Most people, when they visit Peru, focus on Lima, Cusco, and the Inca Trail. All great places but if you’re interested in seeing another side of Peru or want 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 hilly north. It takes forever to get anywhere but when you finally do reach the small tucked away towns and villages, hopefully you’ll think the effort to get here was worth it. As I glimpsed lives completely different from mine and as I admired the beautiful passing landscape, I thought it was definitely was. Still, you must be wondering 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.

What are the Quiocta Caverns?

Near the small town of Lamud are a series of caverns that head deep into the mountains. There are six connected caverns, all very wet and muddy. Hence the need to bring rubber boots or rent them from your guide. When you sign in, the entrance fee includes the use of a headlamp or flashlight, quality not assured. It is a very good idea to bring your own.

Our guide was called “The Professor” – I have absolutely no idea if he was actually one or not. He was knowledgeable enough, though.  After we parked the van and we all pulled on rubber boots, our group tramped through the fields for about ten minutes before reaching a staircase leading down to the cavern’s entrance. We signed in, gathered various light sources, passed a sign admonishing visitors to be quiet, and headed into the dark cavern.

It quickly got pitch black as we moved away from the entrance of the cavern. Our headlamps and flashlights bobbed around the space, picking out rock and more rock. But most of the time, everyone’s light was pointed downwards as the cavern floor was filled with puddles and mud. We had to ensure that we only stepped on solid rock, which was not always easy to find. Even with the boots, we didn’t want to step into the sucking mud – who knows if our feet would still be boot-encased when we yanked it back up! Our Spanish-only group, using my crappy Spanish, bonded over pointing out danger spots and helping each other over tricky situations. Teamwork!

What Is There to See in the Dark Quiocta Caverns?

When visiting a cavern, one would expect to see stalagmites and stalactites. It was not any different at these caverns and there were some pretty neat examples of both. The group had to work together to shine light on them to highlight them properly. This cavern was very much “undeveloped” in the sense that there was no electricity on a timer here. It made for a rugged cavern visit than some of the more famous ones that have been made comfortable for tourists.

The only living things we saw in the caverns were a few vampire bats. As for dead things, there were human bones and skulls. Really. The neat thing about these caverns is that they were once used by the Chachapoya people as a burial place. From what I understand, not much is known yet about this practice so I’m not sure if it had been only important people – but it would make sense if it were. We were told that the bones we saw were original to the place and I can only take the guide at his word. A while ago, someone would have left offerings of flowers and coca leaves (now dried) on a pile of bones found near the cavern entrance. No offerings were found on the skulls deep in the caverns – too spooky, perhaps? I will admit, the total darkness was a little unnerving at points, especially knowing these caverns are essentially a mausoleum.

Don’t Forget to Admire the Landscape!

One of the other neat things about Quiocta Caverns isn’t the caverns themselves – it’s the setting in which they lie. When you visit, take a moment to just look at the countryside, the wide fields under which there are more caverns and who knows what else. That is the amazing thing about northern Peru – as you look around, as you move around the country, you come to understand why things are still being uncovered here. Why the tourism industry is still rather under developed here. It is so time consuming and difficult to move around the Andes, so many twists and turns spinning you off to all sorts of hidden corners. Who knows how many other Quiocta Caverns or Revash or Karajia there are, still waiting to be explored.

Tip: Annoyingly, you probably will not be told in advance that you need boots and a light source at Quiocta Caverns. You will also probably not be told that the boots cost s/3 to rent until after you’ve used them. Ensure you have cash on you and definitely bring your own headlamp.