Have you ever heard of Kuelap? My guess is, no as most people haven’t. I hadn’t heard of it myself until I started doing research for my trip. And from what I read, and eventually saw in person, it amazes me that it remains so unknown. Kuelap is often marketed as the “Machu Picchu of the North” but I think it is completely different from its more famous sister. And guess what – for some people, Kuelap is even better than Machu Picchu. What did I think of it? Well…
What is Kuelap?
Kuelap is the largest stone structure in the Americas. The walls of Kuelap are huge – they are 600 meters in length, are as tall as 20 meters, and have an average thickness of 80cm. Kuelap was more a city than a fortress, however. While there is evidence of military functions within the site, there is plenty of other evidence that indicate civil, domestic, and religious activities took place as well. It is estimated that the city held approximately 3000 people.
The site is located in the Andes of northern Peru. It is even higher in altitude than Machu Picchu (7,972ft) as it lies at 9,873ft! Kuelap was built by a Pre-Incan people called the Chachapoyas about the sixth century A.D. It was used continuously until the 16th century; by that point, the Incas had moved in.
What Was It Like To Get To Kuelap?
Getting to Kuelap was a bit of a trek through the mountains and the ubiquitous narrow windy roads. But the views of the Peruvian mountainscape were phenomenal. We passed through many small towns that made me wonder how they stayed afloat. The news that the Peruvian government was building a cable car to Kuelap that would bypass all these towns must have been a horrific shock to the people who live here. We did see the cable car system on our way up the mountain but I don’t know why anyone would take it over seizing this opportunity to witness mountain life. Taking the cable car also means that visitors wouldn’t have the opportunity to spend money in these towns and tourist dollars are very much important to the local economy.
What Was It Like To Visit Kuelap?
When we finally arrived at Kuelap, it was unusually busy. Generally, the site only sees about 41,000 visitors annually (Machu Picchu gets 1.2 million people per year) and that is an average of 112 people per day. Visitors are mostly Peruvian, with the smattering of foreigners. The day we went, there was definitely more than 112 people as it happened to be International Museum Day. However, they were mostly focused on the festivities at the base of the Kuelap site. The fortress itself was mostly quiet.
Our guide was Spanish speaking which meant I had to work hard to understand her, to ask my questions, and to act as translator for my sister. From the base of the site to the fortress, it was a 20 minute climb on stone pathways made slick by that day’s rain. And then it was a climb up a slightly treacherous barely-there stone staircase to get within the walls. But once inside, I began to understand why the Chachapoyas people who lived here, did so for so long. Just the views alone would have made me want to live there! Well – the views I could see when the thick clouds moved out of our way. The green valleys and patchwork farmland in the distance, tall green trees with large red bromeliads within the city, wild flowers all over the place – it all made for a quasi-Amazonian feel, making this site a very atmospheric place.
The buildings within Kuelap were circular in nature and many foundations were still evident. A couple homes had been restored, including their thatch roofs, enabling visitors to see what its size would have been. They were on average, five meters in diameter, several meters high, and had a floor to separate the two levels. Many homes had a cuy run as well as one to three tombs in the ground so that dead family members could still be part of the family.
There were also several buildings built in a rectangular style that apparently signify a long ago Inca presence. Other buildings even had bones buried within their walls! There were yet other structures that had unique geometric friezes representing the gods, indicating the homes were of important (perhaps religious) people lived there.
Kuelap Better Than Machu Picchu? Them Be Fighting Words!
Quite frankly, in some ways, I did prefer Kuelap over Machu Picchu. While the location of Machu Picchu was absolutely stunning, my visit to it was more about the journey rather than the final destination. I really enjoyed Kuelap for several reasons. First, while different from Machu Picchu’s setting, Kuelap is also set in a beautiful location with its “countryside meets jungle” vibe. Secondly, I loved how the vegetation at Kuelap is all throughout the site. At Machu Picchu, there is some manicured vegetation, but the site is primarily stone. The third reason I loved Kuelap is that it is mostly a “proper” ruin whereas Machu Picchu is mostly still standing and/or reconstructed. Ruins combined with creeping vegetation always wins me over! The biggest reason why I preferred Kuelap over Machu Picchu is the lack of crowds. Good grief, is the latter ever crowded. Kuelap, on the other hand, you still can be lucky enough to have the place to yourself. Even if not, for now, generally there will be only a handful of people there at any given point in time.
So, if you’re looking to visit an impressive set of ruins that is still pretty much unknown to the wider world, one that is quite isolated and very atmospheric, I strongly suggest a trip to Kuelap!
Location: Chachapoyas province, Peru
Tip: The cable car is now open. However, I do recommend the drive through the mountains to Kuelap. Have lunch in one of the various towns through which you’ll pass!