Posted by: Jessie Kwak | October 15, 2009

The long road to Chachapoyas

The Lonely Planet guidebook said that taking the back way from Cajamarca to Chachapoyas through Celenín and Leymabamba was “spectacular” and “adventurous.” That sounds like our sort of deal, right?

So there we were in a nice sort of bus, trying not to notice that the tires were in general only inches away from a thousand meter drop.

Don't look down!

Don't look down!

From Celendín we climbed over a pass on a road that was never more than one lane wide, the bus driver honking the horn before every corner. The descent was into a desert wonderland, the road a narrow white ribbon winding through miles of candalabra cactus and arid shrubs, palo verde and spidery agave. The sense of isolation that I had been missing in the rest of the Andes was here in these deep gorges and valleys, where no human had attempted to cultivate these spiny, steep, desert hills.

At the bottom of the valley is a wide meandering river shaded by palm trees. We crossed a bridge and found ourselves in the tiny town of Balsas, where vendors tempted us with mangos and maní (peanuts). We pick up more travelers, and throw open the windows in the humid heat, taking off our jackets. Men outside lift their shirts to bare their bellies. We follow the river for a few kilometers, then climb once more into the desert.

The road is gashed across the hillside, and in some places where the hill has been sliced away to make room the weakened soil and stones spill down the hillside as from a bleeding wound.

Two hours later, nearing 3500 meters, it’s a different world altogether. As we approach yet another pass the signs warn “Area de Neblina” (fog), and it is not hard to imagine this a lush wonderland of mist. Lichens grow on the crude fence posts, ferns sprout from stone walls. The land is shorn by grazing, and moss drips from trees. We pass a potato field, and a schoolhouse painted a brilliant robin’s egg blue.

Misty wonderland.

Misty wonderland.

We descend to Leymabamba, whose roof tiles are black from moisture. We had intended to stay here last night, so I keep my eyes peeled for restaurants and hospedaje signs, of which there are a decent amount. I see a sign for the Museo Leymabamba (about ten minute drive out of town), where I have read there are mummies.

After Leymabamba the road becomes more well-traveled and plagued with gray cattle who move placidly out of our way when the driver blares his horn at them. It follows the river through lush foliage, but on the cliffs above grow cactus and agave. We soon arrive at Chachapoyas with a catalogue of places we intend to explore when we come through this way again. The trip took only 8 hours, but it could just as easily have taken 8 weeks. I hope that next time it will.

Long road.

Long road.




  1. This is fantastically awesome. Every time I read this blog I get jealous.

    • Thanks! I hope we can bring you a little fantasy vicarious travel, as well!

  2. nice country, and you describe it well — made me long to be there again. drove it last year, in the opposite direction, from gocta down to chachapoyas and the coast. see and the posts following it for my account of that trip, pix, a couple of spots you mayhave missed (like karajia).
    my peru slide show is at
    look forward to following your travels vicariously. see you in celendin or seattle some time — my daughter often runs for mayor of seattle, but rarely gets many votes.

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