Kuelap – The Ruins of Peru’s Cloud People


The Chachapoyas culture were known as the ‘cloud people’

Why? because they lived on mighty mountains amid the clouds (Duh!)

Anyway, at the center of their world was Kuelap.

Today, it’s an imposing stone ruin on a high peak, and after a few hours of hiking, the massive city walls appear.

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

The immense walls of Kuelap are another indigenous Andean engineering feat

Colossal stone terraces run a loop of 600 meters, rising 19 meters high, some rocks weighing 3 tons within the structure.

This mighty fortress city was also a place of worship.

The sacred site sits at 3000 meters above sea-level, overshadowing the the Utcubamba River in the Amazonas region of northern Peru.

Chachapoyas architecture at the ruins of kuelap in peru
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 1470 AD, they’d trouble suppressing Chachapoyas.

Twice, they rebelled, and had to be reconquered.

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

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

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 until I’d hiked to the top!

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 scenic and leisurely hike up to the ruins of Kuelap.

It’s steep. But not difficult hiking.

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

Travels in Peru – 2003

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