Kuélap, Peru – The Machu Picchu of the North
3kms above sea-level is the city of the Chachapoyas people
I didn’t know a lot about Kuélap before I arrived in Chachapoyas – I hadn’t even heard of the city until a few days earlier. Pictures of Kuélap were heading the boards of many tour operators in the town, and I guessed it would be a cool experience.
After signing up for a tour to leave the next morning, I was excited about what would be in store the following day. And I wasn’t disappointed. The journey to Kuélap alone is exciting – limestone cliffs tower over rushing rivers which make their way down into the valley, and if you stop for long enough you might just see an ancient sarcophagus perched on the cliff (one of the more unusual quirks of the Chachapoyas people, burying their loved ones as close to the sky as possible).
A recently-opened cable car whisks you up to a dizzying 3,000m – although you can still hike or drive if you want to.
A short walk from the cable car station to the ruins passed indigenous people in brightly coloured clothing, leading horses with rainbow saddles and one of the few tourists that don’t fancy the walk.
The ruins themselves are very impressive – the remains of round houses which used less materials than a square building, a section of the house for guinea pigs that took up more than a third of the house (not that this was a pet enclosure), and remains of temples dedicated to ancient condor, feline, and snake gods overgrown by jungle all combined to create a breath-taking experience.
To top it off, a group of alpacas wandered around the south end of the ruins, painting one of the most iconic images that come to mind when you think of Peru.
On heading back down on the cable car and taking the bus back to Chachapoyas, I turned to see where I’d been and realised that I could see the ruins the whole time – it’s impossible to see them unless you know exactly what you’re looking for.
Kuélap was first inhabited in the 6th century AD by the ancient Chachapoyas civilisation, a culture which pre-dates the Incas. Most of the ruins that you can see today were constructed between 900 – 1100 AD. The city was much bigger than Machu Picchu and may have held up to 300,000 people before its abandonment during the Spanish inquisition in the 15th century.
It stands over the Utcubamba river, in a position which allowed the Chachapoyas civilisation to dominate the land around it. Although it was a fully functioning city, there was no water supply and it was a long trek down the mountain to the city’s closest water source.
Incan culture merged with Chachapoyas, so there are two ‘temple of the suns.’ Human bones have been found inside, as well as the remains of crustaceans, and guinea pigs. It is thought that the Chachapoyas culture did not practise human sacrifices.
The city was re-discovered in 1843 by a Chachapoyan judge, called Juan Crisóstomo Nieto, and since then many Peruvian and foreign archaeologists have visited the sites to do surveys before the cable car enabled mass tourism in 2017.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
The most common way to travel to Kuélap is on a tour from Chachapoyas. Many agencies offer a tour for 80 PEN (Peruvian nuevo soles), which is roughly £18 or $24. Tours leave between 8 and 8.30am and have you back in Chachapoyas by 5pm.
It is possible to visit Kuélap solo, and many travellers still choose to do this. Take a bus from Chachapoyas to the town of Nuevo Tingo, and from there you can choose to take the cable car (20 PEN return), or to hike up to the ruins. If you want to hike, it’s a good idea to do the trip solo, but the difference in price of doing it solo with the cable car are minimal.
The third option is to take a 2 hour drive from the town of Nuevo Tingo but now that the cable car is there, there’s little reason to do this.
I wouldn’t suggest doing this trip solo if you don’t have a decent level of Spanish.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Stay – Accommodation
There are a couple of options if you want to stay in or near Kuélap. There’s only one hospedaje close to the site itself, which is almost exclusively for hikers who want to see the sunrise over the ruins. The other options are staying in the closest town or Nuevo Tingo, or 60km in Chachapoyas.
Hospedaje Imperio Kuelapino
This is the closest accommodation to the fortress. For solo travellers, there are mixed dorms, as well as private double rooms. Rooms have a patio, mountain view, and there’s a terrace where you can enjoy breakfast. A great place to stay if you want to wake up early and have the ruins to yourself.
Utcubamba River Lodge, Nuevo Tingo
This beautiful property, located between Nuevo Tingo and Magdalena, is a 5-minute drive to Kuélap’s cable car station. You can use the complimentary Wi-Fi in the comfortable rooms or in the garden while admiring the beautiful views of the surrounding landscape.
The lodge offers car hire and packed lunches too.
Eat – Restaurants
As with sleeping, there are two options for food – dine in Kuélap or Nuevo Tingo.
At the top cable car station, there’s a small café that offers spectacular views of the surrounding green valley and mountains. The food here is expensive by Peruvian standards, but it’s a good spot to pick up a bottle of water if you’ve forgotten it or reward yourself with a cold soft drink or a beer before your return journey on the cable car.
On the walk to the site, there are a number of locals who lived near Kuélap before the site was opened up to tourism. They sell traditional food from the Amazonas region, with the most popular being bananas stuffed with cheese.
The other option for food is eating in Nuevo Tingo. A simple almuerzo, complete with soup, a main course, and juice will be included on most tours, and if you’re doing the trip independently it shouldn’t cost you more than 10 PEN. There are vegetarian options.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
The best time to visit is between April and December, which is the dry season. Visiting in the rainy season means that walkways can sometimes be treacherous, and on windy days, the cable car doesn’t operate.
Safety – Possible risks
If you haven’t had time to acclimatise, then the altitude could possibly prove difficult, especially if you choose to hike up to Kuélap. There is a very low risk of the other dangers associated with South America, but you should still exercise caution with your belongings when you’re here.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
You can do a day trip to Kuélap from Chachapoyas for 80 PEN. It’s roughly the same price to do it on your own. This includes travel, food, and entry fees to the cable car and the archaeological site.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Kuélap is a city of ancient ruins, and the roped path around the ruins is there for a reason. There’s plenty to see and explore, but please don’t stand on the stones or stray off the path as you there’s a real risk of damaging the remaining stones.
The site has only been open to a large amount of tourism for recent years, and the site is very well maintained. If you have plastic bottles or any rubbish with you, keep it in your bag until you find a bin, or deposit them in one of the ceramic pots on site.
Reality Check – Be Aware
It’s no accident that Kuélap has remained a secret for so long. Visiting the Amazonas region is a great way to see some of Peru’s most intriguing culture and history, but it’s a better prospect for long-term travellers. Chachapoyas is 24 hours by bus from Lima, so if you’re short on time it’s better to fly. It’s another 2 hours from Chachapoyas. You’re committing to a lot of travel by visiting here, but if you’re incorporating it into visiting other sites in the region, I’d definitely recommend it.
Furthermore, tourism is fairly new to the Amazonas region, with most of its big-ticket tourist attractions only becoming easily accessible post-millennium. English isn’t widely spoken here, so it’s a good idea to learn some Spanish phrases before your visit.
Both sides give an overview of Kuélap and are in Spanish.
JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages
This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!
Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.
Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?
Please feel free to share your stories and thoughts in the comment section below!