Located on the ridge overlooking the Utcubamba valley in Northern Peru, the 600 m long, 19 m high fortress wall encompasses the once-well planned city of about 400 houses. The Kuelap fortress (meaning Cloud forest) has for centuries, guarded the secret of the Chachapoyan civilization.
The Chachapoyans existed in the 6th century and are known to be excellent architects, surgeons and warriors. This strong double walled fortress filled with stones and sand, is believed to have protected Chachapoyans from multiple invasions in their times.
- Mystery: There are only 4 written references to Kuelap, which means that very little is known about it. I did not even know about the Chachapoyas until I landed in Lima. But when I heard about it from a fellow traveler, I changed my itinerary (Perks of solo traveling!)
- In the process of restoration: Kuelap has been open to public for about 14-15 years now and the ruins are still in the process of being restored, like I said, it has been ignored by archeologists. I had never seen a un-restored site before and it was nice to see the ruins of a civilization almost the way they were discovered.
- Number of tourists: Consider this: number of tourists that visit Machu Picchu = 2500/ day @ 60$. Number of tourists that visit Kuelap = 20,000/ year => 60 tourists/ day @ 3$. Out of these 60, most of them are local Chachapoyan (the city) people. So, you can take as much time as you want to enjoy the beauty of this place – take pictures without people interrupting, and invite yourself to a Chachapoyan house like I did (See photos). As opposed to Macchu Pichu which turns into Disney land after 10 a.m.
Sneak Peak into the mystry fortress of Chachapoyas:
Once you are at Chachapoyas, you will have to book a tour in advance (with a tour agency) to take you to Kuelap fortress. It will cost you around 30-35 soles (includes the ticket to entrance). You will start early in the morning ~6:00-6:30. The bus takes ~2 hours to get to the Kuelap. Once at the site, you will pick up your tickets from the office and start your short-3 km-uphill climb to get to the fortress. It gets rainy and cold at the top, make sure you carry your raincoat.
The entrance into the city is rickety, slippery and very narrow. Narrow (and it looks like female genitals), so that only a few people can enter at a given time, eliminating the possibility of an enemy army marching in. This is the main entrance, and it under restoration. You will be sneaking in through the “back door”.
One inside, be prepared to be surprised – at the architecture, the workmanship, the city planning of these skillful civilization.
Most structures within the fortress are residential. Circular houses, with thatched conical roofs and walls about 4-4.5 m tall are a typical feature of their architecture. Houses have Guinea pigs breeding enclosures, fire pits, water storage pits, cooking paraphernalia and raised platforms for cooking (see photos). In addition to houses, you can site temples, inventories, palatial houses of bureaucrats in the complex.
Myths surrounding the causes of destruction of the “cloud people”, are multiple – from earthquakes, to repeated Incan conquests (the fortress wall is in-penetrable, which explains why it would have taken the Incans so long to conquer them) to a bloody massacre by the Spaniards – but there are no proofs or records to back these claims.
How to reach Kuelap from Lima:
- Direct bus to Chachapoyas – 80 soles: There are two bus companies that run direct buses to Chachapoyas – Civa and Movil tours. Civa bus station: Av Paseo de la República, Lima, Peru. Movil tours bus station: Stadium Nacional’ in La Victoria, Lima. The buses run in the evening (~4 pm) and you have to book in advance. Since the bus stop is in Central Lima, you can take a short walk in Lima downtown after booking the tickets. It takes 22 hours to reach Chachapoyas on this bus (including a short break for lunch). Dinner and breakfast are served in the bus. If you are a vegetarian – forget about food. Just pack some dry food for yourself before you board. Buses are pretty good, but once you hit the mountains, the roads are UNBELIEVABLY BAD – it is a pretty bumpy ride all the way to Chachapoyas.
- Lima-Chiclayo-Chachapoyas – 135 soles: Take a Cruz-del-sur bus from the central bus station, Lima to Chiclayo. 13 hours to Chiclayo and you can smell fresh air once again. Visit around Chiclayo, it is a pretty safe city – get some good food and admire the beauty of Spanish style balconies around the city houses. Nothing in particular, but just the hustle bustle of a small city will make up for a good change. From Chiclayo, you will have to take a Civa or Movil tour bus from a different bus stop (take a taxi for 5 soles from Cruz del Sur bus stop). It will take about 10 hours to reach Chachapoyas from Chiclayo.
- Lima-Chiclayo Flight; Chiclayo-Chachapoyas (bus): So much shorter, take this route if you have enough budget. Take a flight to Chiclayo from Lima (TACA airlines) and then the same route from Chiclayo to Chachapoyas.
Stay: Once you are in Chachapoyas, the Backpackers Hostel in Plaza del Armes is a good place to stay. You may find some tourists there to accompany you to Kuelap and Gocta waterfalls, the third highest water falls in the world after Angel falls and Victoria falls.
Things to remember while planning a trip to Chachapoyas:
- Take a sweater or a jacket for the visit. It gets pretty chilly and often rainy too.
- Wear good shoes with a grip: It is slippery while entering and exiting the fort, as the stairs are broken. I wore floaters, but it wasn’t a disaster.
- Water bottle and some snacks: it takes 2-2.5 hours to get to the fortress from Chachapoyas, the city. Make sure you have something to eat and drink on your way. The tour guys only stop once for lunch on the way back to Chachapoyas
- Make sure you explore the city of Chachapoyas, there are other sites to visit apart from the fortress too.
- The administration is working on a cable car to/from the fortress to reduce time required to reach here from the city.
- Meet the locals: I was told about blue eyed blonde people in Chachapoyas with absolutely no European connection. It is believed that they are the generation of Chachapoyan civilization.
Standing 3000 m above sea level, Kuelap and the surrounding ruins, are not a sight to miss. You will experience some of their culture still alive with the locals in the surrounding villages. Take the off-beaten path to witness and learn about this forgotten civilization: the place, people and buildings that once adorned this valley. And if you are one of those, who like to take the road less traveled, check out some other ‘offbeat’ but more rewarding things to do in Peru, besides Machu Picchu.