Long before the Incas, the culture that today is associated with Peru like no other, even emerged, numerous other highly advanced civilizations inhabited the Peruvian coastal areas, the highlands and the jungle for thousands of years and left us an impressive heritage. One of these amazing societies is the Chachapoya culture.
The Chachapoya culture
The Chachapoyas, also known as the “warriors of the clouds”, were a pre-Colombian society inhabiting a vast territory in the northern part of the Andes in the cloud forests of what is today the Amazonas region of Peru. They built impressive urban centers such as Gran Pajaten or the walled city of Kuelap and buried the highest members of their society in sarcophagi.
Until today these “stone” coffins can be found scattered around the area inhabited by the Chachapoyas. Usually the Chachapoyas placed these coffins facing the rising sun near villages and close to rivers or lakes along difficult to access mountain cliffs in small groups of 4 to 8 units to form small burial grounds.
The Sarcophagi of Karajia
While there are many less sophisticated sarcophagi in all shapes and sizes, mostly just natural or carved niches in the mountains that were closed with mud and adorned with head-like decorations, the Sarcophagi of Karajia are highly elaborate statues measuring about 2.50 m (8.20 ft) in height.
Located in the Utcubamba Valley about 50 km (30 miles), a 1 to 1.5 h drive, northeast of the city of Chachapoyas in northern Peru, the funeral capsules of Karajia stand high on the cliffside of the mountain facing the abyss. Each sculpture was built using a mixture of clay and grasses that was spread on a wooden structure.
After a deceased person, arranged in a fetal position and wrapped in layers of fabric, was placed inside, the tomb was completely closed and a large head formed on top of the coffin. Then the sculptures were painted white and decorated with red and yellow ochre adornments.
From the originally eight sarcophagi of Karajia, only six survived the natural elements - due to the inaccessible location for once tomb raiders aren’t to blame.
Who is buried inside the Sarcophagi of Karajia
According to archaeologist, the Sarcophagi of Karajia are the last resting place of the at one time most important personalities of the Chachapoya society. They assume that one of the statues houses the mummy of the highest chief of Kuelap. As two others are decorated with skulls on their heads, it is believed that these may accommodate two important warriors. While five of the funeral sculptures have a phallic symbol painted on the outside and therefore are believed to house male mummies, one has a rectangular sign in the middle of the tomb that may symbolize a female. This discovery could mean that not only men but also women held powerful positions in the Chachapoya society.
How to get to the Sarcophagi of Karajia
For years the journey to this part of Peru remained a little adventure in itself. And even though many airplanes now and again announced plans to offer flights to Chachapoyas, nothing happened and the only way to get there was to take a bus or fly from Lima to either Jaen, Cajamarca or Tarapoto and from there continue on road (car, bus, private transport) to the city of Chachapoyas.
Now, however, Atsa Airlines offers flights from Lima to Chachapoyas three times per week (at the moment Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays) making it easier to visit this remote area of Peru.
From Chachapoyas the 50 km (30 miles) trip via Luya to the village of Cruzpata takes about 1.5 hours. The rest of the journey to the Sarcophagi of Karajia you either have to walk (30 to 40 minutes) or ride on a horse. When you aren’t part of a tour, we highly recommend booking a guide in Cruzpata.
While you can do the trip to the Sarcophagi of Karajia with your own car or public busses, many tour operators in all cities of Peru offer as well tours to the area including a visit to Kuelap, the Gocta waterfalls and the Sarcophagi of Karajía.
Useful information for visiting Sarcophagi of Karajia
To enjoy your day in the cloud forest of the Amazonian Andes mountains best wear layers of comfortable and for the weather conditions appropriate clothes and especially sturdy shoes that allow you to walk the mountainous, partly slippery terrain safely.
Best bring your camera, binoculars (you can’t get real close to the tombs), a rain jacket, a hat or cap, sun creme and some water with you.
Opening Hours: daily
Entrance Fees: S/ 10
Peruvian coin featuring the Sarcophagi of Karajia
To spread the diverse and rich cultural heritage of Peru, the Central Reserve Bank issued a Numismatic Series called “Wealth & Pride of Peru” containing 24 coins with the value of one Nuevo Sol. Each coin features one very special place in the country.
Since July 2010 the coin honoring the Sarcophagi of Karajia is in circulation and can be used as any other Peruvian S/ 1 coin.