Tag Archives: archaeology

Exploring Persepolis – Iran

For many people, the highlights of Iran (apart from the people) are the mosques and medrassahs and the blue tiles that adorn such buildings.   However, much of this architecture was built after Timur (Tamerlane) cut swathes through the region, and given that he had his capital in Samarkand (Uzbekistan) the most impressive examples are actually found there.   What I’m trying to say is that if you have traveled through Uzbekistan, many of the key sights in Iran are a bit “I’ve seen it all before”.   Sorry, I know that sounds harsh and is a gross generalization – but that was my feeling after wandering around Esfahan for a few days. 

So I was really excited to be travelling several hundred kilometres further south to Persepolis – the capital of the Achaemenid (first Persian) Empire (550-330BC – i.e. well before Timur) – for something completely different.

We arrived at about 2pm, I slathered on sunscreen, and headed out into the 40-degree heat.  I then proceeded to walk around outside for the next 3 hours, turning into a bright red tomato in the process (not sunburn, just hot – remember I’m wearing long pants, long sleeves and a headscarf because I’m a woman in Iran!).  

It was stinking hot! - Persepolis - Iran

But it was totally worth it!  This enormous site is amazing, and more reminiscent of what you would expect to see in Greece or Egypt than anything we’ve seen so far across the Silk Road.

Persepolis - Iran

The complex sits on a raised platform approached by two grand stairways, and consists of several palaces (built by Darius I, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes III), the Gate of all Nations, the Treasury, and various other buildings, all created out of grey limestone.

Gate of All Nations and Temples - Persepolis - Iran

The Gate of All Nations is the top left image, the Treasury is in the top right.

A pair of lamassu, bulls with the heads of bearded men, greet you at the Gate of All Nations at the western threshold to reflect the power of the empire.

Lamassu - Gate of All Nations -Persepolis - Iran

There are columns aplenty, including the decorated stubs of the 72 columns that made up the grand hall of Apadana, the greatest palace at Persepolis.  The 13 columns that remain standing show them to have measured 19m high, with each topped by an animal sculpture.

Columns - Persepolis - Iran

But the highlights of the site really are the bas relief carvings that are found absolutely everywhere.

Bas Relief examples - Persepolis - Iran

This image of a lion mauling a deer is prevalent across the site

Common motif - Persepolis - Iran

As is the Zoroastrian symbol of Fravahar.

Fravahar motif - Persepolis - Iran

But the majority of the carvings tell the story of Persepolis, depicting life and the goings-on there.

Motifs depicting everyday life - Apadana stairway - Persepolis - Iran

The most well-preserved of these are found on the eastern Apadana stairway (which was only unearthed in the 1930s).  I spent ages just sitting exploring the different images of a far distant past.

Motifs depicting everyday life - Apadana stairway - Persepolis - Iran

I also hiked up to the three tombs (one unfinished) that sit above the complex and are thought to be the burial sites of Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III.  Because, you know, you can never get too much sun and heatstroke!

Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III - Persepolis - Iran

I’m not going to go into the history of Persepolis here, as you can read plenty about it online.  Just one small snippet – it was Alexander the Great who destroyed it in 330BC.  But needless to say, it is a fascinating site and definitely worth the visit.  You need at least 4 hours in my opinion, though longer is better (I didn’t even make it inside the museum!)

Vardzia – Georgia

One of the highlights of southern Georgia is Vardzia – an extensive cave monastery (500m long and rising up 19 tiers) that was largely built in the latter part of the 12th century.   We had 2 hours to explore the site so I decided to spring for the $5 for an audio tour and set out to see as much as I could.

Vardzia - Georgia

The audio tour was extensive in the information it provided, however, they needed to do a better job at sign-posting where one should go in the rabbit-warren of stairs and levels in order to reach the next explanation point.   There were several that I couldn’t find, but for those that I did, there was a lot of information which really augmented the experience. 

For example, one of the first places you come across is a 10th century cave church of the Ananauri – a people who occupied the site before the monastery was built.  It just looks like two high arched windows with rocks strewn at their base

cave church of the Ananauri - Vardzia - Georgia

The rocks are there for a reason!

But thanks to the audio tour, I stood on tip-toes on the largest rock to see the paintings inside revealed.

Frescos in the cave church of the Ananauri - Vardzia - Georgia

Similarly, with the refectory, the detail of the audio explained that the monks would sit on the benches against the walls and the inner “bench” that ran parallel on either side was actually the base of a table.  The head monk would be located at the slab in the inner right corner (where the sign now stands) to address the monks.

Refectory - Vardzia - Georgia

Who would have known that this was a winepress and how important viticulture was to the residents of the monastery without some sort of a guide?

Wine press - Vardzia - Georgia

Or knew of the intricate plumbing that was installed at the site?

Plumbing - Vardzia - Georgia

Trust me, it’s worth paying the $5!   The only problem I had was that 2 hours was not long enough!   To comfortably complete the audio tour (and find all the different areas it refers to), I reckon you need probably 4 hours.

The Church of the Dormition is the centerpiece of the monastery (both geographically and in importance), but unfortunately the main hall was locked by the time I got there ☹   It’s walls are apparently richly painted, but fortunately, so too are the walls of the outer entrance to the church.

Church of the Dormition frescos - Vardzia - Georgia

From the church, there was also a defensive tunnel bored into the rockface that rises several levels in the complex.  You can traverse the length of this tunnel and come out somewhere else entirely in the complex – it takes a moment to get your bearings afterwards! 

Tunnel from Church of the Dormition - Vardzia - Georgia

I didn’t manage to find the “Tamar’s Room” (apparently the most opulent room) within the time I had, and there are plenty of other bits and pieces I missed as well.   Mostly, as you are choosing your own adventure through the maze, what you see are the normal living areas that are all laid out similarly.

Normal living areas - Vardzia - Georgia

It’s a very impressive and fascinating site, and definitely worth a visit – but make sure you have plenty of time to explore it properly, and get the audio tour at least!  There is lots to see!

Gobustan Petroglyphs – Azerbaijan

Because you can never see too many petroglyphs (and I don’t say that facetiously – I actually find them fascinating), one of our quick stops in Azerbaijan was to visit the Gobustan petroglyphs.  This National park is home to more than 6,000 rock engravings dating from between 5,000–40,000 years ago – some of which are in an amazing state of preservation!

We arrived at 9am only to discover that the site didn’t open until 10am.  So we decided to boil some water and make a cup of tea while waiting – the advantages of traveling in an overland truck 😊

The site we visited was not particularly large (there are other parts of it that we didn’t manage to get to), but the petroglyphs were fantastic!  They were carved into large boulders that littered the hillside – quite different to the more shale-type of rocks on which the La Silla and Tamgaly petroglyphs are carved.

Gobustan National Park - Azerbaijan

There were lots of very clear human figures

Gobustan Petroglyphs - Azerbaijan

As well as bulls and horses and goats.

Gobustan Petroglyphs - Azerbaijan

It would seem that Azerbaijan was not always as arid as it is today!

Unfortunately, we only had an hour at the site – it would have been great to get to the other areas that our ticket gained us entrance to – but this is one of the challenges of being on an overland trip.  Never enough time to fully explore anything, and the constant need to keep moving.

Konye Urgench – Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is, in a similar fashion to North Korea, a very closed country, which can make it quite difficult to visit.  We needed Letters of Invitation (one of our group was refused this because in his photo he wasn’t clean-shaven and yet didn’t have a full beard … just a 5-day growth) and Visas, both of which, fortunately, were arranged by the company I was traveling with on our behalf. 

This was also evident in the border crossing from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan, which was the longest yet.  9.5 hours in total, though to be fair, at least two of those was because a member of the group had overstayed their Uzbek visa by 2 days and they wouldn’t let her leave the country!  The police ended up coming to get her and she had to fly to Tashkent to buy an exit visa – then, and only then, would they let her leave.  She’ll rejoin us in Baku, Azerbaijan!

For Turkmenistan, it is mandatory to have a local guide, so Nadia met us at the Turkmen border and helped us get through there relatively quickly.  As always, it’s the truck that takes the most amount of time – I can’t imagine how long it would have taken without this assistance!  We then headed a few hours down the road to bush-camp about 5km from Konye Urgench – one of 3 UNESCO listed historical sites in Turkmenistan.

Bush camp near Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

Myself and the other Australians were really struck by the landscape in which we were camping.  We all remarked that it was difficult to tell whether we were in northern Turkmenistan, or north-west Victoria really!

My view at the bush camp near Konye Urgench -Turkmenistan

We entered Konye Urgench as soon as it opened the next morning, and Nadia gave us a guided tour.   This city has been around since at least the 4th Century BC, and was destroyed on at least 2 occasions, by Genghis Khan (in 1221 he burned the city and flooded it), and Tamerlane (in 1373 he razed the city and massacred the population).   These days, most of it remains hidden underground, with just a few structures scattered over a wide, open area.

We started off at the Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum (from the 1300s).

Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum - Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

This structure has an amazing dome of 365 interlocking tiles that make up a “night sky”, as well as 24 pointed arches, 12 bigger arches below that, and four big windows.  Note the numbers here: 365 = days in a year, 12 = months in a year, 4 = weeks in a month, 24 = hours in a day.

Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum - Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

Although nobody is certain who is buried here, it is dedicated to Turabek-Khanym, a Mongolian princess and a patron of women.  For this reason, women in particular, come to leave offerings.

Turabek-Khanum Mausoleum - Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

Minaret of Kutlug Timur

This 60m, now very crooked, tower is from the 11th and 12th centuries, and the highest in Central Asia. It is ringed by eighteen ornamental strips and three belts of inscriptions in Kufi, and used to be crowned with a wooden lantern.

Minaret of Kutlug Timur - Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

Mausoleum of Sultan Tekesh

This is one of the few surviving monuments from the pre-Mongol era and was originally co-located with a Madrassah and Library.  The conical (rather than dome-shaped) roof was typical of the 12th Century.

Mausoleum of Sultan Tekesh - Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

Kyrk Molla (40 mullahs hill)

This low, non-descript hill is actually one of the key pilgrimage sites in Konye Urgench, where women roll down the hill to promote fertility.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see anyone doing this, but I do love one of the legends for how it got its name.  This legend posits that the site used to be a Madrassah, and when the Mongol horde descended, the 40 scholars who lived there prayed that it would be spared.  To achieve this end, the Madrassah turned itself upside down, and the scholarly works are now buried beneath the hill awaiting discovery.

Kyrk Molla (40 mullahs hill) - Konye Urgench-Turkmenistan

This picture also shows that the site has also been used as a more general cemetary.

There are several other structures in this very spread-out site, and you really do need a guided tour to understand what you are looking at and its significance.  Definitely worth a visit if you happen to find yourself at the northern edge of the Karakum (Black Sand) Desert.

Tamgaly Petroglyphs – Kazakhstan

First day on the overland truck started with a quick overview of the truck itself, where everything goes and how everything works.   Then it was loads of photos with the owners of the hostel and off down the tiny backstreets of Almaty in our humungous beast!

Madventures crew with our truck

Took forever to get out of Almaty, and then several hours to drive the 120km to the Tamgaly Petroglyphs – Kazakhstan’s roads are shockers!   We turned off a very bad paved road where the sign indicated, and headed down a very bad dirt road.  Which then deteriorated further into a very bad dirt track…  

on the way to Tamgaly petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Are we absolutely certain this is the way to this major tourist site?

When we finally found the petroglyphs site – it turned out that we had come in the back way!

Madventures truck at Tamgaly Petroglyphs -Kazakhstan

Ah, no. This would be the back way. Oops.

Tamgaly is a UNESCO Heritage listed site consisting of around 5000 petroglyphs, many of which depict hunting scenes, animals and people.

Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Animal Petroglyphs

Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Hunting scenes

While others describe “sun-head” deities with a halo consisting of a circle, and many rays and points.  These are unlike anything I’ve seen before (very different to the petroglyphs at La Silla Observatory) and very cool.

“Sun-head” deities - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

“Sun-head” deities are very distinctive human figures with circular “halos”. There are 4 of them in this image, 2 on the rock on the left and 2 on the darker rock on the right, along with many dancers.

There is even one riding a bull!

“Sun-head” deities - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

The petroglyphs date from the Bronze Age (13th/14th Century) through to the 20th Century, with the earliest carvings also being the largest and the most deeply drawn – most likely with stone or metal tools.

Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

And while the petroglyphs were the highlight, there were also a burial ground consisting of stone cysts and boxes with adults and children buried on their left sides with their heads facing west.

Burial Site - Tamgaly petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Unfortunately, we only had an hour to explore the site – I reckon 2hrs minimum for the main site would have been better.   But because it had taken us so long to get there, we had to push on for our bush camp near the Kyrgyzstan border.

We managed to get a couple of kilometres up a different road (recommended to us by the park ranger) when disaster struck, and we became seriously and hopelessly bogged.

stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Stuck in the mud

As the time for our extraction lengthened, our tour leader set out for the main entrance to the petroglyphs to enlist the assistance of the park ranger.  Unfortunately, he’d already packed up for the day and gone home.  So we then they tried the locals at a farm we had passed on our way in.   Apparently they weren’t exactly enthusiastic about helping, but once they were shown the photos of our predicament, they agreed to drive their tractor and try to help pull us out.

Stuck in the mud - Tamgaly Petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Totally stuck in the mud – and, unfortunately the tractor didn’t help.

But the big beast was not budging!   After about 15 minutes of trying and what seemed like almost succeeding getting us out, they signaled that they had to go, and took their tractor and left us still stuck in the mud.   Given none of us speak Kazakh or Russian, it is unclear whether they were going to come back in the morning or not… Hmmmmm…

Unexpected dinner at Tamgaly petroglyphs - Kazakhstan

Unexpected dinner at Tamgaly Petroglyphs. Good thing we were meant to be bush camping further along the road, so were equipped with supplies!

So we resigned ourselves to camping where we were for the night.  Luckily we were ready for a bush camp, so we set up the tents, cooked dinner and retired for the evening just as the rain started. 

Welcome to Overlanding!


BTW – this link has more information on the petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs – La Silla Observatory

Much closer than Cerro Vizcachas, in fact just below the road where it passes below the 3.6m telescope, are the rock engravings, or petroglyphs, of La Silla.   I visited these a couple of times when I first arrived at La Silla about 15 years ago, but haven’t been back since.   

Given I was wandering around the mountain anyway, I decided to pay them another visit, and was very happy to find out that there is actually a bit of a map to help find them these days.

La Silla Petroglyphs Map

Map courtesy of Stefano Berta

Previously I was only aware of, and had therefore only visited, those marked ‘A’ in the map so was keen to see if I could find some of the others.  

According to researchers, there are 2 main types of petroglyph at La Silla – abstract designs (mostly repeated geometrical designs) and figurative drawings depicting human outlines and animals in stick-figure format.   Those at site ‘A’ tend to be mostly abstract designs and there are lots and lots of them clustered together in this site.

Site 'A' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

These are located directly below the 3.6m telescope and only about 100m from the road to Vizcachas.  Be careful – it’s very steep and rocky!

Group A petroglyphs with 3.6m telescope in the background - La Silla Observatory - Chile

From there, I found a couple of petroglyphs only at site ‘B’ and so headed over to site ‘C’ to discover drawings that started to look a little more figurative.

Site 'C' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Including this amazing example – one of my favourites. 

Site 'C' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

According to the ESO website linked above: “The delicate central spiral symbolizes a serpent while the rest of the space is taken up by strange little figures, together with some simple geometric motifs and quadrupeds“.

View from Site 'C' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Site ‘D’ was actually my favourite and had many more figurative drawings than what I’d seen elsewhere – particularly of quadrupeds!  The image at bottom-right has the most animals of any stone on the entire site.

Site 'D' petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

From there I wandered over to Site ‘E’ … I think!  Not entirely clear that I’d arrived at the right place, but again, more cool petroglyphs along the way.   Basically you just look for decent-sized rocks and go check it out.

Site 'E' (I think) petroglyphs looking back towards the 3.6m telescope - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Had a great time scrambling over the mountainside searching for the petroglyphs and am thankful for the map as it did help guide me.  Of course, the site has had a complete photographic and topographic survey (in spanish) of the engravings done on it (back in 1990), but it is still fun as you stumble across each one for yourself.

BTW – unfortunately there is now a 3rd type of “modern” petroglyph as well 🙁  Disappointing to see.

"modern" petroglyphs - La Silla Observatory - Chile

Sarcophagi of Karajía & Quiocta Cavern – Chachapoyas, Peru

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?

Quiocta Cavern - Chachapoyas, Peru

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.

Quiocta Cavern - Chachapoyas, Peru

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.

Sarcophagi de Karijia - Chachapoyas, Peru

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.

Sarcophagi de Karijia - Chachapoyas, Peru

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

Kuelap – Chachapoyas, Peru

Chachapoyas is a long way from anywhere in Peru but, if one looks at it a certain way, it is on the way to Tarapoto where I was headed to do the Vegetarian Cooking and Yoga retreat.  I decided to head here (as opposed to Cajamarca or Chiclayo which were my other options) because of some cool-looking pre-Incan archaeological sites, even though it meant an 8-hour overnight bus from Huaraz to Trujillo, 10 hours waiting in the bus station in Trujillo, and then another 10 hour overnight bus from Trujillo to Chachapoyas – I guess at least I saved money on accommodation!

Chachapoyas itself is actually quite lovely – if you can ignore the fact that they have dug up all the roads at once, even though they only seem to be working on a single block.  The buildings in the centre are in great shape and beautifully whitewashed, there is a pedestrian street that is filled with people every night and a lovely central square.    There’s also some great food to be had!


I only had 2 days in Chachapoyas, so the first day I headed out to the main architectural site – Kuelap – one of the largest and most important sites for the Chachapoyas people (the “Warriors of the Cloud”) who existed well before the Incas.  The site itself dates from about the 6th century AD through to the arrival of the Spanish in the mid-16th century, and although it was rediscovered in 1843, it was not investigated archaeologically until 1997.

So at 8:30am I was bundled into a minivan with a bunch of other people (all locals – it’s a good thing I speak Spanish!) and off we headed on the very, very slow journey to the site.    Kuelap is only ~70km from Chachapoyas, but it took us 2.5 hours to get there!   Admitted the road was essentially single-lane for a lot of it, but I do think we had the slowest and most careful driver in the world as an added bonus.

Our first glimpse of Chachapoyas construction came at the 1-hour mark when we pulled off the side of the road for a view across the Utcubamba river to Macro – a site used for agriculture and burials.

Macro - Chachapoyas, Peru

Then it was onward to a town where we pre-ordered lunch and I got my first experience of how frustrating this day would be.  We were stopped there for almost an hour because some of my fellow companions had bought a Mate de Coca and weren’t allowed to drink it in the van.  We had to wait for them to finish – but they certainly took their time about it!

Then it was another hour up to the visitors centre where we bought entrance tickets.   Another whole bunch of pfaffing before we started the 2km walk up to the site itself.   Oh my God!   They all walked soooooooo slowly!     OK – so admittedly I’d just finished trekking for 10 days at altitude and so was in good shape – but still.    As the guide, Ivan, joked with me – they were like tortoises.  I suggested that they were more like mostly-dead tortoises…

Kuelap - Chachapoyas, Peru

We eventually made it to the site and Ivan did a really great job of explaining what we were seeing – it was a great tour once we got there, and for the first time ever – I wasn’t the only one asking questions 🙂

Kuelap - Southern Sector - Chachapoyas, Peru

Essentially the best guess at the minute is that Kuelap was a military fort and a ceremonial centre with about 3000 people living there.  It is built on 3 levels with the uppermost level, obviously being for the most important people – the “retaining wall” that supports the upper level is considered the best construction work done by the Chachapoyans, though there are lots of very long, very tall and very thick walls that feature at the site (some walls are 80cm thick and reach up to 20m in height).

Kuelap walls - Chachapoyas, Peru

There are 3 entrances to the city – unfortunately the main entrance is closed because it is unstable, so we entered through what they think was the “common people” and animals entrance.  There are even llama imprints in the stone!   The entrances were constructed so they were wide enough to admit several people initially, but narrowed to only admit one person to the city in the end – an example of the strategic design of the city.

Kuelap entrance - Chachapoyas, Peru

The entrances to Kuelap start off wide enough for several people (top of right hand image) but narrow to sharply to only admit one person at a time to the city (bottom of right image).

Chachapoyan architecture is very, very different to that of the Incas – the site is composed of 460 circular structures and only 5 rectangular ones (these latter were constructed when the Incas came and conquered the Chachapoyans).  Each of these round dwellings had walls about 4-5m high and housed 5-6 people – the replica in the image below was created about 17 years ago.   The irony is that the wooden supports etc are not part of the design – they are there to support the structure which is crumbling after only this short amount of time.   Yet the Chachapoyan walls have stood for over two thousand years…

Kuelap, Chachapoyas, Peru

Inside these dwellings you can see niches in the walls for placing important items, cooking stones and even a “guinea pig run” (the long covering of stones) where they bred and kept guinea pigs for eating.  Some also had a central “well” that they used initially as a food store (kind of like a refrigerator) but also to place the bones of their deceased.

Inside Kuelap building - Chachapoyas, Peru

On the outside of some of the dwellings, those occupied by the religious leaders, there was stonework that depicted the eyes of the Gods, in particular the eye of the Condor (left) and the eye of the Puma (right; note the vertical in the middle of the diamond – like a cat’s eye).  They also had “eaves” of stone to protect the foundations from the rain (seen above the pattern on the right).

Outside detail Kuelap building - Chachapoyas, Peru

One of the most important structures in the site is at the southern end – the Templo Mayor (Main Temple).  It is a solid stone construction (5m high and 13.5m in diameter at the top) in the form of a truncated and inverted cone with a narrow inner, bottle-shaped cavity.  It is believed that this was a religious construction (especially given the existence of the face of a deity – the only one in the site outside of the primary entrance) and evidence has been found for human burials and other rituals.

Templo Mayor (Main Temple) - Kuelap - Chachapoyas, Peru

Another important structure was located at the northern end of the site in the highest part of the city – the Torreón.  7m high, they believe it wasn’t used for military purposes, but rather rituals, even though slingshot projectiles were found near the structure.  There are also amazing views from here 🙂

Torreon - Kuelap - Chachapoyas, Peru

We also visited the structures built during the Inca times which included a rock “compass” marking the cardinal points and a couple of structures that housed human bones. In one of them, several human skulls with holes drilled in them were found … lobotomies anyone?

Inca part of Kuelap - Chachapoyas, Peru

Left: Incan compass. Right: human remains.

We finished the tour of the site at about 2:30pm, it took 45 minutes to walk (slowly) back to the visitors centre and another 45 minutes to drive back to the town where we had pre-ordered our meal.  “Lunch” turned out to be whatever you call the meal that is a combination of lunch and dinner (linner?) at 4pm – fried trout never tasted sooooo good!    Then another 1.5 hours back to Chachapoyas and the end of the tour.


Recommendation:  The Lonely Planet and various other websites make the claim that Kuelap rivals Machu Picchu.   That is a very big stretch!   While Kuelap is impressive and very interesting, it is not in the same league as Machu Picchu I’m afraid and nowhere near as big (though apparently it is one of the largest stone structures in the new world).

The advantage that Kuelap has is that it doesn’t get anywhere near the number of visitors of Machu Picchu – and almost everyone there when I visited was from Peru (apparently 70% national tourism, 30% foreign tourism at the minute according to my guide).

This might change soon though as they are building a teleférico to the site from the closest town – which will cut the trip from Chachapoyas down to only about an hour.   The teleférico is meant to open in November, though they seem to have quite a way to go from what I can see.  And is it OK that the towers are not perpendicular to the ground??    I’m also not sure how they are going to repay the $80M it cost to build!   The story is that they are limiting the number of visitors to Kuelap to 200/day to protect the site, and, at least for the first 3 months of operation, the teleférico will only cost S/20 (about $6) for the 20-minute ride to the site.

Cost:  I booked through Amazon Expedition for a cost of S/70 ($20), which included transport, entrance fees, guide and “linner”.   The whole tour was in Spanish – I have no idea if they offer in English.

Time: About 10 hours

Joya de Cerén Archaeological Ruins

If you’ve spent any time at all in Guatemala or Honduras, you will have seen at least one (and probably several) Mayan ruins.   Tikal in particular is incredible (at least that’s what my memory from 16 years ago tells me), but I have also visited Copán in Honduras, as well as several other lesser-known sites.   All of them are important ceremonial sites that show the elite side of life, rather than how your average, run-of-the-mill Mayan lived.

El Salvador also has quite a few Mayan sites, but they tend not to be as impressive as the more famous locations.   And lets face it, you do get a bit ruin-ed out after a while – just like you get a bit church-ed out or museum-ed out in other parts of the world.

So I had been planning to skip all ruins on this trip through Central America, but was invited by Ian and Erika (a couple who were also staying at the Casa Verde and going overland for a bit as part of their most recent sailing adventure) to accompany them and the driver they’d hired for a day trip to some of the key sights around Santa Ana.   How could I say no?  Our first stop – the ruins of Joya de Cerén.

The good thing is that these ruins are not like all the others!  Joya de Cerén is sometimes known as the “Pompei of the Americas” because it is a pristine site that was suddenly buried under 4-8 metres of volcanic ash when the nearby Volcán Caldera erupted in about the year 590.  Its other unique feature is that it is not a ceremonial site, but rather a simple farming village that shows how ordinary Mayan people lived.  It seems as if the people of the village had time to escape the eruption as no bodies have ever been found, but the items left behind show that they left in a big hurry.

After looking through the museum, we joined one of the free tours of the ruins and I got to practice my Spanish interpretation skills.   Our first stop was “Structure 4” – the building that the tractor sliced through leading to the discovery of the ruins in 1976.  The holes in the wall are actually nests for the Guardabarranco – and there are heaps of them flying around in this area!

Joya de Cerén archaeological site

The next building, “Structure 3” (yes, they are imaginatively named), is thought to be a communal place where the village leaders gathered.  In the doorway you can clearly see some of the 14 layers of ash that fell on the village when the volcano erupted.

Joya de Cerén archaeological site

Then there was the sauna!  The domed roof is partially collapsed but you can clearly see the thermostat above the entrance (the round thing).  This was a wooden plug that was kept suspended by the steam within the sauna.  When the wooden plug dropped, they knew they needed more steam and would have to put more hot rocks into the sauna.

Joya de Cerén archaeological site

They have created a replica sauna at the site and we crawled in to see what it was like.  The door is purposefully small and low to keep the heat in, and the steam is produced by pouring water over hot rocks that are placed in the domed pit in the centre.  It’s actually much bigger than it appears from outside and surprisingly comfortable even though you are sitting on stone benches.

Joya de Cerén archaeological site

The next building was that of the Shaman (medicine person), who may have actually been a woman.  It is one of the most decorated buildings in the complex and the stones slotted into the front of the building may have been benches used for people waiting to see the Shaman.

Joya de Cerén archaeological site

And finally, my favourite, a really interesting look at a typical home for a family featuring 3 distinct buildings.  The closest (round) one is the kitchen complete with a fireplace (the three stones), the one in the middle is the storeroom and the one over the back is the living area (the raised platform is the bed).   Over on the lower left you can even see part of the family’s cultivation area.  Each family home in the village was composed of these three parts, and each family looked after one of the important community buildings.  In this case, given the proximity to the place of the Shaman, the family probably looked after the Shaman’s building.

Joya de Cerén archaeological site

The tour was fascinating and lasted for about an hour – highly recommended if you can understand a bit of Spanish.   The ruins themselves are displayed really well, protected by very large structures that don’t impinge on what you are there to see and with basic information at each structure in English and Spanish.  The modern, on-site museum is air-conditioned (if you’ve spent any time in Central America during summer, you’ll know why this gets a special mention!) and houses artifacts found during the excavation with explanations in English and Spanish. And then there are the beautiful gardens in which the whole thing is set.   Really, really enjoyed this site!


Recommendation:  If you want to see how the other half lived in Mayan times, this is a must.  If you’ve visited one (or more) ceremonial Mayan sites, it is also definitely worth a visit and really very different.   Probably easier to visit from San Salvador than Santa Ana though.

Time Required:  About 1.5 hours, depending on how long you spend in the museum and enjoying the gardens/cafe.  The tour is about 45 minutes.

Cost:  Entrance is US$3 for foreigners.