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The Sarcophagi of Karajia–A Panic Over Tickets–Thanksgiving Dinner On The Night Bus And A Confusing Early Morning Arrival in Chiclayo

CHICLAYO, LAMBAYEQUE, PERU–After the caverns of Quiocta we descended to a pleasant lunch and were soon climbing back into higher mountains on our way to see the sarcophagi of Karajia. These nine-foot-tall anthropomorphic containers hold the remains of Chachapoyan royalty and date to around 800 B.C. They rest on a ledge, far up a cliff, underneath an overhang that protects them remarkably well from centuries of the elements. They are completely inaccessible without technical climbing gear and were “discovered” in the last 20 years though, as the guide noted, “The locals always knew they were there.”

The Sarcophagi of Karajia as seen from below and the left.

The Sarcophagi viewed from the right side, farther down the cliffside trail.

To get to them we parked in a small mountain village of low, adobe houses called Cruzpata and hiked down a dirt road. The road turned to switchbacking trail and then to a trail along the face of a cliff. There, high above us, were the sarcophagi, standing in their niche, kept company by a number of exposed skulls. On the cliff behind us were more tombs, interesting but less impressive than the man-like sarcophagi. Along the trail a section of the hillside vegetation had been burned off in a recent fire. Kristina pointed out shards of bone that appeared human to me and we were again reminded that we were standing within an ancient cemetery with human remains continually being exposed. We walked farther down the trail to view the sarcophagi from a different angle and there on a flat stone was a random collection of bones. I knealt to photograph them and noticed that I had almost trod on a thumb bone. I was unsure of the etiquette in such situations but thought that if it was my thumb I’d like it back on the rock. I picked it up and it was light and dusty, almost weightless. There was something about the casual display that spoke eloquently about the transitory nature of life. Live and love, hate and worry but soon enough you are dust (though for a while pieces of you may end up collected on a rock–perhaps mixed with other’s remains–for adventurous tourists to goggle at.) I wondered who might be handling my thumb in a 1,000 years and kind of hoped that someone would be. Perhaps an archeologist… After all that time maybe even I might be worth something.

Human bones gathered on a rock.

We began the hike back up and though we were hardened to a degree by the last few days we were reminded of the effect of altitude on Ohio bodies. Though we made it back to the van before anyone else about halfway there Kristina began to feel unwell. There was nothing to do for it, however, and soon we were being reminded of how far we had come by how many switchbacks we had in front of us. Earlier that day we had left money with Jose at the tourist agency to buy us bus tickets for the night bus to Chiclayo. We had already checked out of our hotel, leaving our bags there and counted on a couple hours between returning and leaving. We got back to Chachapoyas as the sun sank in a spectacular Amazonian display of pinks and oranges and purples. The tourist agency was closed and locked and we had no tickets. We collected our bags from the nearby hotel and returned to a still closed agency. It was still an hour or so until the bus left but that meant we still had to get to the station, check our bags and get our places.  We waited another 15 minutes or so, hoping Jose would show up but were running out of time. With some trepidation I left Kristina waiting on the street by the agency and took a cab to the station. There I determined that Jose had, indeed, bought us tickets and got the girl at the counter to reprint them then took the cab back. Jose had found Kristina and delivered the original tickets so we got in the cab and were off to the station in time to check bags, wait a few minutes and then board the bus that took us away into the night.

To our surprise, not long after beginning the long trip, hot dinners were served. Aluminum tins containing roasted chunks of beef, rice and steamed yucca were distributed and we realized that this was our first Thanksgiving together, traveling through the Peruvian night, with Kristina sick to her stomach, on our way from Chachapoyas to Chiclayo. I kissed her forehead and she read “Tom Jones” for a while before dropping off into an uneasy sleep into which I soon followed her.

The road down the mountain as you begin your way to the sarcophagi of Karajia.

We had followed our usual procedure for arriving in a new town and picked a likely-sounding hotel from those listed in the trusty Lonely Planet. After a long night of intermittent sleep we pulled into a dark Chiclayo around 0500. We retrieved our bags and found a cabbie and told him to take us to Hotel Royal on the Plaza del Armas. He said he knew where it was and dove to the quiet dark square. He was very difficult to understand, with a heavy accent and we sat on the Plaza, wondering why we weren’t knocking on a hotel door while he gesticulated and attempted to tell me something. I finally gathered that Lonely Planet needed an update because the old Hotel Royal had been bought by Chileans and was the department store he was pointing at called “Ripley”.

He was apologetic, shrugging, asking what one can do when the Chileans come in and start buying things up. At another moment I might have found the whole thing fascinating and, while usually attempting to approach such incidents sanguinely, it was dark, we were tired, in a strange city, and I had a few choice words for the guidebook.

“OK, OK, bueno, bueno,” I said, holding up a hand and cutting off the cabbie’s apologia and diatribe against Chileans, “Where can we stay?”

He replied he knew a place, …”very good, clean, safe, cheap, good, good…” and so we drove down some nearby side streets. We stopped at two different places which were full and by the time we pulled up in front of the appropriately named Hotel Oasis, dawn had broken. The sky had changed from black to grey without us noticing and by the time we were installed in a basic room the orange polyester curtains were glowing with morning light. I pulled them aside and opened the window. Cool morning air entered the stuffy room and the sounds of a city morning mingled with crowing roosters. That was our cue to go to bed. Kristina was already asleep and soon I joined her.

Morning light through curtains at the Hotel Oasis.

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