Kuelap – an alternative to Machu Picchu (without the crowds)

As Machu Picchu continues to be overrun with visitors and recent changes in regulations further limit your visits, the remote ancient fortress of Kuelap offers an exciting and off-the-beaten-path adventure for travelers interested in mysterious ancient cultures and spectacular landscapes.

The remoteness is an advantage, and a disadvantage. This isolation is what has kept many visitors away. Until recently the only way to reach Kuelap was a long (but sensational) bus or car ride to the town of Chachapoyas and from there a 2½-hour drive to the fortress. But Kuelap’s remoteness is a drawback for travelers with limited travel time or an aversion to long and arduous travel.

Archaeologists are still digging there. You can stay as long as you want. No permit necessary (for now).

Kuelap is an ancient walled fortress and archaeological site located in the Amazonas Region of northeast Peru. It sits high on a limestone escarpment at 9,800 feet above sea level overlooking the Utcubamba Valley. Construction of the fortress by the Chachapoya people began in the 6th century AD. The walled city stretches almost 2000 feet but is only 360 feet at the widest point.

You don’t actually walk through Kuelap but on top of it.

The massive walls surrounding the city are 30 to 60 feet high with finely carved masonry of limestone blocks (some weighing up to 3 tons). The outer walls are dramatic but what makes a visit to Kuelap so special is walking in the shadow of a lost civilization that is somewhat a mystery to this day. Much of the site is overgrown by trees, bromeliads, orchids and mosses. The site is home to many birds.

You enter the site through one of three narrow entrances. There are over 550 structures in the site, all but 5 are circular and typical of Chachapoya design. The majority of structures were built between 900 and 1100 AD. Castillo is a religious platform overlooking one entrance. The remarkable El Tintero appears as an inverted cone and is believed to have been a solar observatory. The area known as Pueblo Alto has a wall over 37 feet high and is accessed by 2 narrow entrances. Torreón is a 24-foot tower-like structure that may have been used for defensive purposes. Around Kuelap, you will find stones with anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and geometric designs. Some walls have rhomboid and zig-zag shaped friezes. Burials have been found inside the circular structures as well as in the walls. Stone canals are believed to have supplied water to the city from a spring at the top of the mountain.

The Chachapoya were conquered by the Inca Empire sometime in the second half of the 15th century. After the civilization was defeated the Inca built additional structures at the site. Expert guides will point out the different styles. The city may have had some 300,000 inhabitants at its heyday.

How to get there:

Air - As of July 13th (2017), there are twice-weekly flights between Lima and Chachapoyas. Kuelap is about 2½ hours by car from Chachapoyas.

Ground - Private car (around 8 hours) or overnight bus from Chiclayo (around 10 hours). Movil Tours and Excluciva operate luxury buses with lay-flat seats or executive VIP recliners. The scenic route travels via Jaen then descends and crosses the Maranon into the Amazonas region.

Where to stay:

Chachapoyas is capital of the Amazonas region and an isolated colonial town from where you base your exploration of the area. Strolling the streets you will notice people with blue eyes, light-colored skin and hair. These folks are not tourists, they are local residents and descendants of the mysterious Chachapoyan people. Chachapoyas hotels – there is a good selection of hotels in Chachapoyas, from basic backpacker lodges to small 3-star hotels with plenty of local character. The La Xalca and Hotel Vilaya are two of the best in town.

A good option is to stay at the Choctamal Marvelous Spatuletail Lodge in Choctamal, about 2 hours by car from Chachapoyas and only 30 minutes from Kuelap, giving you a headstart on visitors coming from Chachapoyas. It has been estimated there are less than 1000 Marvelous Spatuletails in the entire world, which positions them on the Red List of endangered birds. They live only in this small area of Northern Peru on the slopes of the Andes. You can often spot them flitting about the lodge grounds.

Choctamal Marvelous Spatuletail Lodge

Additional day trips from Chachapoyas:

Hike to Gocta Waterfall – there has been some dispute about the claim that Gocta Waterfall is the third highest waterfall in the world. Some say it is the fifth highest and others the 14th – the latter based on the World Waterfall Database. When you walk close to the tallest drop it is an awesome experience as the spray blasts you. Along the approach forest trail you have a good chance of seeing the endemic yellow-tailed woolly monkey, which only exists in northeastern Peru. From the village of Cocachimba it is a 2.5-3 hour walk along a good trail to the base of the falls.

The Tombs of Revash – a complex of funeral buildings and tombs from the Chachapoya civilization located on the edge of a limestone cliff about 35 miles south of Chachapoyas.

The Sarcophagi of Karajia – although much smaller than Kuelap, the stylized human figures with expressive faces are iconic images of the Chachapoyas area. These statues face east from a narrow ledge on a cliff some 80 feet above the path below. Inside are human remains and offerings. The Sarcophagi of Karajia are not the only ones in the Chachapoyas area, but they are the easiest to see and get close to.

The Mummy Museum of Leymebamba - where visitors can wander through four rooms of the museum with many of the best finds on display, including quipus (knotted strings used for accounts by the ancients) and the environmentally controlled mummy room.

Go now! Direct flights between Lima and Chachapoyas and the recent construction of a cable-car system will bring a sharp rise in the number of tourists to this area. At some point in the future Kuelap may become as popular as Machu Picchu.

Custom Lost World Adventures trips can be designed from 3 nights and longer. Packages with Lost World Adventures can include private round-trip car service from Chiclayo or Trujillo, domestic flights, hotel accommodations, private guided day trip to Kuelap, additional excursions. 

Click here for a sample Lost World Adventures Chachapoyas Discovery itinerary  

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