The Machu Picchu of the north, Kuelap is a lesser-visited archaeological site in Peru that begs to be explored.
Teetering at an altitude of 3,000m, emerging from the cloud forest in the Utcubamba River Valley of northern Peru, is the evocative Chachapoyas site of Kuelap. This vast ancient ruin comprises an incredible collection of 400 crumbling buildings, and towering walls that would’ve encircled the site to protect its 300,000 inhabitants. All this was built long before the Inca constructed the smaller Machu Picchu, nearly a thousand kilometres south of Kuelap.
Until very recently, the immense archaeological site of Kuelap has been extremely challenging to reach, with only a tough hike or gruelling drive the means of getting there at all. Now, a brand-new cable car whisks you up into the skies above Utcubamba River Valley, from the nearby town of Tingo Nuevo up 4km towards this ancient settlement of the Chachapoya people, where a much shorter walk is then all that stands between you and this breathtaking place.
There are so many head-scratching features about Kuelap, from the soaring ramparts that made this a ‘walled city’ for some 30,000 Chachapoya, to the immense stone blocks that are said to be ten times bigger than those at Giza. In addition, Kuelap is more ancient than Machu Picchu, dating back to around 500AD (predating the Lost City of the Inca by at least 500 years), and bigger in size; it accommodates 400 stone houses, round in shape, that were once topped with thatched roofs and home to Chachapoya people, also known as the ‘Cloud Warriors’. And so, after being lost to the cloud forest for hundreds of years, Kuelap is now well and truly open to the world – just be sure you get there before the word is out.
The great wall of Kuelap
This Chachapoyas site is often described as a fortress, what with its immense stone walls that make up an important part of this ancient construction. In places, the wall reaches up to 17m in height, and extends for nearly 600m – impressive to say the least!
Fascinating, emblematic engravings
Along the stonework you can make out carvings of Jaguars, birds and snakes, which represent various Chachapoya gods. This is a sort of trademark of the Chachapoya civilisation, who also liked to adorn their constructions with zigzag shapes.
The ‘tintero’ temple
One of the most talked about buildings at Kuelap is the tintero construction, which features a carving of a face on one side. It hasn’t been confirmed what the exact purpose of this temple was, but many experts believe it was a ceremonial site, as offerings were discovered around here; though it might’ve been used as a prison, water tank, or something else entirely!