Kuélap is an imposing 9th century fortress known as the Macchu Picchu of the North, which was once the stronghold of the Chachapoyas people, a tribe who lived in the region until shortly before the Spanish conquest.
History of Kuélap
Looming some 3,000 metres above sea level, Kuélap is an impressive site, with limestone walls surrounding a settlement of around 450 stone houses. It was once home to up to 3,000 people, and many of the structures still include their thatched roofs along with intricate carvings. The fortress itself contains the remains of an ancient tower, guard posts and eight metre high walls containing fortified entranceways – the walls were designed to keep out hostile groups like the Huari.
Some have reconsidered the idea of the site being a defensive fortress however, due to the lack of defensive marks on the walls, suggesting it was perhaps more of a religious or ceremonial centre.
The Chachapoyas people started to build the site in around the 6th century AD, but the majority of the structures were added between 900 and 1100AD. It’s unclear whether the site was ever captured by the Incans, but it was definitely abandoned by 1570 in the wake of the Spanish conquest. The site was ‘rediscovered’ in 1843, but was only really excavated in the mid 20th century.
The site is undeniably impressive – perched atop a mountain, and with its high defensive walls, it’s a sight to behold. As you enter, note the narrow gateways which would have forced any attacking force into single file, slowing them down and making them much easier to take down. Many of the stones are inlaid with ornate designs and some of the friezes sheltered from the elements still survive.
Look out for the 7m high torreón, which although militaristic in appearance, was probably used for ceremonial or ritual purposes rather than keeping watch. The Callanca was also thought to be the ritual centre of the city.
The Templo Mayor (often called El Tintero – the inkpot) is the most mysterious and impressive structure in the site, housing animal remains which are believed to have been sacrificial. Some archaeologists have hypothesised the site was in fact some sort of solar calendar.
Scattered around the ruins are stone tombs known as ‘purunmachus’, which were built in the shape of people: these were reserved for the mummified remains of Chachapoyas
Getting to Kuélap
The site is relatively remote, located 3000m above sea level in a cloud forest. In 2017, a cable car stretching 4km opened, which drops visitors 20 minutes’ walk away from the entrnace – horses and carts operate if you need help getting to the summit. Some companies do still run treks, but it’s a steep 9km (roughly 3 hour) hike each way, so go prepared.
The town of Chachapoyas is about 100km away: you’ll need to get a combi or colectivo to the town of Nuevo Tingo, and then find a bus or motorcycle to take you the last few kilometres to the ruins. Check timings of buses so you don’t get stranded: it’s worth leaving from Chachapoyas early to make the most of the day.
From the heights of Machu Picchu to the immense reaches of the Nazca Lines and more, here is our ultimate guide to the top Peruvian cultural locations, landmarks and monuments.