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Kuelap of the Chachapoyas Culture

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The Machu Picchu of Northern Peru? Is there an archaeological site equal to Machu Picchu anywhere in Peru?

"Yes, it's Kuelap," states Peru's Archaeological Institute. Among the thousands of ancient sites in Peru, this one definitely stands out.






Kuelap is considered equal in sheer magnitude and fascination to the famed Inca site of Machu Picchu.

This colossal fortress may become Peru's #2 tourist destination, if the organizations involved have their way.

March 2017 - Cable car to Kuelap began shuttling tourists 4 km across deep canyons to Kuelap.

Before, getting to Kuelap was 3 hours by foot or 1 hr and 20 minute by car.

The cable car or teleferico is the only one in Peru as of this writing.

Here is a video in Spanish which shows excellent details about the new system. If you don't understand Spanish, turn the volume dowm, much is self explanatory :)





What is Kuelap?

The special attraction of Kuelap: Most impressive is its sheer size. It is immense -

  • The walls that surround the more than 400 structures are over 60 feet (19 meters) high. They enclose an amazing 1,112 acres.
  • The size of the structures is as big or bigger than any other Pre-Columbian structures in the Americas, including the Mayan, Aztec, and Inca archaeological sites.

Kuelap is high above the Utcubamba River Valley, in Northern Peru.

  • At about 9,300 ft (3,000 m) altitude, Kuelap is not the highest archaeologcial site in Peru.
  • However, it is pretty high, about 1,000 ft (300 m) higher than Machu Picchu.
  • The common precaution of getting acclimated to the altitude at a lower level for a day or so is recommended.

Called La Fortaleza (The Fortress), Kuelap is considered the most important archaeological site in the high mountain rain forest of Northern Peru.



kuelap peru wall


What hits you first when you see Kuelap is how huge the walls are and where it it is built.

Kuelap is surrounded by steep slopes and sheer cliffs, covering a huge surface area.

Enclosed within very high walls with only three narrow entrances, it is obvious that this fortress would have proven to be a daunting challenge to any enemy force.

You can't look at Kuelap without being impressed by the setting - verdant lush vegetation surrounds and encompasses much of the fortress, with clinging plants growing out of every conceivable crevice.

Then there's the strategic location.

Kuelap sits in high-altitude rain forest at around 3,000 meters.

High above a main river valley, Kuelap covers the approach to the upper Amazon jungle basin, a setting that is really  impressive.

According to Spanish colonial documents from 1591, the name Kuelap resulted from the corruption of the word "Cónlap," the name of a people who populated the region before the city was built.



Location

Kuelap Fortress is in the mountains of Northern Peru high above the upper Utcubamba River valley near the village of Kuelap.

This is in the Department of Amazonas, Peru, a huge area covering not only the entire northern jungles down to Iquitos, but also including parts of two mountain ranges.

Kuelap is at an elevation of close to 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). So, although the lower surroundings are tropical, the location itself is very high mountains.

In spite of the altitude, it can be very warm in the daytime. It is generally cool at night with a rainy season from December through April.





Why was Kuelap built?

It may have had a religious significance but little substantiates this theory.

One probable reason for building a fortress at this location was the military and economic vantage point.

Kuelap was in a good position to keep an eye on traffic from the mountains into the rainforest regions of N. Peru.

The people of the Chachapoyas culture could watch for possible enemy movement and keep tabs on trade along the route.





How To Get to Kuelap

Nowadays, the main city in the region is Chachapoyas. That's the jumping off point to get to the fortress of Kuelap.

From Chiclayo on the coast of Peru, it is about 420 kilometers (260 miles) to Chachapoyas. From Cajamarca, about 392 kilometers (244 miles).

To get there, hiring a tour guide in Chachapoyas would definitely be your best bet.

Usually, you will leave the town of El Tingo, 6,000 feet altitude, and follow a path along the Rio Tingo to a small plain near the site called Marcapampa.

This is a climb of about 4,000 feet (1,300 m).

By the time you read this, however, a modern cable car system may be operating which cuts the time down to minutes (see news blurb near top of this page).





To get there, hiring a tour guide in Chachapoyas would definitely be your best bet.

Usually, you will leave the town of El Tingo, 6,000 feet altitude, and follow a path along the Rio Tingo to a small plain near the site called Marcapampa.

This is a climb of about 4,000 feet (1,300 m).

By the time you read this, however, a modern cable car system may be operating which cuts the time down to minutes (see news blurb near top of this page).



Travel Solo But Never Alone

Some noteworthy features of the area:

  • An advanced system of rainwater drainage
  • Very limited entrances
  • Circular buildings
There are only three entrances to the fortress.





The entrance passageways are wide at the beginning and narrow down to allow the passage of only one person at a time, apparently designed for defensive purposes.



Structures and Purpose of Kuelap

Most of the buildings are circular. These include:

  • El Tintero (the Inkwell) - A cylindrical structure shaped like an upside-down cone that appears to defy gravity.
  • La Atalaya (the Watchtower)- a turret-shaped structure
  • El Castillo (the Castle)




The main purpose of Kuelap is not known for certain. Obviously, it was well fortified and so is known as the Fortress of Kuelap.

However, from structures contained among the 400 or so found there, it appears that it served various functions.

From information known about other Pre-Columbian sites in Peru, it would be reasonable to assume that Kuelap was a regional center occupied by one of the wealthy ruling class families.

The site offered protection to the surrounding population as well as large storage facilities for grain and water.

Kuelap is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre and many feel it will become Peru's second most visited archaeological site after Machu Picchu.


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