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The Mausoleums of Revash

24 November 2010

REVASH, AMAZONES, PERU–Morning came too early. After two days of hiking we were sore and during the night we found our new hotel was on the path home for night-club revelers. The acoustics of the street funneled the sound directly into our room and it sounded much like drunken apes at the foot of the bed, being exuberantly tortured for information they didn’t posses. I was in a surly mood and was glad to go buy water and the day’s provisions while Kristina dealt with the travel agency.

We were off to see the mausoleums of Revash, burial chambers set into a cliffside that reminded me of ones in Arizona. The length of the hike was minimal, four kilometers one way, and we looked forward to an easy jaunt. The day was the hottest of them all and we were the only two people on this trip. Our guide, Manuel Mendoza nor the driver, spoke any English, so translation was up to me. They were both young men, in their early twenties and we rode in a cab.

The Trail to Revash

One time, years ago in Honduras, the bus driver was a young man and I knew before getting on the bus that it was a bad idea. He was tapping his feet with pent-up nervous energy, beating the wheel in time to the blaring radio and impatient to get on the road. He drove the full-size bus like it was a Ferrari through the mountain roads. At times the rear end skidded on turns and he felt obligated to pass anything in front of him. I decided then that it was best to wait and choose an older driver–a man who not only had survived those roads for years but one who probably wanted to get home to a family and had nothing to prove. So, I was a bit nervous seeing our young guide and driver.

I shouldn’t have worried. They, like all the drivers we had through Tourismo Explorer Agency, were sober and careful and I felt as safe as I could, given the mountain roads and sheer drop-offs and other crazy drivers. We drove down off the mountaintop perch of Chachapoyas and along the same dusty river valley road we had when going to Kuelap. Somewhere along the way we turned off and, after a while, stopped by the side of the road. There was a beaten up old sign saying “Revash” so we knew we were near. We got out and Manuel began explaining the area. He pointed up at a ridgeline of exposed rock, layer upon layer, folded and jutting by tectonic forces. He indicated it and then the other walls of other cliffs and said, “There are Chachapoyan tombs in all of these, everywhere. The dead could look over the living and keep them safe. You would know your uncle or grandfather or grandfather’s grandfather was up in the cliff, watching over you.” I couldn’t see anything other than rock. I wondered where just the Revash tombs were.

Somewhere, up in that striated rock, are the Mausoleums of Revash. We begin to climb...

“Are you ready?’ asked Manuel. I replied that we were and he gestured up towards the exposed rock face far above us again. “Up there?” I asked… “Yes,” he replied, “Revash is up there.” My eyes are sharper than 20/20 and I could see nothing but rock. We were in for a climb and so we began. It may have been no more than 4 kilometers but in that space we gained, according to our altimeter, 1,500 feet. Each day we had brought more and more water and we were glad of it today. I will acknowledge our guides toughness, he made the climb in stylish, pointy-toed loafers and designer jeans carrying nothing but a cardboard box of orange-juice. Tough yes, but just as glad to take breaks under what shade we could find and though at first he politely refused, by the time we started back down he was accepting the offered water and colored an unhealthy red under his dark skin.

It wasn’t long before we realized why we were the only people on the trip. We went up and up under the burning blue sky and though the view was spectacular, to get to the “attraction” was strenuous to say the least. Needless to say Revash will not have handicapped access any time soon. About half the way up we could finally see the tombs. They reminded me of Arizona cliff dwellings and appeared to be roughly the same size. They were set squarely in the center of the rock face and I figured that we would get no closer than the base of that rock, unable to go farther without technical climbing gear. We kept going up, putting one foot in front of the other. The water had grown hot in its bottles but we gratefully swallowed it down to replace the hot water we had sweated out. Finally it was there, a couple hundred feet above us. We rested a while and I thought at first, as I had thought, that we were at the end of the trail but then Manuel said, “If you want we can go up there. It is very steep and a little dangerous.”

Panoramic photograph of the Revash Mausoleums from a few hundred feet below.

“We can get up there?” I asked, “Yes,” he replied, “Then let’s go,” I said. There was no way I was going to stop a few hundred feet from the end if there was a trail that led there, even if the trail was more or less straight up. It was a hard climb, through scrub and up loose rock and dirt but the goal was right there and soon we were sitting on a narrow ledge, Chachapoyan tombs against our backs and wide Andean valleys spread out below us as far as we could see.

Our guide, Manuel, next to the entrance of one the tombs at Revash.

I was wrong about the size of the structures. Though, like some cliff-dwellings, they were multi-storied, with different rooms and various additions, they were on a much smaller scale, appropriate, as it were, more to the dead than the living. A narrow ledge, covered with loose gravel, led across the cliff face to the second part of the cemetery complex. I made my way carefully along it, trying not to look down or think what would happen were I too fall. Manuel followed and showed me a chamber, open to the air, in which human bones lay in disarray. He sat there, looking out over the mountains while I examined the walls, looking at paint from antiquity and more modern graffiti. I looked at Manuel’s profile, living features off an ancient pot or wall carving and I wondered what he saw; what tombs he knew were there and whether he sometimes thought of an ancient ancestor watching over him. I looked at the bones there, a femur, a couple ribs, other, unidentifiable fragments and wondered about who they belonged to. Recently married I wondered if they belonged to a husband or a wife, who they had loved or been loved by and who had mourned them when they were interred far up on this cliff.

This time it was, literally, all downhill. Despite the heat and a trail covered in loose stone, we skipped and slid, hopped and ran and in a fraction of the time it took to go up, we were down the hill, through the woods, across the river and back at the car. I looked back and could not pinpoint exactly where we had been. I thought it unlikely that I would ever be up there again. I thought about what Manuel had said about the cliffs being full of tombs. I had learned how difficult it was to go even a few miles when there was a path and you knew where you were going. I thought about all the canyons and cracks and cliffs we had passed and how little we had seen in a huge country filled with mountain and jungle and desert and for the first time in my life felt sure that everything had not yet been found–that the world still had mysteries to be found and places to explore.

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