Most people, on a visit to Peru, they focus on Lima, Cusco, and the Inca Trail. All great places but if you’re interested in seeing a lesser known side of Peru or to dig further than the ubiquitous colonial and Incan histories, you will have to head towards the less obvious. A great area in which to do that is Peru’s north.

This is hilly country, Peru’s north. The main roads are perfectly fine, though can be very windy. I noticed that drivers here seem to have an aversion to staying in one lane – our various drivers while in this area would always take the curves on the wrong side of the road! Sure these roads were not heavily trafficked but there were enough others out here that I hunched in my seat trusting the company didn’t want the bad publicity of killing their tourists. Once we hit the hills, however, they were forced to slow down – though, that wasn’t the end of the ways we could have died. These mountain roads tended to have a steep drop on one side which was made extra fun as it was a very slow bone-jarring drive!

If you do come north, when you finally reach the small towns and villages tucked away in the hills, despite being a bit bruised, hopefully you’ll still think it was worth the effort. As I glimpsed lives completely different from mine and as I admired the beautiful passing landscape, for me it definitely was. Anyway, you must be wondering, besides pretty views, why anyone would want to come to this ‘out of the way’ part of Peru. Well, simply put, it’s an opportunity to check out the dead.

Follow the Poopy Stone Road

When you first arrive at Karajia, you will have to sign in at a little hut which included providing passport numbers, oddly enough. It was a practice I ran into at various places, one that I did not like at all – there is something not right about having to share your passport information like that! The act of signing your name in the book, however, drives home the point that relatively speaking, not many foreign tourists come up to this part of Peru.

As you get ready for the walk to the actual site, you’ll probably be approached by several women on horses. The site is downhill so they sell the opportunity to ride a horse back up the hill. Neither my sister nor I took them up on it – we just did the Inca Trail! We were fit and don’t need horses! Right. While the surroundings were very bucolic, we soon discovered another reason to consider taking the horses – the path was full of brown lumps and not all of it was mud….

So, What is Karajia?

Essentially, it is a group of sarcophagi that date back to the 15th century, when the Chachapoya people held sway in this region. They are high up in a cliff face, making for dramatic viewing. The location explains why these six sarcophagi still exist – they are out of reach from looters. They are about 2.5m tall and are made from grass, sticks, and clay – they contain the remains of important people, apparently. Vaguely human shaped, they are painted white and adorned with yellow and red pigments. Some of them also even have a human skull on their heads!

Unfortunately, it started to rain while we were peering up the cliff’s side. There were some overhanging rock under which we could shelter for a little while. The overhang was also protecting bones that supposedly were from a fallen sarcophagus – people had left offerings of flowers and coca leaves on top of the bones. We didn’t actually stay all that long, here – maybe a half an hour. Once Miguel, our guide, finished telling us about the site and we had all looked our fill, we headed back in the rain up the steep, rocky, poopy, and muddy trail. I wouldn’t call that 45 minute trudge a highlight of my trip…. Though, I was darkly amused at the persistence of some of the local women who tried to sell us stuff as we sloshed our way up the path.

While out of the way, Karajia is worth a visit because of its uniqueness. When else are you going to have the opportunity to see sarcophagi in their original setting? Most people combine a visit here with a trip to the Quiocta Caverns, relatively nearby. It makes for a full day in the mountains, hanging out with the dead.

Location: About 70km northwest of Chachapoyas, Peru
What to bring: money for a horse and/or lunch, hiking shoes, a pair of binoculars or a good camera lens