I had not seen my mother at least for one year when she proposed to meet in Chiclayo to go together by bus to Kuelap, an archeological site in Chachapoyas. The stars aligned and we had a safe place to leave the van in Puerto Malabrigo while we hit the road by bus, it felt like a trip into another trip.
We packed light and took the first of many buses to Chiclayo, where we found my mother, her gringo boyfriend, my mother’s sister and her boyfriend. It was very nice to see them again after so long, reconnecting with family is always good. It wasn’t clear yet that we would go all the way to Iquitos, but we were considering the idea, and definitely it wasn’t clear to me that this trip was also a personal journey into my own emotions.
It took a whole day of traveling to get to Cocachimba, our first stop. This small town is situated in the heart of the cloud forest, it’s the perfect place to disconnect and explore.
We stayed at a very new, very sustainable hostel named Gocta Lab, the young couple that owns this place have plans to do retreats, ceramic workshops, and make you feel so comfortable you might want to stay longer. Sleeping after a whole day of traveling was easy for everybody. The next day we hiked to the Gocta Falls after breakfast, hoping for no rain but ready for it.
We had been traveling alone for years so traveling in a group of 6 with 2 alpha females was something new. We were trying to keep the group together on the 5.5km hike to the falls but we all had different paces, ages, and physical conditions. The hike was humid, green, a bit muddy and very pretty, of course we split up but regrouped once we got to the falls. The falls are present during the whole hike, they go from a tiny white line in the horizon to an overwhelming giant, raining on you even standing 500 meters away from it. On the way back my aunt Patty took the lead, followed by her boyfriend and us, my mother Gabriela was behind waiting for her boyfriend Fred, who end up hiring a horse. He eventually got back to town faster than all of us. There are only 2 restaurants in town and luckily one of them had food available even though it was way after lunch time. I could feel a bit of tension building up but completely ignored it and try to keep the waters calmed.
GOCTA FALLS TECHNICAL INFO
Take a bus to Pedro Ruiz Gallo
From Pedro Ruiz Gallo take a taxi to Cocachimba(17kms)
Hostel: Gocta Lab
Distance from Cocachimba to the lower part of Gocta Falls 5.5kms
Ticket 10 soles
Available for rent: boots, raincoats, horses
We hired a van that was already waiting for us when we got back to Gocta Lab. We hopped in and held to our lives while the driver pushed the gas as much as he could to make it back home on time to see Peru play Colombia for the second time. I couldn’t understand what was the big deal, it was only a friendly game anyways, but the passion for soccer goes beyond comprehension in South America. We made it to Nuevo Tingo alive, with our hearts beating fast and grateful we couldn’t really see the road. We had accommodations in a new hostel called Eco Kuelap, with nice rooms and hot water, yes! Showered, tired and ready to see the soccer match, we were lucky enough to find some cold beers to go with the loud screaming that is an inevitable part of watching Peru’s team play soccer on TV.
The next morning was a bit hectic. Our luggage had to be packed and ready to go, breakfast was delicious but fast, and we had to walk to the entry of the park to take the cable car to Kuelap, our tickets were for 9:30am. The walk was just a few blocks but some were steep so of course we were going at different paces again. Matt and I were invited to do this trip, so we were just going with the flow, not taking much responsibility for tickets, schedules, etc, and it felt great for a change. As we arrived to the entry we saw Arturo, my aunt Patty’s boyfriend, running back to the hostel, he had left the cable car tickets in his other pants. Somehow we managed, we were on the cable car, all together, more or less on time, a little bit tense but enjoying the beautiful scene of the large canyon, it took 20 minutes.
There was the wrong idea that Kuelap used to be a fortress, but now archeologists discovered it was a place of adoration and ceremonial activities. The 20m wall that made the archeologists think it was a military fortress was built in 3 different phases, and actually the architecture of the whole place says a lot of its true nature.
In order to access the citadel you must go through a narrow path of high walls made of rock interpreted now as symbolic vaginas that connected the interior(citadel, feminine body) with the exterior(being born into the world). There’s a major temple in the southwest part of the city, and more than 500 circular small buildings. It’s a really interesting place, first because of the construction abilities of the Chachapoyas, and second because of the location, it’s literally over the clouds.
KUELAP TECHNICAL INFO
Take the cable car from Nuevo Tingo: 20 minutes. To save time reserve your departure time the day before or the same day early.
Telecabinas Kuelap: 20 soles(only cash) - Hours 8AM-4PM
Hostel: Eco Kuelap
Kuelap Archeological site: 3 hours visit
Ticket: 15 soles
It was the easiest for us to hire a private van because we were 6 people plus our bags but it isn’t hard to find public transportation between these towns. The road to Leymebamba is very windy but truly beautiful, imagine following a windy river through a green valley surrounded with mountains, the clouds puffy, the air crisp, the sun setting painting everything with warm colors. We got to the pretty little town of Leymebamba just on time to find a place to stay and check out the main church with some day light. There’s a small restaurant next to the church where the key is stored, and if you ask nicely they might let you in on a private tour.
There was only one place we really wanted to visit, the Leymebamba museum, home of over 200 Chachapoyas mummies rescued from La Laguna del Condor, where they rested for hundreds of years. It’s a fascinating walk through time.
There’s a small cafe where you can snack and ask the volunteer about her experience living in the museum. I asked her if she was ever afraid with so many dead bodies in the same building and her response was great. She had already been living there for 1 year, she said at the beginning she could feel something, some kind of presence pretty often, which for her seemed normal since she was the new one there, she said: they were checking me out, so I showed them respect, and they chilled out with time.
LEYMEBAMBA MUSEUM TECHNICAL INFO
Take a mototaxi from town: 5 soles
Ticket 10 soles
Chachapoyas town was the last stop for my family. We stayed at a nice little hotel in the plaza. Unfortunately the town was under major repairs so it didn’t show its real charming side, we visited a surprisingly beautiful Cañon del Sonche that we didn’t know anything about, and ate abundant meals to celebrate the end of a very touristy week together. Goodbyes are usually sad but this time we knew we were to arrive in Lima with our van soon, so we hugged each other the next morning and we went separate ways.
Our route wasn’t well thought yet but I wanted to visit some friends in Tarapoto, to see what they have done with the sustainable tourism projects they had planned years ago. The two places we visited have been tastefully done, are as green as possible, and inspired us tremendously. They both invited us to a time of peace, appreciation of nature and relaxation.
My mother’s childhood friend Martha opened this place 20 years ago as a place to go and disconnect from everything. It’s solar powered, right by the lake, with no wifi but a rich library instead, healthy meals cooked with local produce are served, and there’s plenty to do in the area. This was a real treat for us, much silence, peace, reading and good feelings, I even got a chakra alignment, which I’ve never done before.
College years in Lima gave fruit to really long term friendships. A good amount of my friends from that era migrated away from the city and tried alternative ways of living closer to nature. Claudia and Javier bought their land at least 10 years ago, and have created a sustainable place right into the jungle. Bamboo and natural materials were used to build all the structures, compostable toilets, and working close with what nature provides is the philosophy of this very conscious couple. They offer yoga retreats, and also work with medicine men in the area. We were lucky enough to share some time with them and get to know a little bit of San Roque de Cumbaza where this magical place is.
Since we were closer than ever to Iquitos, we decided to just keep going. The jungle was new for us and it felt wrong to go back to the coast so fast. So we managed our way to Yurimaguas where we found a tour that would take us into the Pacaya Samiria Nature Reserve in a canoe with a guide for 4 days. Well we had no idea what to expect but we were ready for it.
The next day we were off on a boat to Lagunas. The boat was nice enough, we had assigned seats and some snacks for the ride. The river looked huge, brown with mud, and rowdy, I was looking out the window and measuring the distance to shore(it looked far) when Matty asked me: do you think these boats flip sometimes? To what I answered: I don’t think so, we’d have heard something about it… Less than an hour later we saw a boat, exactly like ours being rescued from the river.
We arrived to Lagunas where we met our guide Javier at the tourist office. The hostel where we spent the night wasn’t far from the tourist office, in a town were nothing really is far from anything. We got there as the first giant rain drops were falling, this was real amazon rain. It poured all night and it was then when we were aware that this was unknown territory for us. Like really unknown. The next day we left early.
Javier was our guide, he cooked every meal, took care of the canoe, and basically acted as a father to the 2 defenseless children we were in the jungle. Let me put it this way, if you go 4 days into the Amazon without a knowledgeable guide, you will die.
The rainy season was just starting so the rivers were low in certain parts, and the currents were not that strong. Javier brought an extra paddle and Matty helped him move along the way. To feel the jungle from so close, no motor boats, no big crowds, just us and nature, is priceless and I am glad we went for it. Javier would point at specific places to see monkeys, parrots, insects that were camouflaged to the untrained eye. The shelters where we stopped for lunch and overnight were basic, wooden houses on stilts where the guides could cook with firewood, which was kept dry thanks to the shelter care takers. There we met other travelers and other guides, all exchanging stories of what we’ve seen, and sleeping tight in the less than private cubicles we had as bedrooms. Days were long, by 8:30pm it was dark and everyone was at rest, loud snores mixed up with the sounds of the jungle as we slowly slipped into deep sleep.
The river turns darker as you go deeper into the Reserve. If the wind dies the black still water becomes a constant mirror to the green shores that surround us all the time, the only thing that can disturb the calm waters(if you are lucky like us) is a pink dolphin, playful and curious enough to come and say hi.
We have been very good at timing the places we visit, even though we don’t plan a lot ahead. The low level of the rivers let us visit some dry areas where we saw ancient trees, and learned about the native medicinal plants. It’s remarkable to see that local people carry the knowledge of plants for one generation to another, still.
Javier and the other guides cooked different meals for themselves than ours, they caught Carachama fish and ate it almost every day. Matty decided to try it on the third day which was a bad idea cause he got extremely ill right away, but Javier as knowledgeable as he is, went and got the right plant for his illness and voila, Matty was fine in less than 24 hours.
I think the highlight of the tour was the evening we spent looking for crocs in the river, we found a baby croc and heard a mama croc that sounded pretty big and upset, we really hoped not to see her. The jungle in a tiny canoe at night is a different story, it’s extremely dark, it’s scary.
We made our way back under pouring rain after 4 days of intense jungle time. The stories we heard about giant anacondas, boars, pink dolphins, paiches and militia sounded unreal but I am sure they are mostly true. I know we won’t go back to most of the places we’ve visited during this long journey but I really hope we can come back here one day.
From this point, the only way to get to Iquitos was by boat so we got tickets on the fast lancha which could get us to Nauta in 8 hours. From there we took a bus to Iquitos and there we were in 2 hours.
There were so many ideas in my mind about Iquitos. History classes from school put specific images in my head, while geography classes situated this city in such a remote place, accesible only by boat or plane, it felt we would never get to it. But we did.
Iquitos is the kind of city that has grown with almost no organization, it is home to 150k people and you could call it messy. But once this was one of the richest cities in the region, and it’s easy to see it in the decaying mansions across the malecon. The French influence in the architecture was the highest symbol of status. The ‘Barons of the Rubber’ as they were called, were so wealthy and careless with their money, that they would send their linen to Europe to get cleaned.
The jungle, and this area in particular has gone through a lot in the last 200 years. The rubber boom held Peru as the major provider of rubber, between 1872 and 1912, to the world. Millions of dollars were made very fast, at expense of the local tribes of the Putumayo free work. Slavery and death brought wealth to a few men, that had spent it all in less than 50 years. By 1910 the British were already selling rubber at a better price, from trees planted in Malasia with stolen seeds from the Amazon. The mansions, the busy ports, the steam boats, they were all abandoned.
It was probably for the best. Economically Iquitos lost all its wealth, but culturally kept its local indigenous inheritance, that by then was reduced to the third part. The rivers and the forest probably kept their health also with less exploitation in the area.
This city is like no other, booming with life everywhere you look. Surrounded by raging rivers, there are almost no cars, and traffic is ruled by mototaxis. Home to one of the biggest markets in the country Iquitos is inevitably affected by the powerful energy of the Amazon. We were captivated and amazed by it. We had finally made it into the heart of the jungle.