Posted by: Jessie Kwak | October 9, 2009

Cumbe Mayo, Cajamarca

Yesterday we went to Cumbe Mayo. We elected to go via a private tour rather than a group tour—more expensive, but I think a way better experience in the end. We left at 7am sharp, just the two of us and our fantastic guide Antonio.

Antonio was an older man, a retired high school history and geography teacher who has worked for 30 years as a guide around Cajamarca. His passion for the place is infectious: he knows every square inch, every foot path, every petroglyph. He began picking up garbage along the trail the moment we set foot on it, and by the time we returned he had a plastic sack full of Inca Kola bottles and candy wrappers. He seemed genuinely sad and angry that these people exist who would come to visit a place for reason of its beauty, then carelessly toss their water bottle aside while they admire the view.

Cajamarca Valley, as seen from the Bellavista viewpoint

Cajamarca Valley, as seen from the Bellavista viewpoint

Cumbe Mayo was a 50-minute drive on unpaved roads through remote villages. Antonio named them for us as we passed, pointing out the remains of the old Inca road that led from Cajamarca to the sea. It looked strangely out of place among the stacks of electric poles waiting to be put up, part of a government project to bring electricity to the remote villages of the area. Antonio said that he often leads treks to Cumbe Mayo that follow this Inca road, climbing up through the hills to the stone forest, where they sleep among the ancient waterworks and sanctuaries of the Cajamarca culture.

The Cajamarca lived here 1000+ BC, and in this arid land they worshipped the water that brought life. The hills are made of porous volcanic rock which stores water in the rainy season, meting it out in the dry so that water always flows in the channels that the ancients—and their modern-day descendents—cut into the stone. The Cajamarca constructed 20 km of aqueducts and channels to bring water from Cumbe Mayo to the Cajamarca Valley, all cut with precision from solid stone or built skillfully out of stone blocks.

The Cumbe Mayo area is the Third Wonder of Peru—a combination of its impressive aqueducts and the stone forest that contains them. Driving up, our first sight of the “bosque de piedras” is traditional mud-brick homes tucked into the towering columns, and sheep grazing at their bases.

The Castle

The Castle

Rounding a corner we came upon “the Castle,” a hill whose top was crowned with standing stones, eroded and fractured by wind and rain. Some of the stones are higher than 20 meters tall, and over the centuries they have taken on whimsical forms: seahorses, elephants, lizards. Many of them look like hands with their fingers thrust toward the sky; some seem clasped together in prayer.

There are few native trees that grow up this high, and so the stones stand out, towering above the grassy hills and canyons. The campesinos have been planting non-native pines, however, and the trees march in meticulous rows over the hillsides. I wonder what Cumbe Mayo will look like in fifteen years when the pines rise up to block the view, and I note with relief that they’ve only been planted in a few acres just east of the stone forest we are hiking into.

Antonio takes us on a longer route than normal because it’s just the two of us. His passion for the area is evident in the way he points out plants and their uses, the way he cautions us where to step in order to best preserve the ruins. “Aqui vimos petroglyfos del Ultimo Inca,” he says, pointing to some graffiti that mars the sanctuary. “El Incapaz.” (Here we can see petroglyphs from the Last Inca, the Incapaz [idiot]). He points out places where tourists who have come without guides have contributed to the erosion of precious ancient places.

Antonio led us past two different sanctuaries whose floors were carved with astronomical charts, constellations, maps. Time has faded most of these petroglyphs, but you can still make them out, jotted onto the stone like notes in a notebook.

A sanctuary for the Cajamarca water cult

A sanctuary for the Cajamarca water cult

He led us up a precariously high vista where we picked our way through what Rob started referring to as “cactus mines,” little cactus the size of a nerf ball, bristling with thorns. A few were in bloom—not the waxy blossoms that I had expected, but a single delicate red flower thrust out like a trumpet among the spines.

In the valley below our vista point, Antonio showed us the aqueducts. Cumbe Mayo comes from the Quechua, and means “thin rivers.” This refers to the channel, never more than 70 cm wide, which the Cajamarca people had cut to bring water. In some places they run perfectly straight for 20 meters, in some places a series of zigzags cuts the force of the current to prevent erosion. In one place a hole had been bored through a massive fallen stone. In no place were the walls any less that perfectly square.

Cumb Mayo aqueducts

Cumb Mayo aqueducts

We left Antonio waiting for his next tour group, but we met up with him later at the tour agency he works for, VIP Tours. He told us that he is in the process of starting his own tour company, Santamaría Tours, which he hopes to have running by next summer. If you’re in Cajamarca we’d highly recommend calling Antonio Santamaría at (076) 364249, or looking for him at VIP Tours on the Plaza de Armas.

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  1. […] (Cajamarca Department): A pretty Spanish colonial town set amid gorgeous mountains, ingenious ancient aqueducts, and Inca hot springs, Cajamarca is renowned for its carnival celebrations. It’s also the place […]


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