We chose to cross into Peru via the small border of La Balsa which is in an Amazon basin from which we would climb back into the Andes. The road from Ecuador to the border was an adventure in itself; single track dirt road with 1000 foot drop offs. However, we were lucky and it was dry so driving it we could enjoy the spectacular scenery. In the rain, the road turns to red clay mud making tire treads fill up quickly and you may spend six hours gliding over dangerous road (according to our friends that drove it the week before us). The border was so sleepy it was hard to find someone to process our paperwork, it was literally a small shack with a man at a desk. After the paper work was processed in Ecuador we drove over the international bridge and we were in Peru!
We knew very little about traveling in Northern Peru when we entered the country and I did almost zero research (I do all the trip planning), so we decided to let the adventure unfold as we went and what an adventure it turned out to be! The two weeks we spent in the region were some of the highlights of the trip so far. The geography is breathtaking, the people were wonderful, and there are almost zero tourist in this area making everything feel like you are the first ones to discover it. We called our time here our Indian Jones adventure weeks because of the crazy roads, hikes into abandoned, ancient, hillside ruins and getting lost on back roads where our GPS went blank and we had to just go with our gut and see how things unfolded.
This part of Peru has some of the most stunning drives of our trip so far through river gorges, green valleys and, hair raising mountain passes. This region felt adventurous and untouched. It is a place we both decided we will visit again one day and is difficult to capture in words and pictures.
We could find no mention of these falls in our guide books even though it is supposedly the second highest waterfall in South America. It is debated if the two tiered falls counts as one large waterfall, and regardless if it is really the second highest waterfall or not, it is a spectacular site that so far has eluded the tourist radar. You can view the falls from two sides of the valley. We chose the southern side where we did a punishing four hour hike to the base of the waterfall that descends from the cool mountain valley into a lush, tropical landscape where suddenly the humidity drastically rises and the mountains give way to lush forest and flocks of green parrots flying overhead. The falls were one of the most impressive of our trip, and we camped for free on a grassy part of the sleepy town square near the trailhead where we were surrounded by extremely kind villagers and young boys playing soccer who were so nice we decided to stay for two days.
Pueblo de Los Muertos
Near town of Luya we read there is a burial site in the mountains created for the elite Chachapoyans a few thousand years ago, where you can see sarcophagi carved with human faces perched in a cliff side. There was almost no other information on how to get to this site or what it would be like in any of our guide books. We drove through a stunning valley up crazy switch backs through rural towns looking for information or signs on the ruins, there was none. We asked a police officer in Luya about the archeological site and he told us we could try to find a guide. We asked him where and he said he did not know. Nobody in town knew where we could find a guide. Strange and not super helpful, but it was a Sunday and the small villages looked deserted.
At this point our GPS map was blank, the roads we were driving on were not on it, so we just decided to head in the direction of the ruins and see if we could find a way there ourselves. We found a dirt road that wound its way up a mountain and things were looking good until we reached our first fence. There was nobody around, we were in the middle of a very rural area, so I decided to open up the gate and have Sam drive through and see if anyone stopped us. They did not, these fences are often to keep cows and llamas in, we come across them a lot on rural backroads and always let ourselves through. We kept driving, through a few more fences….. and finally found a trail head that according to our iPhone map would possible lead us to the ruins. We had not seen another person or house for about 45 minutes. It was a very isolated area.
The trail surprisingly was one of the best hikes we have been on. The views were spectacular and we were super excited about the scenery and that we were getting closer to the ruins, until we reached our first fence on the trail. Oh shit. The good news was it said Pueblo de Los Muertos so we were on the correct trail, the bad news was it had a rusty pad lock and was blocking the trail. We had driven so far and hiked for over 30 minutes, we decided we could not give up. So we grabbed onto the barbed wire and shimmied around the fence. The hike continued for about another 30 minutes and we realized we were almost there when we saw the BIG gate, again with a rusty lock and this time a drop of a few thousand feet. Sam asked if I thought I could make it and I told him I would channel my inner Laura Croft from Tomb Raider and make it happen. It was super sketchy and as long as we did not look down it was ok. It was one of those moments when I knew my Mom would be freaking out if she knew what I was doing.
And for the record, let me just say, Sam and I do not make it a habit of breaking into ruins, but this site was in the middle of no where and we seriously tried to enter them the “correct” way, there is just zero information on how to do it. And we were definitely not the first people to circumvent the gates, you could see the “paths” where people went around them. Also, inside we touched nothing (not that there was much to touch) and actually cleaned up some trash that other people had left. The sarcophagi were in a protected area you could not hike to, we just saw them across from the ruins. We were basically in an area that looked like old red adobe brick homes that had fallen apart. The best part of the ruins in my opinion was the hike and the drive to them, it was a true adventure where we had no idea how the day would unfold and we left the ruins excited about the other rural archeological sites we had decided to visit in Northern Peru. This day was when we coined this time as our Indian Jones adventures.
The Kuelap fortress city, built by the Chachapoyan people in 600 AD it is probably the most spectacular Pre-columbian, non Incan site in Peru. At 3000m, the views from the ruins of Kuelap are worth the trip alone, and oh what a trip it is to get here! The road to Kuelap is literally carved into a mountain side and winds for hours along single track dirt roads. Sam and I were praying another vehicle would not come on the narrow parts and I made him honk the horn around all the blind turns. We came across a few other vehicles and had to back up in some places, but for the most part the road was like many in Northern Peru, stunning and scary as shit, but all part of the adventure and Sam was getting great at driving them. I on the other hand, had a total melt down on a narrow road driving to Pueblo de los Muertos where a truck tried to pass us and I drove our ARB bumper into the cliff side trying to make space, refusing to back up on the narrow road with 3000 foot drop offs. Sam had to get out and do it for me as the truck driver laid on the horn and I told him I was officially done driving in Peru.
We camped for free for the night outside of the Kuelap ruins and met another overlander Eric who put up a tent next to us. We decided Eric was the most bad ass overlander we had met thus far. For the last two years he has been traveling on ONLY dirt roads from the US to Peru and is still headed south. He had almost no gear, a small off road motorcycle, no GPS and had spent a total of six nights in hostels the entire trip. The stories he shared with us were amazing as we shared dinner and red wine with him in our XP. One of the things I love about our luxury rig is spoiling cyclist and motorbikes when ever we meet them, offering them good meals and cold drinks because the way they travel is truly hardcore and it is fun to give them a break from the grind.
The next morning the three of us headed up to the ruins and met two cyclists from Holland Tijs and Wouter who had camped near the ruins. They had biked and then hiked the remaining four hours up to Kuelap. The five of us had the ruins to ourselves the entire time and got to know each other as we strolled around the ancient fortress and marveled at the views. The Dutch hitched a ride down the mountain in the truck which was a crazy tight squeeze (since we have no back seats), but they decided three hours smashed into our truck was better than hiking back down the mountain and we got to learn more about their cycling for charity program which you can check out on their blog andescyclechallenge.com. While I am amazed daily at all we are seeing of the world, I am almost more blown away by the interesting people we meet who inspire me to see the world through so many different perspectives. I am truly blessed to be on this adventure.
Stay tuned for part two of our Indian Jones adventures =).