Kuelap – Ruins of the Cloud People

Peru - 2003

The Chachapoyas were known as the cloud people. Why? Because they lived on high mountains amid the clouds (Duh!)

Anyway, at the center of their world was the city of Kuelap – today, a huge-walled ruin perched on peak, and after hiking a few hours, these imposing walls stare down at you.

 the narrow high-passage entrance of kuelap
Looking down inside of Kuelap to the narrow, high-passage entrance.

This mighty fortress city – a place of worship – sits 3000 meters above the Utcubamba River, in the Amazonas region of northern Peru.

Kuelap’s immense stone walls run 600 meters and raise to 19 meters, including rocks of 3 tons.

TOP-RIGHT: Reconstructed traditional Chachapoyas house. It’s suggested that the diamond foundation design represents a jaguar eye; an animal that’s sacred across ancient American cultures.

Kuelap ruins number over 400 buildings

In 600 AD, they settled on this site and occupied it for 1000 years as a place for ceremonies and burials.

(Note: Kuelap is 600 years older than Peru’s most-famous attraction – Machu Picchu, a sacred site built by the Incas).

kuelap ruins panorama chachapoyas peru
The mighty walls at Kuelap – center of the Chachapoyas in northern Peru.

Chachapoyas was not a nation or an empire

It seems they were a federation of small states scattered across this mountainous territory.

And when the Inca arrived in the area in 1470 AD, they had trouble suppressing the Chachapoyas people.

Twice, they rebelled and had to be reconquered.

Kuelap was located to take advantage of the river-canyon trade route between the Pacific coast and the Amazon interior.

TOP-LEFT: Clouds close in … TOP-RIGHT: The trail to the ruins is steep, passing occasional locals and mules. BELOW: A fine afternoon looking from the ruins towards the valley of the Utcubamba River.

The Chachapoyas were a trading people

Chachapoyas’ residences were built on high slopes for defense, but also to take advantage of the terrain to grow potatoes and maize.

looking to the ravine trail up from kuelap ruins
From a tower, looking down to the ravine trail up to Kuelap.

Scholars believe that beyond being a fortress to protect villagers in times of need that it was also home to a powerful aristocracy who oversaw food production and provided religious leadership.

According to Spanish accounts, the Chachapoyas were sorcerers, consuming herbs and hallucinogenics.

 Sunset from the ruins of Kuelap
Enjoying a drink with sunset, from the high, ruined walls of Kuelap.

Ruins of Kuelap – Travel Advice

I visited Kuelap in 2003, and things have changed.

Apparently, there’s a bus and cable car route now, meaning mass tourism and probably a lack of feeling, I assume.

Back then, there was a road up and accessible by taxi – that I was unaware of. And it was quiet; just a few Peruvian tourists, briefly.

If you have time, take a local bus from Chachapoyas (60km away) and stay overnight in the village of Tingo, which is below the ruins, and the next day enjoy the hike up to Kuelap.

It’s steep. But scenic and peaceful. And an adventure of a few hours.

I stayed the night at a local house just a 100 meters from the ruins and enjoyed the company of local archaeologists based there and also enjoyed drinks with a visiting female scholar from Germany.


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