First-hand account of the half-day uphill walk to Kuelap.
Some dos and don'ts for those thinking of doing the hike.
There is undoubtedly more than just a masochistic pleasure in hiking to a Peruvian archaeological site. Their awe-inspiring, natural settings can be savoured fully at walking pace; and the emotions unleashed by physical exertion seem to heighten an appreciation for the pre-Colombian, pre-wheeled-vehicle way of life.
This is especially true of the Inca Trail, where the reward for three strenuous days of trekking the ups and downs of the Andes is a magnificent view of Machu Picchu from Inti Punku (the famous 'Sun Gate'). However, in most itineraries, this comes after a short, relatively-easy hike from Wayna Picchu on the morning of Day 4.
The rest of the day is spent exploring the ruins, in the company of a guide, and there are buses ready to whisk you down to the town of Aguas Calientes, with its train station, once you tire.
In the case of Kuelap, to reach the ruins on foot, you will have had to ascend 1,200 m (3,940 ft) on a beautiful, but largely unshaded trail. There is no hardy trekking crew to provide refreshments and encouragement. In fact, there is almost nowhere to get any nourishment whatsoever, once you start hiking. This, though, is a reflection of quite how uncrowded this route is. We didn't see a single other hiker on it.
Nonetheless, the trail is well sign-posted and it is impossible to get lost.
There are, in fact, four walkable paths one can take up to Kuelap, but the most commonly-trekked one - and the one we took - departs from the village of Tingo, which lies in the picturesque Utcubamba River valley, at an altitude of 1,790 m (5,873 ft) above sea level.
Tingo itself runs to a police station and a couple of small shops where one can stock up on snacks and water. These are vital, as we discovered.
The start of the path to Kuelap is clearly indicated, and we began hiking at 8.30am. The initial 30 minutes of hiking is a gentle incline running beside the river. Having walked nearly 2 km (1.24 miles), we reached the first of five rest stops. These are open huts, offering welcome shade and seating, and some of which have information panels (with dubious English!).
By the time we reached the third rest stop, we had walked four kilometres (2.5 miles) and ascended 400 m (1,312 ft), and were feeling good. But from this point, the climb began in earnest. It was 2.2 km (1.4 miles) to the next rest stop, and the elevation was 415 m (1,316 ft). Moreover, it was now mid-morning, and there was no escaping the strong, equatorial sun.
I crawled into the fourth rest stop, after an hour's hard uphill slog, cursing my Slovak hiking companion, who seemed annoyingly fresh ... despite being four years my senior. He was always ready to get going again, just as I had caught him up and was dying for a rest!
It was under a kilometre to the next - and final - rest stop, but by now fatigue was setting in, and each step was an effort. The ruins of Kuelap were now visible, which offered encouragement, but it seemed both a long way away and a long way up!
The last 300m of elevation took us through a small village, where I was able to buy a much-needed fizzy drink, before struggling up, in ever-diminishing bursts, to the side entrance of Kuelap, arriving just before 1pm - some four and a half hours after we set off - having walked just under nine kilometres (5.5 miles).
Once inside the complex, there is a small hut for the site wardens, where they can issue the entry ticket, which is s/.20 (about £5 / $6) for non-Peruvians. However, it is highly recommended to have the exact change, as otherwise you will have to walk the 2.5 km (1.5 miles) to the main entrance to make the purchase, and then walk back to visit the ruins. We found this out through experience!
We also found out that the small number of tour groups visiting Kuelap come in the morning, and have departed by 2.30pm to make the two-hour drive back to Chachapoyas. Once they have gone, there is no public transport to get back down to the valley. And sadly, the cable car being built from Tingo Nuevo to Kuelap is still several months from completion.
So, we were faced with a few options:
- a two-hour descent on foot to the valley, following the route of the cable car.
- a night in a nearby, basic guesthouse, so as to catch the early morning bus to Chachapoyas the next day.
- wait at the entrance in the uncertain hope of transport arriving which would then be willing to take us down.
- pay s/150 for a battered taxi, with a dodgy clutch - driven by a friend of the security guard - to drive us to Chachapoyas.
Given that we were shattered from the hike, our luggage had been taken to a Chachapoyas hotel, and I was starting to feel chafing in the upper thigh region, option #4 was a simple choice. We would have paid more, in fact!
It had been a demanding, but magnificent trek from the beautiful Utcubamba valley up to the imposing ruins of Kuelap. Some tips to be learned from our experience:
- Had it been logistically convenient, we would have got transport up to Kuelap, and hiked down. This would have allowed us to enjoy the ruins when fresh ... rather than when in urgent need of rest and revictualling. The opening of the cable car should make this easier to arrange.
- If hiking up, set off early, ie 7am or before, if possible. This allows you to avoid the heat of the sun for longer, and gives you a better chance of finding transport back to Nuevo Tingo or Chachapoyas, without having to rush round the ruins once you get there.
- When arriving at Kuelap's side entrance, it is not possible to arrange a guide.
- There are some stalls selling souvenirs and a small museum at the main Kuelap entrance, but at the time of writing, no eatery. Nor were there any obvious places to buy supplies on the hike up, so make sure you have plenty of snacks and liquids.
If you would like to talk to us about the ins and outs of visiting Kuelap, just get in touch.
Map of the the Tingo to Kuelap route we took: