You may have seen in the news that Machu Picchu was re-opened by actress Susan Sarandon after the great floods that closed it 2 months ago. Well after finishing our volunteering in Trujillo we headed north to a place called Chachapoyas to get our last bit of South American history. And see a site to rival the aforementioned 7th wonder of the world. This provincial capital is surrounded by of a wealth of inca and pre-inca sites. The Chachapoyans (cloud forest people) controlled this area for thousands of years back in the day, and constructed some impressive buildings and sculptures that can still be seen today. Coming from the extremely hot coast it was a bit of a shock to be waterproofs and wooly hats again but undeterred me booked a minibus to the 2nd most impressive archaeological site in Peru after Machu Picchu…Kuelap. Kuelap is a gigantic mountain top fortress constructed from the 6th Century A.D. onwards, until it was partially destroyed by a Spaniard around 1570 who was pissed off because the indigenous people wouldn´t convert to Catholicism (Pope Benedict is yet to apologize for this one). I must admit we were a bit unsure of how this would live up to Machu Picchu, but after three hours driving we were not disappointed. Although clearly seen on our approach to the mountain ridge where the fortress is built, it isn´t until you see it close up that you truly appreciate what an incredible piece of building Kuelap is. Stretching 600m along the ridge It´s walls are up to 20metres high, and 15metres thick and it only has three very narrow entrances to keep out pesky incans and Spaniards (this actually worked and in the end the only way to defeat the Chacapoyans was to starve them out). We made our way up into the site through one of these entrances (some researchers speculate that the shape of these is meant to represent an immense ´Ladies place´, oh my). Inside the fortress is very overgrown, with only a few resident llamas to keep the grass down. However this adds to the unique atmosphere of Kuelap. It has only 3000 tourists a year compared to 300,000 at Machu Picchu and is devoid of tour groups making it very quiet. The weather was superb and we were treated to magnificent 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains. Apparently the fortress contains more stone than the Great Pyramid of Giza, and although I haven´t seen the latter I can confirm there is an awful lot of stone in Kuelap. We returned to Chachapoyas with a sense of achievement having been the only visitors that day…and not a Hollywood star in sight.
The next morning we arose like zombies at 3am to begin our journey to Ecuador via the smallest border crossing between the two countries. Heres how it went: Collectivio from Chachapoyas to Bagua Grande (3 hours with maniac driver), Bagua Grande to Jaen (1 hour with calm driver), Jaen to San Ignacio (2 hours with agonizingly slow driver), San Ignacio to La Balsa (two hours with 7 people in a car not built for 7 people). THE FRONTIER. As borders go this was pretty small. It consisted of two sheds one for Peruvian immigration manned by a guy who kept telling me Gordon Brown was the British prime minister, I congratulated him on being right and Sadie and I sauntered across the bridge into Ecuador. Here we interrupted the Ecuadorian border official who was doing some very important work making a playlist on windows media player while his girlfriend fondled him from behind. Two hours later we were on a rickety truck to Zumba (two hours or more due to the need to repair the road with a log and move a fallen electricity pylon from the road). This ride was really cool because the sun was just going down illuminating the stunning mountain scenery around us. We arrived in Zumba, Ecuador at about 8pm and promptly checked ourselves into what we now think was a brothel…sleep was needed but not forthcoming, mainly due to the huge hole in our wall into the next door room and fear for our lives. The next morning we left the brothel and caught a five hour bus to Vilcabamba, the sacred valley where people live until they are 100s of years old
Alot of the time on our trip our guidebooks haven´t exactly been very helpful, places have closed, bad maps etc. However when it comes to Vilcabamba they´ve got it totally right. It is indeed tranquil, relaxed, beautiful and green. We spent 5 days there and stayed in two great hostels called ´Le rendezvous´ and Ízykaluma´ the former of the two run by a french family (if you hadn´t guessed from the name) was fantastic with great rooms and the best breakfast in South America. In between lazing in hammocks reading and watching hummingbirds in the garden we hiked in the surrounding countryside and also went on a 5 hour horse ride. My last horse experience other than having a flutter on the Grand National was a pony trek in the Brecon Beacons many years ago whilst i was on a scout camp. Back then i was given a pony that was fat and slow and and generally annoyed at having being torn away from his lovely welsh grass to walk slowly around local roads with a teenager perched awkwardly on his back. Not this time.
I was given a full on horse...i know that that might sound stupid, after all we had paid to go horse riding, but for me this was a rather big step up. I made sure i did the horse-rider relationship building bit where you look at the horse in the eye and pat his main, like in the films and then mounted may steed. So off we go at a trot, a walk would have been nice but instead i found myself hanging on for dear life as i bounced up and down on my bony behind whilst attempting more horse-rider bonding through the medium of the reins. The ride was took us up into the mountains and along to waterfall where we had a swim before heading back another two hours. I didn´t fall off even when galloping (which was actually really cool if slightly scary , especially minus helmets) but by the end my arse was in tatters. We spent the next few days learning how to walk again, avoiding a French girl who seemed determined to make us do a 3 day rid and drinking excellent coffee in the plaza whilst eavesdropping on Americans with health problems who seem convinced that by moving to Vilcabamba they will live until they´re at least 100 despite continuing chain smoking, and gorging themselves. When we were sufficiently relaxed we decided we better get on with the last month on our trip and left our little paradise for Cuenca.