Kuelap – “The New Machu Picchu”

The Kuelap ruins are actually older than Macchu Picchu. They were found/discovered in 1843. Abandoned after the Incas conquered the Chachapoyas before the Spanish arrived. The entire area had been forgotten for quite some time. Until 1960, there wasn’t a road from Cajamarca to Chachapoyas, the capital of the Amazonas region, or Chachas as the locals call it. A secret site held by the local Chachapoyans for many years, it’s still a hidden treasure.

My Route

I was told that there is a flight now from Lima to Chachapoyas, however due to the recent flooding the flights are running ‘medical and evacuation’ flights and not commercial flights at the moment. I booked a flight from Lima to Tarapoto and planned to make the overland trip to Chachapoyas to visit the Kuelap ruins. On my arrival in Tarapoto, I was able to find a flight to Chachapoyas to shorten the trip. From Chachapoyas, I took a local tour company that arranged my arrival to the teleferico at Kuelap. All in all…it was a pretty simple trip to make. You can still take the 4 hour hike for those of you that are a bit more adventurous. I’m told that it’s a beautiful hike and it also helps to continue to support the local villages that are drastically being adversely affected by the new tram.

Access Becomes Easier

A brand new high-speed “teleferico” from the village of Tingo Nuevo opened just a month ago. The gondola takes 20 minutes to reach Kuelap, compared with the previous hour-and-half drive or four-hour hike.

My ride on the teleferico was a fog shrouded mystery…

With a mere 41,000 visitors annually, compared with Machu Picchu’s 1.2 million, Kuelap provides solace that you won’t find in the more famous site.

Not Machu Picchu

In differentiation from Macchu Picchu which are Incan ruins, the ruins of Kuelap are Chachapoyan. It’s easy to see the distinct differences. The MP ruins are mostly squared. The buildings all with sharp corners and 4 sided. In contrast, the ruins of Kuelap are all rounded. The structures nearly touch each other in places.

The Chachapoyas decorated many of the structures with beautiful artistic triangular and diamond-shaped friezes thought to be symbols of fertility.

The interior of the houses is simple and shows some of the culture of the Chachapoyan people. The ‘kitchen’ area is platformed with a tunnel separating it from the rest of the house. This tunnel is reported to be where they raised guinea pig, which was a main staple in the local diet (and still is today). The placement of the guinea pig tunnel was inherently so that they could thrive in the warmth coming from the kitchen. Their beds were made from llama wool at another end of the tunnel. It was fascinating to see how they engineered these building to accommodate this food source.

It’s not a Fortress!!

My guide re-iterated this sentiment several times. Although there is some controversy on the true purpose of the site. My guide maintains that the Kuelap ruins were a place of ceremony, not a defensive structure. The evidence of this is the two upside down conical structures with platforms where it’s believed that the Chachapoyans performed rituals and ceremonies. It’s further believed that the highest ranking of the priests lived at this site. Burials were one of the ceremonies that are believed to have occurred here as they found a multitude of human bones at the site in several sorts of “holes”.

It has been estimated that at its height, Kuelap had a population of up to 3,000 inhabitants consisting of not warriors, but merchants, shamans and farmers. It would perhaps be more fitting to call Kuelap a walled city, rather than a fortress.