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DE LOS CONDORES LAGOON
AND ITS MUMMIES

Leimebamba, a small, cozy colonial town of 5,550 inhabitants with a pleasant climate, on the eastern bank of the Maraņon river (Amazonas Region) at 2,203 meters above sea level, gained worldwide fame in 1997, wowing the world scientific community with the report of the discovery of 280 perfectly preserved mummies within individual mortuary chambers carved from the mountain rock, together with a large collection of funereal items and offerings.

This find of a large number of mummies and their mortuary gear was made in June 1997 in the nearby mountains, at a distance of a day and a half on foot or horseback. The items, when brought back and exhibited on the tables and benches of the Municipal District of Leimebamba, constituted the finest collection of Chachapoyas, Chimu and Inca items ever displayed.

At that time, initial expectations were highly encouraging. Anyone would have been impressed with even a perfunctory inventory of the objects, including an enormous and perfectly preserved red and blue blanket, dozens of earthenware vessels without a chip, wooden items including jugs, decorated ceramics, an engraved container for apparently ritual use, and several mystifying and thought-provoking quipus (knotted communication ropes).

Confirming the theory that the Chimu had merged with the local tribe, some objects showed clear Chimu influence, while others showed influence from other tribes, some were typically Inca and, to the great surprise of many experts, one of the pots was clearly colonial. Some of the pots seemed to belong to the Chimu culture, conquered by the Incas, some of the masks and wooden scepters seemed more in the Chachapoya style, common in the area before the Inca conquest, and one of the pots showed clear signs of Spanish Colonial influence. Four shrouded mummies, well wrapped in simple cream colored cotton, lay on the floor. These showed no signs of deterioration either.

One day in August 2002 we stopped at Leimebamba to spend the night and have a meal, after a nine-hour trip from Celendin, planning to continue our trip to Tingo on the following day, and from there climb up to Kuelap; sitting at a long table in a small local restaurant, we heard a fellow diner at a neighboring table remark how interesting it would be to go back in time and live among the Chachapoyas, walk through the dominions of the Sachapuya nation and learn the secrets of their culture; we were immediately attracted by this remark, and launched into a spirited conversation in which we made plans to jointly visit the De los Condores Lagoon, discussing the necessary preparations; by this time, we were all so tired that we decided to turn in and make the final arrangements on the following day. We had found a small inn, providing basic services including bed and breakfast, so we bade each other goodnight, looking forward to making a detour from our itinerary that promised adventure.

We were up by the crack of dawn on the following morning, eagerly discussing provisions and how to find a reliable guide, while we consumed a hot and nourishing breakfast. Finally, at 10 a.m. we set out to make firm arrangements to visit the area; the most important thing was to locate a guide who knew the itinerary well and could advise us from the start. Although we had plenty of experience exploring, the terrain was new to us here, and we had heard that it was quite rough. However, we were lucky enough to contact Fernando Rivas, a well-known local guide, who proved to be knowledgeable, friendly and likeable. We trusted him at first sight. He had made several trips to De los Condores Lagoon, and gave us details on the route we should take. Our expedition numbered six, including the four of us, our guide and his assistant. He recommended we go on horseback and take along three mules, thus saving our energy for the final ascent and descent. We obtained tents, good sleeping bags, warm clothing and clean underwear, food and drink, not forgetting our first-aid kit, flashlights and video and photo cameras. Having gathered all this equipment, it was already the eve of our departure, so we met with Fernando, reviewing our itinerary and agreeing to meet in the breakfast room on the following morning to leave at the latest by seven thirty. Everything thus set for the start of our new adventure, we turned in promising to be up at daybreak to load the mules, get the horses ready, have breakfast and leave.

It was an August morning under a clear blue sky, with a cloud or two here and there, as we set out, accompanied by three mules and five horses, our guide, two assistants and all our provisions, tents, plastic ponchos, jebe boots, sleeping bags and matches, towards the mysterious De los Condores Lagoon, a ten-hour journey along a demanding trail, luckily at a fairly dry time of the year.

We made progress on mule-back along a narrow ascending trail leading us up to the heights east of Leimebamba. This area features a long rainy season and a short dry spell, so the peaks around us were covered with lush forest vegetation, as well as many grassy clearings. We were following a stretch of a stone-paved trail that was evidently the remains of an Inca roadway.

As we left the forested valleys behind us, and started to ascend to the darker-colored heights, we increasingly came across deep and dark mud "puddles". We stopped for lunch at a high point, our refreshment consisting of crackers, some tinned food and a lot of liquid, and then started the descent down the opposite slope. The mud puddles became larger and more frequent, to the point we had to dismount most of the time - in fact we were in a bog. Here we met up with Oscar Tallendo, a Peruvian explorer who was very interested in finding out about this culture and its impressive constructions, and took advantage of the chance meeting to exchange knowledge and ideas. After a friendly chat and refreshments, we bade each other a warm farewell, and continued on our respective ways, only to see one of our mules sink up to its belly in a black mud-hole on the trail one kilometer further along. Getting it out took us two hours of hard work and frustrated attempts, that finally paid off enabling us to resume our trek in the fading sun, whose feeble rays illuminated a precarious shelter perching on the mid-point of a slope. It was 7 p.m., and we were near our eagerly-sought destination of De los Condores Lagoon. However, we had walked steadily for almost twelve hours and our bodies were crying for rest, so we settled in, ate ravenously and made preparations for a good rest, knowing that on the following day we had a tough road ahead of us. We were almost at our target destination, having traveled along a highly demanding but impressively beautiful trail. However, we were well aware at that moment that we also had to face the return trip.

On the following day, after spending a pretty cold night, having a refreshing breakfast, collecting our tents and sleeping bags and of course grooming ourselves and our horses, we started setting up our portable dinghy on the shore of an imposing lake walled in by high cliffs, and boasting abundant trout in its cold waters; once it was set up, we crossed with our guide, who had to make the trip three times to transfer our companions and all the equipment we needed for the challenging climb to the complex; on our way up we began to make out the rock-carved niches at the highest point of the cliffs which had held the mummies we had seen in the Leimebamba museum before starting our trip; naturally, relics still remain in these mausoleums and in Chullpas. On arrival, we were amazed by the amount of work which had been necessary to carve these niches out of the rock faces and line them with cemented blocks of stone that were later decorated with geometric motifs in red ocher paint, as also by the remains scattered around the floor, including scraps of well-preserved fabric. The whole experience inspired in us a deep sense of respect for the place which for over five hundred years had harbored the remains of human beings who had been sent to a better afterlife.

Our visit was an unbeatable experience. We returned on the third day, taking almost as long to get back to Leimebamba as we did on the outward trip, arriving exhausted and hungry, eager to have a relaxing bath, sleep in a proper bed and reminisce about what we had seen, and how we had almost been able to go back in time to the period in which these burials had taken place, interpreting the symbols involved. In my case, I remained awake, musing on the daily routine of these people, these last visions accompanying me as I drifted into sleep at Leimebamba, waking on the following morning still overawed by my experience and eager to repeat it the next time I got a chance.


 
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