Why have I never heard of Kuelap, the great mountain top fortress of the Chachapoyas people of Northern Peru? Its bigger, older, and higher than Machu Picchu but Machu Picchu steals all the glory in Peru.
Maybe it’s because the north of Peru is far less traveled than the southern portion of the country. Or possibly it’s because of the enormous investments the Peruvian government has made in restoration efforts at Machu Picchu. Whatever the reason, Kuelap is still a pretty scarcely traveled site making now the time to go if you crave the kind of off the map travel experiences I do. (it’s not even on Google Maps yet)
Exploring the Chachapoyas City of Kuelap
Kuelap is the 6th century remains of a large city inhabited by the Chachapoyas (or cloud warrior) people perched on a mountain peak with phenomenal views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. The Chachapoyas were named the cloud warriors by the Inka, who eventually conquered them, because of their remote cities in the cloud forests on the east side of the Andes Mountains. They are now known for their sarcophagus burials on remote and almost impossible to access cliffs around the Andes.
Since not many people visit Chachapoyas or Keulap, the pictures and information I was able to find before visiting was limited and I didn’t know quite what to expect. I was certainly surprised to find a fortified city with walls more so resembling that of European castles than any South American civilization. There are only two entrances to the city, one for the royals and one for the rest of the people. At both entrances traps were set so that if enemies ever did breach the walls they could be easily defended against. At the top of one stairway and wooden platform was built and covered to look like the rest of the surrounding ground. When enemies entered the Chachapoyas armies could simply release the platform sending the enemies troops to their deaths off the side of the mountain. Scientists have found the remains of hundreds of bodies in the valley below so the trap must have worked quite well.
Exploring inside the city reminded me more of the Mayan ruins in Central America with lush vegetation throughout the city. It feels like a mountain top jungle, or cloud forest really. I visited during the dry season so I can only imagine how gorgeous it must be in the height of rainy season.
Machu Picchu vs. Kuelap
Since Machu Picchu is the main reason most travelers go to Peru, I can’t help make the comparison between the two sites.
Much like Machu Picchu, Kuelap was never lost and later found. Kuelap was known by local villagers for centuries before the first westerners arrived in the mid nineteenth century. Machu Picchu, though usually not reported, had families living on the site when it was ‘discovered’ and while Hiram Bingham often gets the credit as the first westerner to rediscover it, there was another explorer that actually recorded its location on a map many years before Bingham even arrived.
One thing Machu Picchu certainly has going for it is the awesome photos you can take of the entire complex because it’s easy to get to a higher vantage point in the surrounding mountains. Keulap on the other hand is situated atop one of the highest peaks so the breathtaking and sweeping city photos are more limited but you do have better opportunities to view sweeping landscapes from its walls.
One of the things I liked most about Kuelap is that about 95% of the site is original, in other words there’s been no major reconstruction efforts there. The limited restorations were pretty bad too so it’s even better they decided to leave the majority of the site as it was found. Machu Picchu on the other hand is mostly reconstructed. I’ve heard as much as 80% of the structures you see have been rebuilt. It’s nice to see what ruins would have looked like long ago but I think you also lose the charm of exploring ruins if the entire site is rebuilt.