Kuelap – Sanctuary of the Cloud People

Chachapoyas - Peru

After hiking 2 hours uphill, in the distance huge walls hang in the clouds.

This mighty ruin is Kuelap.

Once, the capital of the Chachapoyas culture (also known as ‘The Cloud People’ of Peru), the stone city ruins sit at 3000 meters, overlooking the plunging ravine of the Cabomba River.

the narrow stone entrance of the kuelap city ruins
Looking down inside to the narrow, high-passage entrance of the city-fortress. Note: the family to the right, for scale.

The immense walls of Kuelap are another indigenous Andean engineering feat

Founded in 600 AD, Kuelap flourished for about 1000 years.

The colossal stone terraces loop for 600 meters, rising 19 meters high, with some rocks weighing a mighty 3 tons.

Ruined structures number around 400 buildings.

Yet, this mighty fortress city was also a place for ceremonies and burials.

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.

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

kuelap ruins panorama chachapoyas peru
Lamas graze outside the mighty walls of Kuelap – once the center of the Chachapoyas culture 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 trade route between the Pacific coast and the Amazon interior.

The Chachapoyas people built their houses 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 high tower, looking down to the ravine trail that I hiked up to the ruins.

Beyond being a fortress to protect villagers in times of need, Kuelap 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 the sunset from the 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 easy hiking.

100 meters from the ruins, I stayed the night at a local cottage.

There, I enjoyed the company of local archaeologists and also had drinks with a young female student from Germany.

Travels in Peru – 2003

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