Mausoleums, mountains and mummies: searching for cloud warriors in Peru's Amazonas region

In northern Peru’s Amazonas region, the Chachapoya ‘cloud warriors’ honoured their dead with villages of chullpas, multi-storey mausoleums built high up in the mountains.

By Nicola Trup
Published 30 Aug 2019, 12:15 BST, Updated 7 Jun 2021, 12:14 BST
Decoration on a  mausoleum, Revash.
Decoration on a mausoleum, Revash.
Photograph by Getty Images

Along the cliff, the sheer rock face is interrupted by a row of what look like Wendy houses. They’re uncanny with their pitched roofs and multiple storeys, not quite big enough for grown-ups. On their walls, daubed in red, are strange creatures with long limbs, and symbols whose meanings are long forgotten.

In northern Peru’s Amazonas region, the Chachapoya (loosely translating as ‘cloud warriors’) revered their dead, and hundreds of villages of chullpas (mausoleums) like these were built in the mountains to house those who’d been loved and lost. But the mummies once interred here at Revash — and the treasures that accompanied them — are gone; destroyed by nature, removed for preservation or pillaged by looters.

My guide, Ronald, tells me that until recently, visitors could walk right up to the precarious 14th-century mausoleums, but safety concerns have put paid to that. Instead, we’re admiring them from a wooden platform built just for this purpose. The wet mist that swamped the landscape during our hike up here has lifted, revealing the lush cloud forest of the northern Andes. A vulture swoops overhead as little green parrots chatter loudly in a nearby tree.

Ronald gestures to the ‘funeral mansions’, with their decorations painted on in ochre. There are circles, the significance of which is unknown, and what look like plus-signs, which Ronald explains are ‘Andean crosses’. “The horizontal line is where we live, below is where we go when we die, and above is the land of the gods,” he tells me.

Some of the painted animals are spotted cats, once common around here, but, says Ronald: “We also know the Chachapoya would paint animals that didn’t really exist. They’d combine different parts from different animals.”

Ruins of graves, Revash, Yerbabuena, Amazonas region.
Photograph by Getty Images

After the Inca conquered this area in the 16th century, just before the arrival of the Conquistadors, many Chachapoya were forced to relocate, leaving behind their chullpas and what was contained inside. And while some mausoleums continued to be used during the colonial period, by the time Revash was excavated in 1948, little was left, save for a few mummies.

To get a better idea of what would once have been inside the tombs, we drive an hour south to the Leymebamba Museum. The community-run institution covers both Chachopoya and Inca cultures, and its most prized exhibits were recovered in 1997 from Llaqtacocha, a complex of chullpas at nearby Condor Lake. The site went untouched for 500 years, until local farmers started taking an interest, and eventually what was left was removed for preservation.

We walk through rooms filled with artefacts, including clothing, ceramics and quipu — knotted strings used by the Inca for calculating taxes — spread out like angel wings. It’s late afternoon and the light’s fading, so as we enter the final room, Ronald hits a switch. Illuminated, behind a pane of glass in a temperature-controlled room, a row of faces stare back at us, hands up to their bony cheeks, mouths agape.

“They’d bury them in the foetal position,” Ronald says, gesturing to the crouching mummies. Some still have skin and hair, and I’m almost certain one has eyeballs. Behind are others that have been left inside their bundles: snug sacks with faces sewn on. Outside, meanwhile, are replicas of the sarcophagi some mummies were kept in — colourful wooden boxes that look like oversized bowling pins, which must have been extremely heavy to lug into the mountains. But then, if I’ve learnt anything, it’s that the Chachapoya were dedicated to their dead. And while these mummies have been brought down to earth, the chullpas built to celebrate them are still standing, up in the clouds. 

How to do it: Rainbow Tours can tailor-make a two-week trip to Peru from £3,895 per person, with stops including Lima, Kuelap and Revash as well as the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain. Includes international flights, B&B, transfers and excursions.

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