Bucolic Kuélap! Romantic Kuélap! This small pre-inca citadel, on the top of a mountain near Chachapoyas in the north of Peru, charmed us less for its architecture than for its setting. The endemic trees growing wildly on-site and the 360° view on the surrounding valley make for a natural jewel box. Kuélap was named in 2008 as one of the seven wonders of Peru. It is half Choquequirao and half English graveyard, and would have been the favourite retreat of many XIXth-century romantic painters!
What is Kuélap anyway?
Known nowadays as the “Kingdom of the Clouds”, Kuélap is situated on the top of a mountain at 3000 m asl, on an area of approximately 7 hectares. It was built between 500 and 800 AD. by a culture named Chachapoya (500 a.D. – 1450 a.D.); that is 600 to 900 years before the Incas built Machu Picchu. Their name was then given to the main town, 70 km away.
That culture extended on around 200 km from north to south of today’s Amazonas region. Kuélap served as a political, religious and military centre.
The upper part of the site was indeed a perfect lookout on the surrounding area of short vegetation and the valleys of the Tingo and Utcubamba rivers. They could probably see their enemies coming from far away; and they probably saw the Incas coming from far away too, but they couldn’t stop them from kicking their butt. That’s pretty much what would then happen to the Incas (also spelt ‘Inkas’) only a few decades later.
This site was therefore occupied only until the XVIth century, when it was destroyed and burnt down.
What is left today of that civilisation are a few rough jewellery; textile and ceramic works (by no means comparable to the art of the Moche for instance); some impressive-looking mummies; and a beautiful site which could well become one of Peru’s major hits in the coming years.
Works are currently under way to uncover and rehabilitate the entirety of the fortified city*. And things are done beautifully –with wooden platforms, many ceramic bins and an important place left to nature.
*It has long been stipulated that the site was an ancient military fortress, due to its elevated location. Since then, archaeologists have discovered the definitely religious side of the town. This is why it is known as a fortified city rather than a fortress.
Read about the art of the Moche: Treasures of the Lord of Sipán Tomb
The Ruins of Kuélap
This pre-Inca town is definitely a peculiar sight, a mix of stone constructions and vegetation including bromeliads and wild orchids, with a handful of peaceful llamas scattered around. You will see ruins of round houses, which were specific to the Chachapoya culture; and fortifications that can reach as much as 20 meters in height.
As often in civilisations of that time, the Chachapoya people buried their whole house when the head of the family died; and rebuilt it again on top, forcing to heighten the city walls. At least 420 houses have been counted but only a handful are restored nowadays.
Crossing the middle of each living area, you will see a low tunnel made of stones; this is where the family kept their beloved ‘cuyes‘ aka guinea pigs, serving thus as a central heating system. These lovely creatures were and still are no pets to the Andean folks but rather a popular traditional food in Bolivia, Peru & Ecuador. Guinea pigs were therefore both heating and eaten.
The upper level
At the northern end of the site, there is a tower (the ‘Torreón‘) where many stone projectiles have been found. We believe that the Chachapoya, being so close to the clouds, threw stones at them to bring down the rain. I don’t know if it worked, but it is at least a more direct undertaking than to wait on the gods with a few prayers and the sacrifice of a llama fetus (or worse), like most other cultures did.
This tower is part of the upper level, along with the remnants of a castle, where only the elite had access.
Scattered across the site, you will see carvings representing felines, snakes (as zigzags) and condors. They’re the sacred animals of the Chachapoya cosmovision.
Read more: The Andean religion and symbols
How to get to Kuélap
As in many tourist attractions, there are 2 ways to reach the city of Kuélap from the town of Chachapoyas; the easy touristy way and the cheap backpacker’s way. And believe it or not, this time we went for the 1st one! (As they say in German: “Einmal ist keinmal“.) Anyway, here we will tell you about both.
The Easy Touristy Way – Kuélap teleférico
This route starts with 1 hour on a bumpy minibus (we were still sick from Gocta and could map out every bump) to the village of Nuevo Tingo. The driver should leave you right at the “embarcadero para Kuélap” aka “telecabinas” (cable car) —some companies don’t, we took Kuélap Tour who usually does. The ride will cost you s/ 7.00 for the excitement, but bring your own plastic bags in case of car sickness.
At the “Embarcadero” you will buy your return ticket for the cable car that will bring you directly to the citadel’s ticket office. It is a bit pricey, s/ 20.40. Note that there is no possibility of a single ticket. This ticket consists of a 10-minute bus ride to the cable car (with explanations about the site in both Spanish and English) + the cable car ride + the same route back.
You will be warned that the last cabin leaves the site at 3:30 pm, for reasons that remain obscure to us; so keep that in mind when setting off. You will find here the official website of the cable car, en español.
With your ticket in hand, you will have to walk a path of medium difficulty to the entrance, lasting between 20 and 30 minutes. You can also hire a horse to give you a ride. In both cases, remember that you’re in altitude so take it easy.
The entrance ticket costs s/ 30.00. You can also hire a guide for a total of s/ 15.00, divided among the people in the group. Otherwise, there are also the few odd signs on-site, both in Spanish and Broken English.
Here’s a breakdown of how long the whole visit will take you:
(keep in mind the 3:30 pm deadline for the cable car)
1 hour on the minibus + potential wait for the bus (no more than 15 min) + 10 min on the bus + 20 min on the cable car + 20 to 30 min to the entrance to the fortified town + around 2,5 hours on-site + 20 min + 20 min + 10 min + potential wait for the minibus + 1 hour to Chachapoyas = a minimum of 6 hours and 43 minutes roughly.
As for the price, expect a total of s/ 64,40 per person, without guided tour.
We have to say that the whole experience was rather smooth and very modern, surprisingly so when you’re already used to Peru. The cable car is brand new, safe, and gives an amazing experience of silently flying over the valley —it’s of course also a great occasion for landscape photography. But let’s see now…
The Cheap Backpacker’s Way – Kuélap trek
If you’ve walked the rails to the Machu Picchu instead of taking that gringo train, you’re interested in this one.
Your journey should start very early on a minibus taking you to Tingo (NOT to Nuevo Tingo!) for s/ 7.00. This is where the trail up to Kuélap starts. You can take any minibus going to Leymebamba o Yerbabuena, starting as soon as 6 am, but make sure they stop in Tingo. As usual, the mini leaves when full. (Because, you know, it takes two to Tingo…)
It seems like there are a few minibuses going directly from Chachapoyas to La Malca, which is the pueblo nearest to the ticket office. That would be splendid! But we haven’t found any secure information. Ask several bus companies in the Terminal terrestre, and if you find something, please leave us a comment below!
From Tingo, you need to take the trail that starts right before the bridge and goes up to “Anexo Kuélap”. People told us it’s a 4-hour walk, but we think people who don’t usually walk always overestimate walking times. We haven’t verified. We don’t know either if the walk is nice, difficult, offers viewpoints or if people offer you bananas on the way.
Once you’re up there, you must go around the citadel to get your ticket, then back to enter the site. The entrance ticket costs s/ 30.00. You can also hire a guide for a total of s/ 15.00, divided among the people in the group. Otherwise, there are also the few odd signs, both in Spanish and Broken English.
The visit takes roughly 2,5 hours, then the hike back down around 3 hours. From Tingo, just grab any mini to Chacha, or raise your thumb to get lucky.
Here’s a breakdown of how long it should take you:
1 hour on the minibus + 4 hours hike up + around 40 min to ticket office and back + 2,5 hours + 3 hours down + potential wait for a mini + 1 hour back to Chachapoyas = about 12 hours in total.
Of course, it would save you some time to sleep in the village of Tingo. Always keep in mind that your night there, and your potential dinner/breakfast, might be a non-negligible source of income for the local population.
As for the price, expect a total of s/ 44.00 per person, without guided tour. Yeah man, that entrance fee is expensive: but they’re making a damn good job at restoring this wonderful site, so it’s totally worth it. At least until it becomes as (in)famous as the overcrowded Machu Picchu. By the way…
Kuélap or Machu Picchu?
There seems to be a fake contest as to why travellers to Peru should visit Kuélap rather than Machu Picchu. As I understand it, this might be fueled by a competition between the South of Peru, which gets all the touristic attention, and the North of the country, which gets very little. You probably have heard of Cuzco, Nazca, Arequipa and the Titicaca lake (all in the South) but do Tarapoto, Cajamarca, Máncora or Chachapoyas ring a bell?
Despite being ranked at number 29 on the New York Time’s 52 Places to Go in 2018 list, the site of Kuélap is still little touched by international tourism, and remains therefore an off-the-beaten-path destination. Numbers will obviously grow over time, and in the high-season months of June to August.
For me, there is no choice to be made between Machu Picchu and Kuélap: they are two different sites of different cultures and different times, showing different characteristics and a different atmosphere. I understand the concern about the overtourism on the Machu Picchu, but seeing Kuélap in its stead will not replace it.
If you decide to overlook Machu Picchu, I believe you should prefer other Inca sites in the Sacred Valley. In my opinion, Machu Picchu, for all its mass tourism, expensive tickets and restrictive rules, remains a wonderful site that shouldn’t be missed.
Read more: Wandering in Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Essentials to bring to Kuélap
As on most sites, wear comfortable walking boots, especially if it has rained and the paths are muddy. The weather changes quickly, so take along a rain jacket, a jumper, but also a hat, sun cream and water.
How I Met Your Mummy
The belief of the Chachapoya (similar to the one of the Chimú for example) was that the dead would resuscitate in the afterlife. Therefore all the dead were dried in fetal position and with several of their belongings: the fetal position to represent the re-birth from Mother Earth, and the belongings they might need in their new life.
What no-one could properly explain to me is why they all have such a dramatic expression and position of the hands. If you have a PhD in Pre-Inca anthropology, please do share your knowledge in the comments section.
Read this interesting parallel between the Chachapoya mummies and Edvard Munch’s famous painting, the Scream.
It is believed that after being left to dry, the mummies were then buried under the family house, to be unburied at a later date and left in the unique common room (NO JOKE!) to stare at you while you were brushing your teeth. Speak of a family reunion!
There is a tiny museum on the central square of Chachapoyas where it is forbidden to take pictures. It is nonetheless free and gives a good introduction to the Chachapoya culture with a few artefacts, several fascinating mummies in tragic positions, and some information in Spanish and English.
After visiting Kuélap, don’t run away at once. There is still much to see in the region! The little town of Chachapoyas will serve as a comfortable base to explore the Gocta waterfalls, the sarcophagi of Karajia, the archeological museum in Leymebamba, the cave of Quiocta, the mausoleum of Revash and the Sonche canyon. A goldmine for both nature lovers and history enthusiasts!
Old stones & wild trees – What is a romantic landscape for you? Describe it in the comment section below!