Lesser known than Kuelap, the Chachapoyas ruins of Gran Pajatén are equally—if not more so—visually striking and enigmatic.
Long neglected, Gran Pajatén is an ancient marvel not to be forgotten. Located in the cloud forest between the La Libertad and San Martín regions of northern Peru, research has shown that the archaeological complex was likely inhabited by the Chachapoya culture (c. 900-1400), though ceramic samples gathered from the site prove it was constructed in a far more ancient time.
The towers and carved statues in Gran Pajatén are some of the most visually-arresting in Peru. The site, covering approximately 20,000 m², has been declared a World Heritage Site (since 1990), and an image of Gran Pajatén has even been featured on the Peruvian 1 Sol coin.
Nevertheless, the site has been closed to the general public for over half a century, due to the precariousness of the ruins.
Discovery and deterioration
One of the numerous “lost” cities in Peru, Gran Pajatén appeared in international headlines when American explorer Douglas Eugene Savoy “discovered” the site in 1965. Savoy was also responsible for bringing to light numerous other stand out sites in Peru, including Vilcabamba. Though it should be mentioned that his explorations and findings have come with some dispute, as so often locals (as in this case, those from Pataz) were responsible for taking him directly to the sites. National media (see video below) has also attributed the rediscovery to Carlos Torrealva Juárez, who supposedly came across the site in 1964 when he was mayor of Pataz.
No matter who was the first to encounter the ancient site, Gran Pajatén would quickly begin to disappear before curious eyes.
In the mid 1960s, removal of overgrown vegetation that acted as a protective cover revealed the structures to a harsh climate, leading to rapid deterioration; statues reported in early findings have since disappeared; steps lie shattered and broken—so until a smart plan for restoration and conservation is put in place, very few visitors are allowed in. Only those with permits from Peru’s Ministry of Agriculture and the National Institute of Culture are able to enter.
Nature’s hilltop masterpiece
And what do the lucky few get to see at the Amazonian hilltop?
Narrow paths and steep stone staircases connect staggered levels and terraces with 26 circular structures sprinkled throughout. These towers are of varying diameters, measuring between 2 and 15 meters. The main buildings in the ancient complex are decorated with high reliefs depicting human and animal forms. Zig-zagging lines trim the towers, a typical design of the Chachapoya culture.
As opposed to highly renowned archaeological sites in Peru such as Machu Picchu, comparatively little research has been carried out on Gran Pajatén in order to discover its origin and purpose. (Again, this is largely due to the fragile state of what remains of the ruins, as previous archaeological expeditions have only caused further damage.)
In 2016, UNESCO designated the Gran Pajatén Biosphere Reserve for its grand diversity of flora and fauna. Composed of two distinct habitats—the Andes and the Amazon—some 5,000 plant and 900 animal species can be found in what is considered Peru’s largest biosphere reserve.
Administratively, Gran Pajatén belongs to Rio Abiseo National Park, which preserves a diverse stretch of cloud forest and rainforest.
Cover image: Edith Schackendorf/Wikimedia Commons
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