Monday 10 August

We draw into Chachapoyas at four thirty in the morning, which is an hour earlier than I had calculated. We’re both utterly exhausted from lack of sleep but we are met immediately by our taxi driver. Retrieving bags from the bus takes a long time – neither of us is with it enough to fight to the front of the scrum. Our taxi driver, who has been waiting for us, hands us a note of welcome from Tina Motley, our tour organiser from Chachapoyas Tours.

We spend twenty minutes at the hotel pulling out kit for the trek before crashing into bed for a few hours sleep.

We’re up again at eight for a quick shower, final packing, and then a rather disappointing breakfast with very dry bread.

We are picked up at nine and Tina is here to greet us. Our guide is Alicia; Judy is our cook, and Elde our driver (the same driver as yesterday). We are the only two on the trek – the other couple who were due to take part we hear have had to postpone their trip.

Steep descent to the sarcophaguses

It is a two hour drive, latterly along a very bumpy track to Karajia, from where we walk twenty minutes down a steep path halfway into the valley. From there we follow a well-made ‘tourist path’ around a corner.

It takes me a few moments to see the sarcophagus perched high above us in the cliff face. Alicia does not initially point them out but begins with a bit of history.

They are a group of six figures, tall bodies and long angular faces, some painted red, perched on a quite inaccessible ledge. Bodies were originally placed inside in a foetal position. Much has been lost to looters and a few years ago one spontaneously fell down.

Although these are the most prominent, there are other tombs also set into the cliff and Alicia points them out to us one by one. The biggest mystery is how the people of the time managed to construct them in such inaccessible places.

(magnify) Sarcophaguses at Karajia
(magnify) Six sarcophaguses
(magnify) Inaccessible on the cliff face
(magnify) Painted sarcophagus

The climb back up to the car is hard work and we go slowly. We drive on along increasingly deteriorating roads, coming into cloud forest. Our progress is slowed slightly when we catch up with a lorry bumping along ahead of us. I am amazed to see it on this deeply rutted track – we are in a four by four – and hope that it does not get stuck and block our way.

(magnify) Red track to Belen

We finally stop at a place where the road is following the top of a ridge and has widened a little. The mules are here waiting for us, along with their handlers Nelson and his father Andreas.

Alicia offers us a mule each to ride, but we prefer to walk. The way descends through cloud forest on a path of crumbly red earth with occasional patches of yellow. After a while the view opens out onto a flat green valley with a widely meandering river cris-crossing it. Alicia informs us that we will be making our camp down there.

Belen Valley

We reach the valley quickly and now we have to ride our mules because we are fording the river. Though apprehensive (I do not get on well with horses) I find mine is very easy to ride – though a bit of a dawdler.

(magnify) Crossing the river by mule
The campsite

The tents are an interesting affair. All three are different and the first two are definitely fair weather tents with very insubstantial fly sheets that do not cover the ends, and ground sheets that do not come up off the ground at the edges. We shall have to hope that there is no heavy rain. A pole that supports the porch end of one of the tents is missing but Nelson improvises something out of a piece of wood for us.

The sky is clearing as it becomes dark. The stars will be out soon. We congregate in a smokey hut where Judy our cook is preparing food over a wood fire. There is consternation because someone has forgotten to bring any sugar for the coffee. Nelson sets off on a quest for some, and returns some time later, having procured a large polythene bagful from I do not know where. Alicia breathes a sigh of relief and piles four spoonfuls into her coffee.

Dinner begins with soup, followed by spagetti with a tomato sauce and meat. We retire to bed soon after, but not before taking a good look at the stars, which are wonderfully bright and twinkly in the clear unpolluted sky.