Near the town of Chachapoyas in Northern Peru, on top of a ridgeline at 3,000 metres above sea level, the ancient site of Kuelap sits between shifting clouds, overlooking the Utcubamba river. First built around the 6th century AD and occupied until the Early Colonial period of the 16th century, the walled ‘fortress’ remained relatively unknown until 1843 when a local judge surveyed the area. Today it still gets little attention compared to more famous Incan sites. Plans of the Peruvian governement to restore the structures (as has been done at Machu Picchu) have thankfully not gotten very far, so when you visit the site today you’re left with stone structures in various states of decay as moss, grass and creeping tendrils take over and moisture drips from bromeliads in the trees above.
The Chachapoyans were called ‘people of the clouds’ by the Incas, and the dense patches of mist that would roll in and envelop us as we walked around certainly explained how they came up with the name.
The huge wall and narrow entrances of Kuelap certainly suggest the function of defense, but there is no clear evidence of conflict.
Inside those huge walls, there are more than 400 circular structures spread over two ‘platforms’ of flat land. They seem to be residential or storage structures, but there’s very little differentiation between them in size or design. The Chachapoyans look to have been somewhat egalitarian – the only symbols that might suggest a social heirarchy are patterns in the stonework of some ‘houses’, but most are plain with no pattern at all.
One thing we do know about the Chachapoyans is that they ate the most famous Peruvian dish, cuy. Covered stone channels inside the houses were used as a means of storage (sort of like keeping a rabbit hutch in your kitchen for a fresh supply of meat…). Many also had quernstones in situ which would have been used for grinding food products (like a big pestle and mortar).
We visited Kuelap with a guide, which I highly recommend as there were so many details we would have missed if we’d just wandered around on our own.
Like this mark on a step, eroded through centuries of llamas passing through the entrance.
Or these human bones entombed inside a wall.
And a series of stone carvings – from top right, clockwise: soldier or monkey, jaguar, snakes, woman and man, unidentified creature, possibly a jaguar – that were found and restored (not always with care if the upside-down jaguar is anything to go by) around the main entrance.
Our day tour to Kuelap cost 38 soles per person, leaving from Chachapoyas and stopping for a late lunch (not included) on the way back (usual Peruvian day trip-style of ordering what you want in the morning and eating around 3 or 4pm). There are a selection of agencies on the main square in Chachapoyas, but prices vary a little bit so check around for the cheapest. Our guide spoke really good English, but others form the same agency did not. Make sure to ask if you specifically want a tour in English. Chachapoyas Backpackers have lovely owners who can help you out if your Spanish is not up to it.