one of Peru's oldest cities. It was founded in 1538, by Alonso de Alvarado and still maintains a majestic Spanish influence due in a large part because of its isolation from tourism. At an altitude of 2335 meters, Chachapoyas is a prosperous city with sugar cane and coffee, orchids and tile-roofed mansions.
Our arrival was quick to a bus on through Chachapoyas to the nearby village of Tingo. Just outside Tingo we gathered at the Chillo Lodge, our staging area for the expedition.
Most members of the Shubet Team had been on airplanes, and now a bus, for the last two days. The Chillo Lodge became a perfect place for great food, engaging conversation with Peter on Chachapoyas history, and a good evenings rest in the fresh mountain air.
The Chillo Lodge is just off a wide dirt road from the city of Chachapoyas. The road continues south paralleling the Utcubamba River to eventually turn west through the lower Chachapoyas Region, crossing the Utcubamba and Maranon Rivers. From there the road takes on a series of switchback passages and hairpin curves high into the Andes Mountains and down the western slopes to the city of Cajamarca. A 20-hour bus ride, not for the faint-of-heart, connects Chachapoyas overland to the outside world.
One particular resident of the lodge was Dog With No Name (DWNN), who could usually be found right by the kitchen. He made careful note of all the scurrying about by a bunch of new people, knowing quite well that this would call for more chickens in the pot. As we would find out over the next few days, DWNN was also an Explorer. From day one he would lead the pack, smelling out the trail, as we crossed the mountains to Shubet.
The horses and mules meandered into a large fenced-in area just down a hill from the lodge. Most of the animals were content to immediately stop and chew on whatever grass was at their feet. Some just stared motionless into the early morning reminiscent of some people I had just left at the breakfast table.
A couple of the horses slipped almost unnoticed off to the left amidst some trees right close to the fencing. One in particular went straight for the fence, pushing his nose through the square wire to grab the Andean Caesar Salad of fresh mountain flowers. Some of us might think we could make friends with a horse by feeding it, so I wandered over, careful to avoid the rear-kicking zone.
With the agility that would flatter a monkey, I reached through the fencing pulling up a large head of grass. I thought the stead would be somehow grateful, maybe swish his tale or roll up his lip and whinny. But actually there was a distinct air of uncaring as he munched the grass between his teeth. Then I realized it was not necessarily having the grass beyond the fence....For this horse it was the challenge of getting the grass beyond the fence.
The Peruvian horsemen went into pack-and-load mode. I was focusing on the choreographic behavior of men and mules when one of the horsemen came to my side offering me a horse to ride. I sort of suppose he had been watching my attempt at "mind-melding over breakfast" with the horse at the fence and he brought that horse. There was an elfish smile on the horseman's face when I asked "What's the horse's name?" From atop the hill a Peruvian woman called out "Rambo!"
On The Trail
We headed off from the lodge following the road south for about 10 kilometers to the River Solcas, a tributary of the Utcubamba. Here we would leave roads behind and take on mountain trails deep into the remote Vilaya Valleys.
Our first morning trek took us off the beaten track of the valley farms along the Solcas River. All in a quick change of reality where a deep breath brings a heightened sense of new adventures our first mountain passage lies ahead.
Perhaps the confidence of the morning trek should have gone guarded for the afternoon. The trails became steeper, the mountain ridges higher and this first day's journey was in for a twist of fate, and a challenge of Spirits. Over the afternoon our team became strung out over several miles of trail. Some on horseback at the front traveled with two Peruvian guides. And several of us hiked the trail while packhorses brought up the rear. Unfortunately the lead Peruvians were in miscommunication on our planned evening campsite….so they kept on trucking forward and we followed.
Late into the afternoon we traveled along a mountain ridge that seemed to go on and on, deep slopes to each side and rugged gullies along our path. Finally we realized something was amiss…no flat protected terrain for a camp, at this elevation no wood for a fire. We had missed a turn in the trail that would have lead us to a local farm, our pre-determined campsite. As we held up in wait for everyone to catch up the wind began to blow with an eerie cold bite. Almost immediately clouds descended upon us, damp and thick as fog.
The sun was minutes away from setting. We were committed to this inhospitable spot as our camp for the night. In the rear of our caravan pushing slowly through the clouds our packhorses stumbled and complained. Mountain horses don't like walking where they can not see. Over the next couple hours the damp cold settled upon us as we waited for our tents, sleeping bags and gear to find us. With horse blankets piled atop, we huddled in a gully to keep warm, my trusty Wilson Umbrella protecting four of us from the wet cloud mist. The last of our people and finally the pack animals drifted in like ghosts coming out of a looking-glass. In a bit of a frantic melody, the tents popped up.
All night the wind blew, circling about causing a flap of tents like the sound of thundering rain. The horses took to wandering the windbreak of tents pulling up tuffs of grass. To them this was just another night on the mountains and they weren't going to miss a meal.
In the morning the clouds still settled upon us glowed with the early sunlight. To awaken as a stranger in such a strange land was a mystical, exciting experience. The feeling was short lived, as enough was enough of the damp cold. "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" echoed like...
Bob and Carlton breaking camp
Leaving the ridge brought us to the warm valley trails, and through this day switch-back passages across several mountains until our final arrival at the village of Chuylon.
Chuylon, a picturesque village on the sheltered mountain slopes, was a welcome sight. The word soon spread of our arrival and before long a gallery of spectators lined the soccer field to watch this band of travelers. The school-teacher of Chuylon remarked this was the first time these people had seen "outsiders", much less men with beards and women in hiking gear.
Campsite on Chuylon soccer field.
Adobe building in Chuylon
On the trail to Yamblon
First stop in Yomblon: The Pepsi store
President of Yomblon with Darrell
Rambo lurched forward and reared up, quick and ruthless. I slid off the back of the saddle and somehow managed to land on two feet. He knew a hell of a lot more about climbing mountain trails than I did and if I was smart I would just sit in the saddle, pretend I knew what I was doing, and let this mountain-goat in horse's-clothing do the driving.
Over the next few days our spirits got a bit closer: I could show off my English riding skills, but only when the other horses couldn't see us.
Mountain ridge trails
Mountain horses in Peru have a "butt-habit". Nose to butt in a train along a less than one-way rocky path zigzagging up the side of a mountain, down the side of a mountain. One mountain after another is a normal day's work; If there is no butt in front, then a full gallop ensues to find one. I came to find this out when I took a dismount with my camera in search of the "straight down into the 2000 foot gorge" shot. With one foot back in a stirrup, a leg hanging in the air, someone let the rabbit loose and we were off like Zorro. Waving my umbrella wildly with my left hand to gain some sort of balance I was never so glad to see a horse's butt come up in front of me as I was then.
Each new view morphs to an ominous and mystical presence. Approaching from the south Shubet characterizes an Ancient Warrior in profile looking to the heavens.
Peter's reconnaissance at the base of Shubet revealed the western and southern sides were not climbable. A northern climb would involve maneuvering over and around pre-Hispanic structures deliberately built to block any passage.
We decided to separate into two teams. One to take on a southeastern approach that would involve a near vertical climb at one point. The other team to circle in from the northwest along the north base and ascend up the northeast side. We would find parts of this northeast passage to be a narrow manmade stone path.
Slowly we continue our climb. The path opened to a ridge where we could see the summit was actually two level platforms, one above the other. This first platform had the ruins of 7 shunderhuasi (Chachapoya stone round houses), each one about 20 feet in diameter.
Atop the second platform there was an ushnu (Chachapoya stone ceremonial platform) 80 by 80 feet and 4 to 5 feet high. Ajancent to the ushnu were the remains of a tower that was once about 10 feet high and 5 feet in diameter.
On the south end of the platform a bas-relief carving in the stone exists in the shape of a coiled-striking snake. The snake, machacuay, was a central element among the divinities worshiped by the Chachapoya. machacuay snake craving
Peter's preliminary conclusions on the Shubet ruins bring up even more questions. The size of the ushnu indicates a large number of people were involved in ceremonies. The shunderhuasi appear to have been permanent living quarters in an environment void of wood and water, where food would have to be brought in over long treks. The construction of stone walls deliberately inhibits any access to the ceremonial area. Peter's research indicates that the snake has a direct relationship to the political power and the world of ancestors for the Chachapoya. The ancestor cult may well have held a prominent position in the religion of the Chachapoya.
And that Shubet was probably a pacarina:
A magical place for creation and origin for the Chachapoya.
Shubet Mountain Summit
Gathering of the gear
Chachapoyas Town Plaza
Kit and Alex: the Journey to begin!
Lunch Stop in Chachapoyas
Dog With No Name
mountain stream swimming pool
Crossing the Solcas River
Home with a cliff view
Quick stop at Nogal-Cucho
Mountain Passage outside Mangalpa
Paul and Karen on Mountain Trail
Farm in Vilaya Valley
Bob, Alex and Karen on the trail
Chuylon Village Square
Ben talking to school teacher in Chuylon
Adobe building in Chuylon
Packing up for Yamblon
Mount Shubet several valleys away
Jamey gets a close look at the river
Yomblon in the Morning
Darrell strikes a pose at campsite
Northwest side of Shubet Rock
Finding a passageway
Planning the next move
Jaime at ancient wall
View from the summit
ushnu (Chachapoya stone ceremonial platform)
On top of Amazonas
Descent of Shubet
Rambo and horseman
Our Expedition to Shubet Mountain was organized by anthropologist Peter Lerche, authority on the archaeology and indigenous people of Amazonas, and Amazonia Expeditions.