The Lost Cities of the Cloud People

Sacrophagi_of KarajiaPhoto:
Photo: Cecilia Bermudez

The figures balance aloft on the ledge of a cliff, their gaze fixed where the first rays of the rising sun will appear, waiting for a new day to dawn. Known by the name Warriors of the Clouds, the Chachapoyas were an ancient Andean people who inhabited the mist-swathed rainforests of what is now northern Peru. They were wiped out some five hundred years ago, and looking out over the vast Utcubamba Valley, these figures stand as remnants of their once great civilisation.

Watching, waiting: Ancient Chachapoyas figures at Karijia
Photo: Cecilia Bermudez

In the remote mountainous Amazonas region of present-day Peru, various relics stand as testimony to the Chachapoyas and what they achieved. The scene just described is the site of Karijia, where six full-size sarcophagi preside over the surrounding territory, and have done for almost a millennium. Made of clay and plant matter, the masked coffins contain the mummified remains of Chachapoya elite. How they were placed in such an inaccessible position, no one knows for certain.

Ancient wise men: Skulls seem to have been part of the decoration too
Photo: Médéric

Much about the Cloud People is shrouded in mystery. As recently as 2008, a lost Chachapoya city was discovered in the isolated Amazon rainforest during an archaeological expedition to Peru’s Jamalca district, about five hundred miles north-east of Lima. The fortified citadel was found to contain the walls of buildings and rock paintings, and perched on the edge of a chasm – literally carved into the Andes – it may have been used by the Cloud People to keep a lookout for enemies.

Cloud People country: The climb to the Kuelap citadel midst misty mountains
Photo: 10b travelling

Little is known about the Chachapoyas as they left no written records, but it appears their culture began to prosper in the 9th century, when their towering cities were developed, possibly as defensive measures against invading Huaris. However, five hundred years on, their fortunes faltered with the spread of the Inca Empire. Despite fierce resistance, the Cloud People were conquered by the Incas, and were by turns rebelling and being suppressed when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1535.

Peaceful scene: Yet the Chachapoyas were in violent conflict with the Incas
Photo: 10b travelling

The Chachapoyas sided with the Spanish in their fight with the Incas, but European diseases such as smallpox obliterated their population under their new rulers. The Chronicler Pedro Cieza de León wrote that the Chachapoyas were “the whitest and most handsome of all the people that I have seen in Indies, and their wives were so beautiful that because of their gentleness, many of them deserved to be the Incas’ wives…” – words that have led to much myth about their strangely fair complexions.

Celebrated cream and white painted structures: Funerary site at Revash
Photo via Club Amazonas

As well as the standing clay figures like those at Karijia, the Cloud People were also entombed in chullas, brightly painted cliff side crypts with gabled roofs, notably found at the site of Revash. Yet the most impressive construction the Chachapoyas left behind is undoubtedly Kuelap, a monumental fortress 9500 feet above sea level. Protected by massive stone exterior walls, a sheer drop on one side, and dense surrounding forest, Kuelap must have taken some conquering.

Difficult to scale: The ruins of the Kuelap citadel, its walls some 66 feet high
Photo: Cecilia Bermudez

Containing more than four hundred buildings, Kuelap was a major settlement for its times and may have housed as many as 3500 inhabitants at its peak. Comparable in scale to the famed Inca retreat of Machu Picchu, this 1000-year-old complex shows what the Chachapoyas were capable of. Who knows what else lies waiting to be uncovered deep in the Andean Amazon? Doubtless more secrets of the Cloud People are waiting to be unlocked.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4