Kuelap, a fortified city on top of a mountain, is one of the most impressive and significant pre-Columbian ruins in all of South America, perhaps only matched in grandeur by Machu Picchu. And yet, for the time being, it is the least visited of Peru’s major archaeological sites ... and can still give the traveller a frisson of being an explorer.
This could all be about to change, as a cable car to the site was inaugurated in 2017. This travels from the town of Tingo Nuevo, covering 4 km (2.5 miles) and rising 661 m (2,169 ft), up to an area near the Kuelap ruins.
Until then, this journey had been done either on a spectacular, but hair-raising, mountain road, taking an hour and a half; or by a strenuous four to five-hour hike of 10 km (6 miles).
Even if Kuelap does receive the hoped-for increase in visitors - and the lack of daily flights to Chachapoyas is an impediment to this - it will still be an unspoiled gem for many years to come.
This is the largest and most important Chachapoya site, beautifully located at about 3,000 m (10,000 ft) on a craggy mountain-top overlooking the Utcubamba River valley, giving superb views. The wet, cloud forest at this elevation supports a rich growth of bromeliads and orchids, which plaster the walls of the site.
Most of the site was constructed from AD 900 - 1100, although some remnants near the main entrance have been carbon-dated to the 6th century AD. The Incas did add a few buildings after they conquered the Chachapoya in the 1470s.
For three centuries after the Spanish conquest, Kuelap lay forgotten by the outside world, until its rediscovery in 1843 by a local judge, Juan Crisostomo Nieto.
The main structure is an awe-inspiring, walled stronghold, almost 600 m (2,000 ft) long and 120 m (400 ft) wide. The massive wall, built of large limestone blocks, sometimes reaches heights over 17 m (50 ft), although much is about half of that.
There are only three entrances, all of which are narrow and highly defensible. The main entrance, used today, slopes upwards and becomes increasingly narrow, with high walls on either side, ending in a section which allows only single-file foot traffic. One can easily imagine that attackers would easily be picked off and would find it impossible to enter.
Inside, over 400 round buildings were found, which would have been covered with steep, conical thatched roofs. Many were used as dwellings by the estimated 3,000 inhabitants of this urban citadel.
Some of the walls are decorated with tiled friezes in rhomboid or zigzag patterns which are a hallmark of Chachapoya architecture. The mural decorations include representations of the eyes of felines, snakes and birds, all different gods to the Chachapoya.
Five square or rectangular buildings were added by the Incas or early Colonialists, during their brief stay. It is still not precisely known how water was transported to this remote site.
When Kuelap was finally abandoned, the thatched roofs were torched, leaving charred beams as evidence.
The most enigmatic structure is the inverted cone-shaped tintero (inkwell) found at the south end, with a face carved in bas-relief on its eastern side. The function of this 5.5 m (18 ft) high temple is unknown, although several proposals have been made, including as a solar observatory, water tank, and jail.
The discovery of offerings in conjunction with this building has led archaeologists to consider this to be Kuelap’s main ceremonial temple.
At the other end of the citadel, a 7 m (23 ft) high D-shaped torréon (lookout tower) dominates the wall. In its base, archaeologists discovered a cache of 2,500 rocks which would have been a perfect size for slingshots.
The many buildings in between are slowly being restored through a project that began in 1999.
How to Visit: Kuelap is the jewel-in-the crown of the Chachapoyas region and so included on all Peru North overland itineraries to the area: