A surf trip should involve more waves than mountains, but man plans and God laughs — as my mother might say — and so the two of us find ourselves wandering ruins atop a 3,000-meter peak in northern Peru, surveying a sea not of waves but of undulating mountains disappearing into a dense fog. Our surfboards are stowed inertly in our car.
Masters of timing, our surfing adventure coincided with El Niño Costero, the biggest storm to have collided with the Peruvian coast in fifty years. Brief and flurried Googling had delivered us the names Keulap, Gocta, and Marcahuamachuco as alternate destinations. Two ruins and a waterfall, about all of which we knew nothing. If the point of travel is to experience the unexpected, then we were on the right path.
An uncomfortably new cable car transports us across a steep valley. The angles at which the pylons jut from the mountainside and the evidence of recent landslides heighten our sense of being guinea pigs in the new machine.
Although officially known as the Fortress of Kuelap (“KWAY-lap”), the precise functions carried out within its walls remain unknown and likely varied beyond mere defense. A narrow passageway of rain-slicked stone stairs penetrates the fortress’s 18-meter high walls. Inside, vines continue to resist the half-excavated incursions of archaeologists.
Moss-shrouded trees filter the incoming sunlight, bathing reconstructed circular foundations in soft green light. At one end of the expansive complex, a tower whose circumference increases with height holds watch over a world of mountains and valleys.
At the base of the fortress’s walls, Estela Alba operates a small food stand. Her papas rellenas — buttery balls of fried mashed potatoes stuffed with diced meat, onion, and an egg — are without exaggeration the best papas rellenas that I have tasted in all Peru.
She has spent her entire life on this site. Her family has lived here for more generations than she can count. Perhaps since before the Inca fell to the Spanish. Perhaps since before the Chachapoyas fell to the Inca.
“Now the archaeologists want us to leave,” she says. “They say that we’re bad for the ruins.” She laughs at the prospect of these mere visitors telling her to find a new home.
“This is my home,” she says. “I’ll never leave.”
An hour’s drive over a rain-battered road optimistically classified a highway separates Kuelap from the village of Cocachimba and the trailhead to Gocta Falls. Locals enthusiastically describe their natural wonder as the world’s third-highest cataract, although this claim rests on a dubious foundation.
First measured only in 2006 by a German named Stefan Ziemendorf, Gocta Falls consists of two falls, joined by a shallow pool nestled on a broad ledge that turns the horseshoe-shaped cliff through with Gocta falls into two steps of mythological proportion.
No record illuminates why Ziemendorf chose to measure the two falls as one and he and Cocachimba’s inhabitants appear to be among the only to do so. Measured separately, the lower falls count as the world’s sixteenth tallest — still no small thing, particularly when viewed up close.
A five-kilometer trail beginning at the tourist office in the village square ambles through small plots of coffee and sugarcane. Nearing the falls, the tremendous impact of falling water drowns out all sounds.
A group of tourists clad in brightly colored disposable raincoats emerges from the mist to inform us that the force of the falling water is too strong to allow anyone to stand at the cataract’s base.
Despite our full-body Gore-Tex preparedness, the group’s advice proves correct. Fighting to gain ground, the gusts generated by the pounding water force us back over slick rocks two steps for every hard-won step forward. We struggle but retreat laughing in the end. If this is the world’s sixteenth tallest waterfall, I tremble to think of standing at the bottom of one taller.
The trail continues to ascend to the base of the upper falls, but we decide that the lower falls have provided enough entertainment for the day and make our return to Cocachimba.
The hike back provides its own surprises. An elderly couple offers cold beer at their farmhouse along the path and hot and sweaty, we happily accept. The couple sits with us and chats as we rehydrate.
“We are good people here,” says the old lady. “Things here are calm, people look after each other and even after strangers.”
“We love to let people camp here,” adds the old man. “We don’t even have to travel — the world comes to us!”
“And why wouldn’t they come,” asks the woman. “It is beautiful here. Not too hot, nor too cold. It only rains enough for our crops and no more.”
Just to make polite conversation, I mention that rain is washing away whole villages along the coast of Peru.
“God is punishing them, said the old woman,” eyes grown suddenly hard and jaw set. “The people of the coast don’t believe in God anymore and so he will drown them all. But here, we are good people…”
Continuing south and west, roads snake through valleys half-glimpsed through heavy mist, denuded mountains and a patchwork maze of mines. On route to Celendín, we come to a halt behind a parked box truck with its cargo door thrown open. Under the cover of a light drizzle, young men with broad backs heave sacks of potatoes into the truck’s belly.
We ask the driver to pull forward, but the aged farmer overseeing the work motions him away. Newcomers are rare here and represent new ears for old stories. The farmer speaks of his past and of his past’s past, of those who had farmed this land before him and of the civilizations that preceded them.
“We still dig up their bones and their buildings,” he says. Just months ago, his wife unearthed a skeleton under what is now their pantry and it lies there still, a silent houseguest.
“Archaeologists must love this place,” I remark.
“Archaeologists don’t come here.”
Between the rain and the low season, we entered Marcahuamachuco as the ruin’s sole visitors. Before the sudden rise and brief tenure of the Inca, archaeologists believe that Marcahuamachuco served as the political, economic, and military capital of much of modern-day Peru.
Half-reconstructed stone buildings appeared and disappeared in the flat light of the heavy fog. Housing complexes, fortress walls, and an arcade-lined plaza all allowed us brief glimpses of their forms.
While the guesswork of archaeology leaves the precise uses of Marcahuamachuco up to the imagination, the accepted story is that the city rose to prominence as a site of religious pilgrimage and served as a burial site for an unknown elite.
Tombs stand guard at the city’s entrance. A row of broad-based pillars projecting a solid impassivity, they look more like columns lacking a roof to uphold. Walking behind them, one can see the openings made by archaeologists at the dawn of the twentieth century, who discovered richly clad human remains inside them.
Further on, family dwellings constructed of great stone galleries line the path leading towards a wall that sunders the city in two and behind which awaits Marcahuamachuco’s greatest mystery: Las Monjas.
Unique among other ruins, Las Monjas is the only known prehistoric American tower to sport double walls – a feature whose purpose remains a matter of relatively hot debate among those who study this site.
The range of purposes attributed to Las Monjas belies the frustrating uncertainty of archaeologists’ work. A religious cloister for virgin girls, a wealthy family’s dwelling, a fortress or perhaps garrison. All guesses, in short, educated though they may be.
As at Kuelap, Marcahuamachuco does not lie entirely abandoned. A handful of houses, half wood and half stone, stand within the city walls. As the fog rolls through the ruins, revealing the city’s form only in glimpses, the ruins dwellers, too, appear and disappear like ghosts. How long have you lived here and what is life here like, I want to ask a woman in a red skirt and broad-brimmed stovepipe hat, but she does not look at us and vanishes silently before we can so much as wave. Was she even there? Did we really see her? Even her image on our camera is indistinct in the enveloping fog, a ghost caught on film.
Few visitors explore Peru’s mountainous north. As paths go, those that lead through the inland north remain thoroughly unbeaten. The simple fact is that it is challenging to travel through this land of mudslides and Quechua, where infrastructure development has been left largely to the mining firms that own so much of the land.
Visiting such an underdeveloped place won’t make for your typical vacation. Beyond the inconveniences of a lack of tourism infrastructure and a service industry lies the realization that what you see there is fleeting. Sooner or later, the paths leading here will become beaten.
For now, don’t expect comfort or ease. Until the dream of a new Machu Picchu is realized, travel here will remain challenging. For those seeking adventure off the beaten track, though, few places can rival this corner of the globe.