High above the Uctubamba Valley, often surrounded by a soft blanket of clouds, lies Kuelap, the ancient city of the once-proud Chachapoya Indians. Lush emerald grass surrounds the white and brown stone ruins of this great city, which once provided the Chachapoyas with a commanding view of the dense foliage and rolling hills of the Uctubamba Valley.
Due to the city’s remote - and highly defensible -location, the ruins of Kuelap have been nearly untouched for centuries except by the most dedicated explorers and the llamas that graze peacefully on the grassy hillside.
Kuelap was built around 1500 years ago, at least 600 years before the famous Incan ruins of Macchu Pichu. The city is also larger and higher than Macchu Pichu, making Kuelap a formidable fortress in its day. The city’s towering local - nearly 10,000 feet above sea level - was an attempt for the Chachapoyas to get as close to the sky as possible for both strategy and worship. Unfortunately, the Inca Indians were the downfall of the proud Cloud Warriors in 1470 (closely followed by the arrival of the Spanish), sending this spectacular city into the vaults of history, only to recently be “rediscovered” by a growing crowd of curious visitors.
As the ruins of Macchu Pichu are rebuilt further and the site becomes less accessible to the hordes of visitors (the site recently instituted daily visitor allowances and price increases of 20% this year) many people are now turning their attention to the beautiful city of Kuelap in the northern part of Peru.
Despite the effects of time and nature, traces of the inhabitant’s Indian heritage are still seen all around the ruins of military buildings and 400 homes in Kuelap. The massive walls surrounding the city show a heavy emphasis on city defense, with the fortifications reaching over 20 meters high in places. The stone architecture still bears the symbols of the Cloud Warriors’ strength in carvings of snakes and jaguars, and decorative rhombus friezes adorn the exterior walls.
Within the crumbling walls, you can see the remains of stone tunnels that housed each family’s stock of guinea pigs. The “cuy” provided both heat and food to the family. Additionally, stone slabs in the floors mark the location of the family grave, where each member would be mummified and entombed (and quickly taken out for special rituals celebrations).
While most of the homes’ walls only rise a few feet above the ground now, several structures still stand proudly against the elements. El Torreón, for example, is a tower that still stands at the north end of the ruins surrounded by over 2000 rock projectiles. Archaeologists believe that the people would come to this tower and shoot stones up into the sky in an attempt to hit the clouds and force them to release their rain.
Until recently, the only way to access this hidden city was by ninety-minute car or bus ride through the local villages or a 4-hour hike up the mountain. This daunting task was undoubtedly enough to deter most visitors to the more accessible ruins of Macchu Pichu.
However, the 2017 installation of a cable car system from the nearby village of Nuevo Tingo up to the peak of the towering mountain has awakened a new interest in this fascinating city.
Now, the route to Kuelap takes a matter of 20 minutes rather than several hours, thanks to the efficient cable car system. A short hike of 10 minutes awaits visitors at the end, but the experienced tour guides are right there to tell you exactly where to step next, making this formerly formidable excursion a highly manageable adventure. Horses are also available to help any visitors who might have difficulty with the end climb reach Kuelap safely and happily.
The cable car ride only costs $6 either way and cuts your trip down to 20 minutes. However, some visitors still recommend taking the 90-minute car ride to the top of the ruins. Whether you don’t like the plummeting drops of cable cars or just prefer some extra adventure, the long route will allow you to experience not only the ancient culture of Kuelap but also the current culture of the mountain’s inhabitants. Stopping at villages along the way provides the opportunity to taste local cuisine and buy unique handmade crafts, plus it supports the local people who depend heavily on tourist traffic for income. You can even spend the night in a nearby village to explore the area around Kuelap an extra day and be one of the first people inside the ruins.
Whatever your travel preference, don’t miss the opportunity to visit this glorious city and discover the Chacapoyas’ lives above the clouds.
More info about Kuelap, Peru