Saturday, August 20, 2011

Peru – Kuélap, the next Machu Picchu

You probably never heard of Kuélap; neither did we until we met Alfredo, a fellow traveler back in Nicaragua, who said it was nearly as nice as Machu Picchu and much less touristic. After his tip, we started the research and found a mixed basket of reviews from "nice" to "way better than Machu Picchu". Anyway our decision was made that we want to see with our own eyes what this Kuélap is all about.
We actually refrained from looking up pictures on the internet to keep a high level of suspense and be able to see it for the first time in its real beauty.

Kuélap can be explored in a day trip from Chachapoyas by charter minivan that drives all the way to the ruins. The more adventurous and less touristic way is to climb up from Tingo, a tiny village at the foot of the mountain.

Guess our choice! We arrived in Tingo late in the afternoon after an 11½ hour "Dirt Road Rodeo" from Cajamarca as you may have read on our previous post. There are two simple places to stay overnight: one with big airy rooms (Hospedaje Tingo) one with small moldy smelling rooms (Hostel Leon). We chose the former run by a nice family which isn't mentioned in the guide book (20 Soles).

Tingo is actually split in two villages; Antigua Tingo (by the main road) and Nuevo Tingo a 20min walk up a steep hill. Old Tingo is by the main road, which basically consists of about 10 houses, 2 hotels, 2 restaurants, one small store, and a police checkpoint. This is truly "Smallville".We asked the policemen at the checkpoint about options to go up to Kuélap, a 3-4 hour hike, or by colectivo bus that runs occasionally through Nuevo Tingo starting at 4am.

Ok, we see how we feel in the morning and decide whether to walk or drive.
Our decision was made by Julane's trout dinner that engaged in an overnight battle with her digestive track – we take the "colectivo", at least for the tougher way up.
Edward Scissorhands would be proud
of the person who created this park
We climb 20 minutes up to Nuevo Tingo. When we reach the outskirts of town we must appear like aliens to the locals. When we ask where to catch the "colectivo" they look even more surprised and respond with a short "difficult" and point for us to wait in front of the central plaza. We ask a couple more people and they all seem perplexed by our question but tell us: "Wait by the park but it could take some time."
So we sit and wait, and wait, and wait some more....
We see tourists arrive in tour buses from Chachapoyas. They stop and take pictures of the beautifully groomed hedges in the Plaza. We also see three "colectivos" coming down from Kuélap. We ask one driver when there will be one going up: "In an hour or so..."
So we sit and wait, and wait, and wait some more. The "hour or so" has turned into more than 2 hours by now. Finally at 11:45am we are tired of sitting around after 3½ hours and no "colectivo" ...Is this what the Policeman meant when he said "occasionally"?

We walk back down to our guesthouse and as we walk we see a minivan going up on the road above us... Is this the long awaited transport?.Anyway, we decided already to take it easy for the rest of the day (giving Julane's Coli bacteria some time to call it quits). Tomorrow we will wake up early and use our own 2 legged transport to get to Kuélap.

We must have been blessed somehow, by 2pm it was pouring cats 'n' dogs. We would have been on the walk down by this time if we actually made it up to Kuélap. But instead we are sitting in the shelter of our guesthouse sipping on a cup of hot tea. So we were "saved" from a slippery and muddy hike today.

The first 30 minutes are actually
quite pleasant
Julane, of course, has no intention to eat dinner and Patrick skipped dinner in solidarity. We both want to avoid any more food issues.
It's 7am and we are hitting the trail up to Kuélap. We're told that it will take us 3-4 hours to reach the ruin and we read that it's about 10km in distance and 1km in altitude, so this will be a steep uphill trek. Julane is feeling a bit better and we have a good pace. The first 30 minutes is actually mostly flat and all the ups are followed by immediate downs – we'll never make any uphill progress this way!

But soon the uphill
battle starts
After 30 minutes, we get what we "wished" for: steep incline ahead.
2 hours into the trek and we are fighting off thoughts to turn around...yes, it's that tough. But then we think about our other treks: Santa Maria and Salkantay, nope, this trek isn't going to bring us to our knees. Yet, somehow Kuélap seems tougher. Julane of course is weakened by her rebellious trout (ironically exactly the same stubborn little fish that bothered Patrick on the Salkantay trek!). But Patrick is not held back by intestinal plumbing issues, and yet, he also has a hard time.

How much further can it be? Three hours into the climb we cross a woman on a horse – 1½ hours more she says. We need to sit down and rest our sore legs to digest the news that we are not even close to the top. How much harder is this going to be? We are already depleting our spare batteries.

Hurray! after nearly 4 hours we finally
see our destination!
3 hours 45 minutes: we reach the village of Kuélap, and shortly afterwards, see some tall old walls on the hilltop. Finally, this must be it. We sit down and take another rest and try to catch our breath. The breaks get more and more frequent.

I need a break, the last
half hour is the toughest
part of the climb up
Ok, with the target finally in sight, this is now the point of no return. With renewed motivation, we begin the last assault of this torturous climb. Our mind is strong, but our muscles are weak and after 15 minutes, we are sitting down again and gasping for air. The path has no mercy on our legs and is getting even steeper; it must be something like a 45 degree incline. At this point, it's a mind over body Spiel. Every step takes more willpower than a bungee jump: left foot, right foot, left foot...
Finally, we made it!
After 4 hours and 15 minutes, we are standing in front of the massive Kuélap ediface, hurray... Let's rest. If the climb doesn't keep most of the enemies at bay, then these walls that we are resting under sure will! Some deep breaths and half a liter of water later Julane goes to the ticket shack (office would be a total exaggeration) and finds out that we must pay here, but they don't have any tickets to give us. "Almost no one ever walks up to Kuélap!" the guy responds. We pay him and he says he will bring us an official ticket from the main entrance, which is a 20 minute walk away.

"Have a break, have a King Kong"
From the "nobody ever comes here" ticket booth to the Kuélap entrance, it's another 10 minute walk. When we finally reach our goal we see another set of steep steps ahead of us. That's it! Patrick can't take any more walking and insists on a long break; he's totally knackered and sits down on the bottom of the stairs. Julane is surprisingly feeling better than him now and insists that he eats some of the "King Kong" snack – basically pure sugar and carbs in the shape of a double-decker hamburger cookie! This is a local specialty of the Cajamarca region.

A thousand calories? The
driest biscuit in the world
The transformation was amazing: Patrick went from barely alive to full of energy in less than half an hour. Skipping dinner last night was perhaps not such a good idea, in hindsight. We've lost so much weight in the last months that our bodies simply don't have any fat reserves left so we need food fuel nowadays (and more layers of clothing also to combat cold temperatures). Now, we're finally ready to climb those last steps and explore Kuélap. Kuélap is often called the new Machu Picchu, and while we don't see any resemblance between the two sites, we do agree that Kuélap is indeed an amazing ruin. Set on top of a hill (fortified by 10 meter tall walls) are circular stone ruins of what used to be residential houses dating back to the pre-Inca times a thousand years ago. A few houses have been restored but the majority of the site is still in the same condition as it was when it was rediscovered in 1843. Trees cover some of the walls and llamas graze between the ruin walls. If you ignore the other few dozen tourists, you can imagine being here when the site was discovered.

 We'll let our pictures do the rest of the talking.
The surrounding walls
are impossible to breach
The restored section
Nope, not crop circles,
these are the remains
of the houses
Resident Llamas
also a resident?
House with a view at 3000m
About 400 homes have been found
Mother Narture's powerful artwork
A patchwork quilt

Unfortunately, we only have a bit more than an hour to see Kuélap, which is enough to see the site, but not really enough to enjoy the gorgeous surrounding landscape and have a leisurely picnic. We need to be back in down in the valley for our 4:30pm bus to Chachapoyas as we don't really want to spend another night in tiny Tingo.
Unfortunately it's time to
leave. Good that they
built stairs to exit.
"King Kong" has restored our energy sufficiently to actually walk back down again, or should we say jog down to Tingo. What took 4½ hours to climb only takes us 1 hour 50 minutes to descend. We are surprised to see how steep the path looks from above – no wonder it was so tough. Fortunately, we don't have any rain on the way down, despite lots of thunder, dark clouds and a few drops of rain. We manage to stay dry and the dusty path is not turning into a slippery slope. We started with over 4 liters of water and now we're down to less than ½ liter so the lack of direct sunshine is appreciated.

Looks even steeper on the way down
We arrive in Tingo at 4:15pm just to find out that the bus to Chachapoyas has already passed through – half an hour early! Fortunately there is a second bus at 5pm. As soon as we sit down in the restaurant of our guesthouse, the heaven's gate opens up. Wow...that was great timing, we don't care if it rains for the rest of the day – we're soon off to Chachapoyas. This was one tough day and the climb to Kuélap was worth it. But we wouldn't do it again. As they say in Japan: "one must climb Mount Fuji once, only fools climb it twice."