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Kuelap – Chachapoyas: The Cloud People of Peru

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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 Kuelap.

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

This stone fortress – and place of worship – is perched 3000 meters above the Utcubamba River, in the Amazonas region of northern Peru.

Kuelap’s fortress walls are nearly 600 meters in length and tower as high as 19 meters. Some stones weigh up to 3 tons.

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

Within the walls of Kuelap are the ruins of over 400 buildings.

The site was settled in 600 AD and was occupied for 1000 years as a place of ceremonies and burials.

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

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.

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.

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 also 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 provide protection to villagers in times of need, Kuelap was also home to a powerful aristocracy whose role was to administer food production and provide religious leadership.

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

According to Spanish accounts the Chachapoyas were Sorcerers, consuming herbs and hallucinogenics…

Ruins of Kuelap – Travel Advice

I visited Kuelap in 2003. Things have changed since then … 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 in itself.

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.