Exploring North Central Peru – Kuelap (“qway-lap”)

On the 2.5km hike to Kuelap

Housing area in Kuelap-the only restored structure on the site

If you’re looking for a less-discovered, uncrowded ancient historical site in Peru, consider Kuelap. It is located 45 miles (which takes about 2.5 hours due to a gravel road most of the way) south of Chachapoyas. The road is much improved from several years ago, when rains would make it nearly impassable. Our tour group included 13 people in a minivan. The tour cost 60 NS (1 USD = 2.8 nuevos soles) per person, and included lunch and the entry fee (10 NS). Most of the tourists were from Peru and other South American countries. When we arrived at the site, we were pleased to see just a few other minivans. After arriving at the parking lot, we hiked about 2.5 km up to the site itself.

The scenery from the mountaintop fortress of Kuelap. The dirt road seen near the bottom of the picture is the road to the site

The massive walls surrounding Kuelap

One of the main entrances to the site

Hiking up into the fortress

I knew little about Kuelap, but enough to know it is one of the great sights in Peru and I wanted to see it. Kuelap dates to the 6th(?) century AD, constructed by the Chachapoyan people, who apparently were warriors, given the defensive nature of Kuelap. We don’t know much about these people, but they were described as a “tall and fair” people by the Inca—supposedly blonde and blue-eyed, and even today I understand that there are some people in the area that fit this description, but they are not European descendants. They were eventually conquered by the Inca around 1472, and Kuelap was inhabited until 1670 when it was abandoned during the Spanish Conquest. It is one of the largest pre-Inca ruins in existence, set on a 10,000 foot mountain top ridge. Massive walls (reaching up to 60 feet high) surround the site, which is 600 meters in length. It is believed that about 2,500 – 3,000 people inhabited about 400 or more homes (most of which are circular) in the site. The site’s construction reminded me of castles in Europe—well built, but not to the exacting standards of the Inca. Based on the skeleton remains and large numbers of skull surgeries at Kuelap, archeologists believe a “medical” school was located here.

Templo Mayor (observatory? prison?)

Another view of the ruins in Kuelap

Decorative stonework in Kuelap buildings

The surrounding mountain scenery is beautiful, and from Kuelap, one is at equal height with most of the surrounding mountains.

Our tour van and restaurant for lunch

A great lunch - Lomo Saltado

Kuelap is 2.5 hours south (by car) of Chachapoyas

Visit now before this incredible site welcomes crowds like those at Machu Picchu!

Exploring North Central Peru—Chachapoyas

Chachapoyas is an 8-9 hour (285 miles) bus ride east from Chiclayo

The countryside of Chachapoyas (on the way to Kuelap)

Chachapoyas is a whitewashed town of about 25,000 located in a very interesting and beautiful part of Peru. It would be easy to spend 4-5 days touring the area—we spent two, exploring Kuelap ruins and Gocta Falls. A green, mountainous area, Chachapoyas is located between the very dry northwest part of Peru and the Amazon jungle region to the east.

Getting on the bus to start our overnight journey to Chachapoyas

To get to Chachapoyas, the logistics are as follows: a flight from Lima to Chiclayo, followed by an overnight (about 9 hour) bus ride from Chiclayo to Chachapoyas. Another option would be a flight from Lima to Cajamarca and then an 10 hour bus ride (mainly on a dirt road from what I understand) to Chachapoyas. There are no commercial flights to Chachapoyas, although there is a small airport where some small charter flights operate.

The comfortable semi-cama bus seats

The bus ride is not quite as bad as it might seem. The operator was Movil Tours. The bus is a double-decker, with more comfortable seats on the lower level and typical long-haul bus seats on the upper level. While the bus makes a few short stops, they are only to pick up and drop off passengers. Seats in the economy (upstairs) section cost 45 nuevos soles (NS) and 75 NS in the first class section. A small dinner (not too exciting) was served, with one movie shown (in Spanish of course). ($1 USD = 2.8 NS).

Hotel Vilaya in Chachapoyas

Our room at Hotel Vilaya--about $35/night (checking in at 6 am!)

The bus from Chiclayo arrives in Chachapoyas at about 6 am. Upon arrival, we asked for hotel recommendations, and took a taxi for 2 NS to the hotel, and got a triple room on the spot for 100 NS per night, with (very) early check-in being no problem. There are several decent, but certainly not fancy hotels in the town. After getting cleaned up, we then ventured down to the main square to arrange a tour to Kuelap which left at 8:30 am. The tourism industry here is just developing and at this time of year (October), it was no problem getting a hotel, or booking a tour. There are at least a half-dozen tour agencies on the main square, and from what we could tell, they all offer similar tours and at similar rates. The main tours in the area include: Kuelap, Gocta Falls, Revash, Karajia, Laguna de los Condores, and Quiocta Caves.

One of several tour operators on Plaza de Armas, Chachapoyas

Pedestrian street, Chachapoyas

Plaza de Armas, Chachapoyas