Kuélap: Machu Picchu alternative

photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Machu Picchu may be closed to visits for several months, but you don't have to cancel your Peru trip. In Peru's less-visited northern highlands, the country's second-most thrilling archaealogical site, Kuélap, is still open. Rain is not an issue up here. 'It was sunny yesterday, it's sunny today,' Alicia from Chachapoyas Tours in nearby market town Chachapoyas told me by phone. 'But tomorrow? Who knows? Better bring a rain jacket.'

Kuélap, about 22 to 24 hours from Lima by bus (with changes in the coastal city Chiclayo, and another at Chachapoyas), was home to the mysterious Chachapoyas, or 'People of the Clouds,' from AD800 to the 14th century.

Visitors reach the monumental stone-fortified city atop a craggy limestone mountain via a two- or three-hour trek from nearby villages. A number of guesthouses are in the village nearby, such as Tingo (a 9.8-km walk away). Another option is the lovely hacienda-style compound Estancia Chillo; rooms are US$45 and guides with horses are about US$25.

With more stone than the Great Pyramid of Egypt, Kuépal had a population of about 3500 residents. You enter via three deep, lean gates -- an ingenious security system to force attacking parties into easily defeated single file. There are ruins of over 400 circular dwellings across three levels, including a lookout tower with excellent views of the city surrounded by bromeliad-covered trees and exotic orchids.