The other reason (apart from Kuelap) that Chachapoyas won out over the other towns with archaeological sites was that the Sarcophagi of Karajía really captured my imagination. I’d come across them on the Atlas Obscura website that Charlotte put me onto and I just had to visit another site with “big heads” given I’d done so in Egypt and Easter Island.
The day started in the same way as the previous – bundled into a minivan with a bunch of other people (though the majority were international tourists this time) and driving 48km (about 1.5 hours) on one-lane roads with the world’s most careful driver to get to a place where we pre-ordered lunch and picked up gumboots. In addition to visiting the Sarcophagi of Karijía, this tour also took in the Quiocta Cavern – hence the need for the change of shoes!
We actually went to the cavern first (another hour in the van). And while it was certainly a large cave, if you have been in semi-decent caves before (which, judging from the oohs and aahs of my companions, they clearly had not), this really doesn’t compare. It is mostly empty, with only a few displays of fairly worn stalagmites and stalactites, and very sticky mud. In fact, one of the best parts for me was watching the others tentatively pick their way across the floor – why are so many girls (in particular) so tentative and uncoordinated?
The other interesting thing was the human skeletons (all children under 16 years old) found at the entrance to the cave – significance not exactly certain.
There was a bit of chauvinism going on from our guide, Ronald, who handed the lanterns only to the guys in the group (who, by the way were hopeless at pointing them at interesting things to look at), but I have to admit it was nice of him to give the girls a hand across all obstacles … he let the guys fend for themselves 🙂
Spent about an hour in the Cavern, then back to the town for lunch at a decent hour – 1pm. Then back in the van for another hour-long drive in a different direction to get to the Sarcophagi. By this time, I’d struck up a conversation in Spanish with Sebastian, a German guy who lived in England (and had a very English accent actually) and who I was sitting next to in the van. And although it became quickly obvious that English was our easier language – we silently agreed to spend most of the day speaking in Spanish 😉 which also allowed us to bring Ronald and the other guide into our conversation. Interminable hours in a van go much faster when you are chatting about Latin American music and other such things!
We finally arrived at the Sarcophagi (also known as the purunmachu) and had about a 2km walk down a fairly steep hill to actually get to the site. There are only 6 remaining (up until 1970 there were about 60 in this area!) and they are perched quite high up on the cliff so you can’t get too close unfortunately. But they are cool! There are actually 3 women and 3 men here. The men are on the right – if you look closely you can see ochre paint marks over the cream base that resembles a penis and testicles on the males.
These purunmachu stand about 2.5m tall and made of mud, wood and straw, with mummies and offerings inside.
Ronald was explaining that the Chachapoyas culture had 5 different types of Sarcophagi – two of which we could see in this site. The other ones were behind us and were characterized by appearing a little like hunchbacks with their heads below their hunched shoulders.
That was pretty much all there was to the Sarcophagi so after taking a bunch of photos we walked back up the hill, got back in the van and headed back to Chachapoyas. And although it doesn’t sound like much – it was cool and I’m really glad I made the effort to get out and see it!
Recommendation: It is a LOT of time sitting in a van – so maybe not for everyone. I just have a thing for big heads…
Cost: I booked through Amazon Expedition and it cost S/80 (~$25) for transport, guide, entrance fees, gumboot hire and lunch. The whole tour was in Spanish – I have no idea if they offer in English.
Time: ~9 hours