The ancient fortress of Kuelap is a unique archeological site in Northern Peru, pre-dating Machu Picchu by 1,000 years. Often called one of the most overwhelming pre-Inca sites, it is quickly becoming a favorite amongst visitors looking for something off-the-beaten path. With the upcoming installation of a cable car and nearby airport, it appears it will become a more accessible destination as well. Here is the background on this little-known spot, and what makes Kuelap tours so intriguing.
What is Kuelap?
Built in the 6th century AD, the fortress of Kuelap is an ancient walled city connected with the Chachapoyas culture. It is made up of more than four hundred buildings, enveloped by enormous exterior walls made of stone that measure up to 19 meters in height. Approximately 600 meters long and 110 meters wide, it is dramatically situated on a ridge above the Utcubamba Valley in Northern Peru. Kuelap’s original purpose remains unknown, though it is believed to have been built to defend against the Huari or another group.
Radiocarbon dating indicated that the complex was occupied until the Early Colonial period, which lasted from 1532 to 1570. It was only later rediscovered in 1843, when a local judge in Chachapoyas, Juan Crisostomo Nieto, made a survey of the area and noted Kuelap’s remarkable size. Villagers who had known of the site for generations led him to it, leading to an explosion of interest. Kuelap grabbed the attention of explorers, historians and archaeologists, though remained thoroughly unexplored for over a century.
In May and June of 1997, the first exploratory expedition of Kuelap began, directed by Federico Kauffmann Doig. They found a cave filled with rock paintings, protecting five mausoleums. Inside these mausoleums were funeral bundles, ceramics, and other remnants attributable to the Chachapoyas culture.
It was in a later expedition in July of 2010 when a large collection of human bones was found. Dating back to the seventh century AD, remains of 79 human bodies were found within a stone wall, which is believe to have been a secondary grave site, customary in pre-Columbian Peru.
Today remain multiple levels within the complex, having supported about 400 (mainly cylindrical) constructions, of which only bases remain. The three most notable structures are El Tintero, La Atalaya, and El Castillo.
El Tintero is a tower in the shape of an inverted cone, seemingly defying the laws of gravity and remaining standing today. La Atalaya is a tower structure, and El Castillo is a three-level structure that can be accessed through three portals in different parts of the complex.
What is most fascinating about Kuelap, though, is how massive of a construction it is, and the advanced engineering that would have been required to create its sophisticated drainage system. Even more perplexing is that scholars remain unsure of its use (much like Machu Picchu). Because of its location and high walls, many support that it must have acted as a “fortress”, with some believing it to have been a fortified refuge for the population in an emergency situation.
Art and relics found at the site, however, suggest that it must have also had a religious or sacred function. Some conclude, based on general knowledge about the Peruvian archaeological past, that it could have been a pre-Inca sanctuary in which a powerful aristocracy resided, focused on overseeing food production and providing religious leadership.
New discoveries emerge offering researchers new clues, but for now Kuelap’s purpose remains unknown, adding to its mystery and allure.
Where is Kuelap?
Situated about 3,000 meters above sea level, the ruins of Kuelap sit atop a hill on the left bank of the Utcubamba Valley in Chachapoyas, in the Amazonas state of Northern Peru.
As of now, access requires hiking, driving, or riding horseback from the town of El Tingo, however plans to open a cable car this year offer to change that and make it more easily accessible for a range of visitors. The cable car will cut through the valley, avoiding the long drive to the site.
Travelers can most easily access it by flying into Chiclayo or Tarapoto and taking the 8-9 hour scenic drive up to Kuelap. You can also now fly from Tarapoto to Chachapoyas' small airport, or fly from Lima directly into the larger Jaen airport, a 3 hour drive from Chachapoyas. The drive from Chachapoyas to Kuelap is approximately 2 hours. . Please contact us for more information.