Chacha Picchu

Descending the Valley
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Traveling on foot with a train of pack horses and mules following behind, we trekked west from Kuelap over an 11,000-ft. pass to drop steeply into cloud forest vegetation lining the upper slopes of the Vilaya drainage. Following Frank's notes and information that we had obtained from a chance and very interesting meeting with Gene Savoy in Lima, we examined various sites along the way that Frank identified as part of Savoy's Gran Vilaya complex. These sites consisted of many circular buildings and associated terraces made from carefully cut and coursed rectangular limestone blocks, which I now knew to be traditional Chachapoya style.

Small villages and isolated farms became more numerous as we descended the valley. We noticed evidence of a recent slash and burn clearing. Frank pointed out that one of the negative results of exploration is that trails are cut into previously inaccessible areas allowing expansion of farming and livestock grazing in archaeological zones.

Unfortunately, many sites have been looted by local residents long before being "discovered" by expeditions. We listened with dismay as a villager explained that he had seen locals blasting inaccessible cliff burials with a shotgun to dislodge objects of value. Too often, we found walls and buildings damaged or destroyed by recent conversion to corrals and shelters.

Clearing overgrown trails, we climbed to the ridge where Frank's team had previously located a large complex of structures that they called Calpunta after a regional name for the area. As a preliminary examination, our objective was limited to locating, identifying and attempting to ascertain the extent of the various sites that we examined. Unless one has attempted travel in this type of steep and dense vegetation, it is impossible to visualize the difficulty in simply measuring a building. Most of our time and effort was spent clearing a path to crawl or walk through. I did manage a number of GPS (global positioning computer) readings and sufficient measurements to produce a rough sketch map. Because of the difficulty of gaining distance for perspective, photography is of limited value.

Locating ruins in a dense cloud forest is limited to on-the-ground exploration. Multiple layers of thick vegetation, up to more than 20 meters high, render areal reconnaissance and satellite photography useless. Perhaps specifically targeted Infra-red imagery might differentiate between vegetation and cooler stone walls, but who could afford that? Even surface identification is difficult. It is possible to be as close as a meter from a moss-covered structure and fail to recognize it.

With machetes in hand we continued for several miles past the farthest point of our last exploration. We discovered a remarkable complex of Chachapoya style buildings located on the crest of a cloud forest mountain overlooking the Maranon River. In the three days available we counted hundreds of structures that were more visible below in the dense vegetation. A square mound that I suspect to be a mausoleum was unopened and the site showed no signs of being visited by huaqueros (grave robbers). We may well be the first to enter this forgotten cloud city since its inhabitants vanished more than 400 years ago. The highest summit was crowned by a seven-walled terrace enclosing an unusual T-shaped temple. My final last-hour effort was a hopeless attempt to follow a stone walled, entrenched trail gracefully curving serpentine-like down into the impenetrable forest below. Torn, scratched, bitten by insects, covered with mud, we stumbled exhausted into camp, gratefully accepting the waiting martini and popcorn.

Reflecting now on our adventure, I realize that finding new sites in Chachapoyas is no big deal. One simply has to climb almost any high point and Eureka...!, there it is. But somehow, I have the feeling that we may have stumbled upon a major Chachapoya center, maybe the largest and most important. Perhaps this is the adventurer in me speaking and not the archaeologist, but then life is too short to really care. I have always thought that the discipline of archaeology is way too stuffy. That final euphoric evening at high camp produced the name for our discovery: Chacha Picchu. Gee, that has a ring to it! Chacha is the ethnic group and Picchu is the Inca word (quechua) for hill top or summit. What could be more fitting for a mountain top city whose name is lost to eternity? Of course, the similarity to Machu Picchu was not lost to us.

I am still undecided if Chachapoyas had a hand in the building of Choquequirao. Curiously, Chacha Picchu is also constructed from metamorphic schists and quartzite. But then, how many different ways can you build with this stuff? I guess the answers must wait as they have for centuries until we return.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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