We love hiking. There is a thrill that comes from discovering the more remote landscape in an area, and we meet and talk with more local people this way. So when we arrived at the Turismo Explorer office in Chachapoyas, Peru to explore local hikes and day trips, we were easily swayed by the guide’s description of the Gran Vilaya Trek.
I mean, isn’t trekking just multi-day hiking?
It turns out that trekking is not just multi-day hiking. But we didn’t figure that out until we were well into it…
trek (v): to go on a long, arduous journey, typically on foot
hike (v): to walk for a long distance, especially across country or in the woods
Gran Vilaya Trek
We started our trek at 8:30 a.m. by loading onto the tour van with 6 other people and our Peruvian guide Will, setting off for the Pueblo de los Muertos outside of Luya. From where we parked, we could see the Gocta waterfall across the valley at an astounding 771 meters (2531 feet) high. It is one of the tallest waterfalls in the world.
But we weren’t there to see the waterfall. We were there to see the pre-Incan burial sites in the side of the cliff. We walked down the steep cliff for a few kilometers in the hot sun, and we were rewarded after passing through a gate to see the remains of the pueblos built into the side of the cliff. Our guide hustled us up the cliff to show us the wall paintings, the sarcophagi sitting up high holding the dead, as well some tools. The site was dramatic, especially given the hot sun, steep cliff, and sweeping views. The site doesn’t appear to have much of a preservation effort by the government, though who are we to say this is a bad thing if it has already lasted for 1000 years?
We then made our way to Cocta by van to visit the Sarcophagi of Karajia. We walked down to the cliffs again, though this time was slightly easier. This site was discovered in the mid-60s by Gene Savoy (a modern-day Indiana Jones if you want to read more about him) and is more elaborate than Pueblo de los Muertos. The sarcophagi contain bodies in a sitting position with the skulls resting on top. They look out over the valley and can see for miles, though you can’t see them in the vast cliff face unless you know where to look. No wonder they stayed hidden for so long.
We finished our day by driving to the gorgeous Valle de Belén, where we stayed the night. There is a winding river in the valley, dozens of horses and cows grazing on the green grass, and only a few houses dotting the landscape. This place is the definition of tranquility and peace.
We stayed in a dorm room in bunkbeds, enjoyed a group dinner on the picnic table outside, and played cards and sat around the campfire until bedtime.
So far, so good. This is like hiking with an overnight trip, right?
We woke up early to find our guide out at the river fishing for trout. He said it would be great for dinner that night, which made us slightly paranoid that there was no other plan for dinner. Perhaps things were going to be a bit harder today?
We set off after breakfast to trek through the valley along the river, where our guide and a few other trekkers took turns trying to catch trout. They caught 4 in all, and we loaded them into a plastic bag to carry with us. At the edge of the valley we started the trek up the mountain, which soon became cloud forest. It is really amazing to walk in a dense jungle with clouds swirling at your feet and only the sounds of birds in the air. It almost – almost – made us forget the pain in our legs from climbing straight up over rocks. This was turning out to be much harder than the day before.
We stopped for a lunch of fruit, bread, and cheese, and then we made our way into a denser part of the jungle to see the ruins of an ancient city. We slid, stumbled, fell, and scrambled around to get to these old cities covered in vines and growth, and just as we walked along the wall of the city a deluge of rain came down. We huddled against the wall, wondering how many times in its history the wall had sheltered people from the rain, and waited out the storm.
The trek got really hard at the end of the day when we had to make our way down for several kilometers in the pouring rain in very muddy conditions. This is where we decided that “down” is not always the easiest option. We finally arrived at our destination completely soaked, muddy up to our calves, and desperately hungry.
This night we stayed with a local family in a pueblo so small they didn’t even have a local store. The family baked bread to sell to the other residents, and they had a large rounded adobe stove outside. We were all happy to lay our clothes on top of the still-warm oven to dry, and we put our wet shoes on planks inside the oven. After getting as dry as we possibly could, we went into the kitchen/dining hut and played cards and drank coffee made from beans on the family’s property.
(Side note – we made a rookie mistake by not packing our clothes in plastic or bringing plastic rain ponchos.)
The family was obviously well-to-do by their community standards with a large oven for bread, a separate house for the kitchen/dining room, another house with beds to rent out to trekkers, and another area with a flush toilet. The floors were either concrete or packed dirt, and the kitchen had a multi-layer adobe oven with a small cut-out below the uppermost layer. We quickly discovered that this was for the guinea pigs to sleep in at night to stay warm. Yes, guinea pigs! They lived in the kitchen under the table, and they were fed leaves every night. They are not really pets, though they are well-cared for, and we later learned that keeping guinea pigs in the kitchen as a future menu item is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years in Peru.
We had a delicious dinner with yucca bread, pasta, red sauce, and the trout we caught earlier in the day. It was not hard to fall asleep that night, especially when Will told us the next day was 32 km, the majority of it uphill. We were actually too tired to worry about it at that point.
Two of the trekkers in our group opted to rent horses for the day, and the rest of us pooled our resources for an additional horse to carry our backpacks. Really, at this point we were looking for anything to make the day easier. (It didn’t hurt that the horse rental was 30 soles, a mere 5 soles each, which works out to about $4 for the 2 of us).
We set off early to cover a lot of ground, and we were huffing and puffing within minutes. Going straight up over rocks, wet earth, and crossing streams for hours is pretty tiring, even if the view is magnificent. We were soon up in the cloud forest again, and by lunchtime we arrived at the home of a local family who cooked for us. We sat outside overlooking the mountains and valley below while we ate our lunch, and we were all mentally gearing up for the toughest part of the entire trek.
Everyone stayed fairly well apart on the last part of the trek, partly due to the tremendous exertion,and partly due to the magnificent beauty and peacefulness of the surroundings. It somehow seemed appropriate for each of us to enjoy this part by ourselves.
The clouds swirled around us, the toucans chattered in the distance, and we marveled at our surroundings and at the nearness of our accomplishment.
We finally made our way to the peak and saw the road, at which point Will had promised us a 2-hour journey downhill to our destination. Warren was still fairly energetic (his new nickname being Tigger), but I was really at the end of my energy level. That’s when I saw the tour company van parked near the road.
Joy. Complete and utter giving in to the moment.
We were given the choice of hiking down or riding down, and 5 of us chose to ride down. Warren walked/ran down with the guide, covering 12 km in just an hour and 20 minutes, and we met them in the village below. He was exhilarated and exhausted at the same time, and we were both overjoyed knowing we had completed the hardest part of the trek.
We stayed at a proper hostel that evening with private bathrooms, though the water was cold, and we enjoyed dinner with the group at the local restaurant. We have never known such deep sleep as what we had that night.
Like day 1, the last day of the trek is an organized trip to see a local landmark. In this case, we were traveling just 20 km by van to see the pre-Incan fortress of Kuelap. This magnificent structure sits high on a mountain overlooking practically all of Northern Peru, or so it seems from the peak.
It was built by the Chachapoyans beginning right around 6 AD and occupied until the mid 16th century. The wall around the fortress is almost 600 meters long, and the walls reach an impressive 20 meters. You just can’t even believe the size of this thing.
There are 3 entrances, one for nobility/religious, one for commerce, and one for military. Each entrance starts with an opening wide enough for 4 people but narrows so that only one person can enter at a time. This was a brilliant strategic move that prevented attackers from charging the gates.
Inside the fortress there are 420 buildings on multiple levels, almost all circular, that make up the homes, religious centers, and community areas of the fortress. There is quite a bit to see here, so we were really amazed to find out that only 10% of the site has been excavated.
Another interesting thing to note is that only about 50 visitors a day come here, which is a drop in the bucket compared to another majestic set of ruins in Peru, Machu Picchu. You can see ongoing archeological work at the site without the glut of tourists (at least right now). Most people we saw were with a guide, which is really the best way to see the site and probably the most environmentally sound.
We loved ending the tour on such a majestic note.
But wait, there’s more…
As we were driving back to Chachapoyas after lunch, we came across some road construction. We were told it would be a couple of hours’ wait because the road had been torn up to install culverts under the road. Our guide and driver told us to stay still and walked past the sentry to find out what was going on. They came back and started to move forward, which was not really that surprising. We’ve learned in our travels that *everything* is negotiable here, even instructions by police and government officials.
The road had been completely cut away to install the culverts, but the workers did have 2 boards to lay across the ditch for anyone brave enough to drive over it. Our driver was one of those guys. We all got out while he negotiated driving over the mound of heaped dirt, across 2 narrow planks, and on to the other side. We all clapped and cheered after he made his way across and were not-so-secretly thankful that he had us get out before attempting it (which was probably more likely due to weight than safety concerns!).
We came across 2 more ditches in the next 10 minutes, and he crossed both of those the same way. I tell you, these South American drivers are fearless.
What did we learn?
We learned that Peru is even more beautiful in the remote corners, and there is always a great reward for the tough work of getting somewhere. The people living in the rural areas are generous and kind, and they love that outsiders want to learn more about their country. You will never meet a Peruvian who isn’t proud of his or her country and willing to tell you at least 5 things you can’t miss (most of which are not in the tour books). We learned that immersion in Spanish in a group like this will vastly improve one’s comprehension and communication skills. In fact, our guide asked us to translate for a German couple who spoke some English but no Spanish at several points throughout the trip. (who us? translators?) It was really great to be able to talk with the families who hosted us each evening.
We also relearned the joy the comes from accomplishing a very hard physical feat, both from the beauty and we were able to witness because of the effort and because of the physical limits we were able to surpass.
Last but not least, we met some great people on the trip, including our “niña” Léa from France, who we hope to see again later this year in Argentina.
I’ve left out 1000 details from this trip for the sake of space. Just know that if you go on a trek like this you will be challenged physically and mentally, but you will be rewarded by the scenery, the wildlife, the history, and the shared experiences with other curious people.
Here is a video we took the final day as we walked through Kuelap. It gives you a bit more insight in our own words about this amazing experience. Can’t see the video below? Click here.