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Peru: The Engima of Kuelap

November 11, 2009

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In north-central Peru, Amazonas Department was one of the original areas settled by the Spanish after the Conquest. The capital city of Chachapoyas was established in 1538 by Alonso Alvarado, then quickly relegated to a backwater.  The Spanish found little gold there, the area was remote in the extreme, and they had a lot more fun in Cusco and other regions of the country.

They never understood the significance of its architectural jewel, the citadel of Kuelap.  Built by yet another culture whose  real name we don’t even know, Kuelap involved the largest engineering project ever completed in South America.  Construction began around the 6th century AD.

The territory of the Chachapoyans supported a huge population and their cities have been found all through this area of Peru.  Estimates of the total vary, but their citizens may have numbered into the hundreds of thousands.  Despite their-warlike reputation, the Incas conquered their society in the end, and their vast network of cities and fortresses disappeared into the rain forest forever.   One fact is beyond dispute.   While their art and architecture exhibit influences from the highland cultures that preceded them, they probably arrived upstream from the lower altitudes of the Amazon basin, a rarity among the high cultures of pre-Hispanic Peru.

The ruins at Kuelap, their principal citadel, are huge and mostly  intact, perched on a mountain-top overlooking the Utcubamba River.  They built small centers in the surrounding lowlands to afford instant line-of-sight communication between Kuelap and their more remote outposts.  Thus, they possessed a network that was  superior in functionality to some of our own cell phone companies’ models in today’s world, no mean achievement.

But let us return to the city. The ruins are situated at 300o meters above sea level, above deep canyons often lost in the mists below. Its construction required inconceivable efforts and highly advanced architectural knowledge.  The walls extend almost 600 meters in length and rise to a height of over 19 meters, and were constructed with mortarless stone.


1) The exterior walls of Kuelap


3) The scale of the walls’ height, with Davarian Hall providing a reference point

A number of Europeans in the nineteenth century claimed to have “discovered” Kuelap, which of course had always been known to local campesinos.  Certainly by the 1840s its existence was a matter of public record.  Treasure hunters wasted no time dynamiting the walls looking for gold and other loot.  They found none.

4) Those walls again

What has astonished both scientists and casual visitors that the city does not lie within these great walls.  Rather, the builders infilled the empty space and built their city on top of the fortifications.  Some four hundred structures, mostly houses,  have been identified.


5) Interior structure: the rectangular designs are thought to symbolize jaguar eyesFar-out enthusiasts associate these designs to those of the Zimbabwe culture in Africa

The quantity of infill greatly exceeds that of the Great Pyramid, the pyramid at Cholula in Mexico, and the Aswan High Dam: take your pick.  When one contemplates the extent of this undertaking, words fail.  How many baskets of material were hauled by hand into the city wall to raise such a massive platform?  The numbers stagger the  imagination.


6) The ruins shot with a telephoto lens from 20 kms. distant.  The walls and the artificial platform atop Kuelap are located on the right side of the photo

Kuelap surpasses Machu Picchu in both its grandeur and the beauty of the surrounding landscape.  However, access to the site is difficult, to understate the problem.  Three routes provide a means to travel to Chachapoyas, all of which contain serious downsides.

The most common route involves traveling to Chiclayo and then following a good paved road into the mountains, a ten-hour drive.  The road, while well-maintained, has issues with landslides and is often closed for days at a time during the rainy season.  Once, along this route, my companions and I came across a blockage that had lasted two days. We were incredibly lucky, as within an hour of our arrival the final work had been finished to clear the mess, and we were able to continue on our way.

The second choice for reaching Chachapoyas utilizes direct flights from Lima.  Despite repeated attempts, such service  is impossible to guarantee because of Chachapoyas’ vast annual rainfall.  And the airport,  located above the town, is often socked in with no radar facilities to guide incoming aircraft.  The sole runway ends at the edge of a thousand meter precipice, so overshooting your landing is not an advisable option.  Recent presidential candidates have traveled to Chachapoyas to promise a new airport, but two obstacles exist:  There is  no viable  site to place an airstrip, and the Amazonas rains are not likely to diminish anytime soon.

The third option and the longest relies on flights to Cajamarca,  accessible by air from Lima.  From here a road passes first to Celendin, then descends with a dizzying grade into the famous Maranon Canyon, and climbs the other side to the town of Leimebamba.  During my first trip on this route, the Peruvian driver remarked in a whisper to his co-pilot that the brakes of the vehicle did not function.  Not realizing my knowledge of the local language, they assumed I would remain oblivious to the bad news.  But I perked up and demanded, ” What do you mean the brakes don’t work?  Are you guys crazy?”  We descended the canyon in first gear, frequently hitting the cliff sides in order to keep our speed at a manageable level. We made the trip without incident.

But climbing from the Maranon Valley is a different matter.  Bottomless drop-offs fall from the edge of the road, which is barely a car-width wide.  In many places I chose to shut my eyes, while keeping a hand on the door release in case a quick escape proved necessary.

Finally, travelers  may fly to Tarapoto,  east of Chachapoyas and climb the mountain road toward the west.  Tarapoto has long been a focal point of the drug trade and while the city is safe enough during daylight, evening walks around town are not best way to ensure longevity of one’s life.

In order to take the pressure off Machu Picchu and its hordes of day-trippers, Chachapoyas and Kuelap must be provided with enhanced infrastructure and access.  But one last obstacle exists on the road from Chachapoyas to Kuelap itself.  To begin, one must descend the vertical walls of the Utcumbamba Canyon, another vertigo-inducing ride.  A group our travel agency sent to Chachapoyas some  years ago refused to return up that road after their visit to Kuelap.  They bluntly declared that they would not re-ascend the road and gave us no room for argument.  Our operators in the area had to make other arrangements.

The final terrifying segment of the journey to Kuelap involves the road to the mountaintop ruins.  But the difficulty of access is worth every drop of beaded sweat.


7) The road to Kuelap. Please ask your driver not to fall off


8) View from the Kuelap walls’ summit


9) Kuelap contained a single city entrance that narrowed until only one person could pass through at a time. Nearby villagers say this entrance was designed to keep out large and now-extinct predators.

Kuelap09710) Another view of the entrance


11) More geometric designs

12) Painted jaguar eye still visible inside the ruins

13) Very few human representations have been found among the various Chachapoyan ruins.  They tend to be identical in form, regardless of their location in Chachapoyan territory.  What was their significance and whom may they have represented?

More people visit Machu Picchu every day than tour Kuelap in a year  The population of Chachapoyas desperately needs to develop self-sustaining tourism in this wonderful region of Peru.  The tasks ahead for aiding these good people  are difficult but not insurmountable.  Will foreign aid and corporate money be used to fund megaprojects, glamorous for the television cameras, or we will invest in sustainable projects with proven success  rates?

In the long run, Peruvians must decide.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2010 12:13 am

    Great article. I went to Kuelap a few days ago, it’s an awesome place.

  2. Rodrigo permalink
    February 5, 2010 1:36 pm

    Hi Kit, Interesting article. I hope you are doing well.


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