Image by Kelly Cheng Travel Photography Getty Images
The 700m-long oval fortress of Kuélap, made up of millions of cubic feet of remarkably preserved stone, was constructed between AD 900 and 1100, and rediscovered in 1843. Shaped like an ocean liner atop a 3000m-high limestone ridge, it is surrounded by an imposing, near-impenetrable wall that towers up to 20m-high in places. Entrance into this stronghold is via three deep, narrow gates designed like funnels – an ingenious security system that forced attacking parties into easily defeated single files.
The main entrance, Acceso 3, is reached by walking along the east side of the fortress. A wooden boardwalk takes visitors on a winding route inside with newly installed panels giving basic explanations in Spanish and English. You’ll be directed first to the raised Pueblo Alto, site of a 7m-high Torreón (tower) which sits like a sentry guarding Kuélap’s northern bows. Despite its name, the tower’s role was probably ritualistic rather than military – burials have been unearthed in its entrails. Nearby is the Callanca, one of the complex’s few rectangular buildings, thought to have been a hostel and ritualistic center where pieces of Inca-influenced ceramics have been found.
The center of the fort is scattered with the remnants of more than 400 circular dwellings. Some are decorated with zigzag and rhomboid friezes, and all were once topped by soaring thatched roofs. A variety of trees grow in and around the ruins, many heavy with epiphytes that attract hundreds of hungry hummingbirds.
The most impressive and enigmatic structure, named the Templo Mayor or El Tintero (Inkpot), sits near the south end of Kuélap and has been fashioned in the shape of a large inverted cone. Inside, an underground chamber houses the remains of animal sacrifices, leading archaeologists to believe that it was a religious building of some kind. Kuélap resident archaeologist Alfredo Narvez has now excavated graves and llama skeletons around El Tintero to further support this theory. A 1996 hypothesis by a team from the University of San Diego suggests it may have also been a solar calendar.
Since 2017, access to the ruins has been made infinitely easier by the building of a cable car, or Telecabinas. Eight-berth cabins take visitors on a 20-minute journey across a V-shaped river valley and up a steep treeless hillside to within a 20-minute walk of the ruins. The bottom station is located just above the village of Nuevo Tingo. From here minibuses shuttle visitors up a 3km road to where the cable-car ride starts. At the top station there is a cafeteria, interpretation center and a ticket office for the site itself. A stone path leads 1½ km directly to the ruins from the top station. Community guides can be hired for S50 from the top station. Bank on two hours to view the ruins properly.
Tour groups usually arrive at the ruins around 11:30am and leave by 3pm, so consider setting off from Chachapoyas at around 8am to avoid the rush.
It is still possible to hike down (or up) the 9km-long Camino Herradura between the ruins and Tingo Viejo. Pick up the path by the old ticket office outside Acceso 1 (if going down), or by the river bridge in Tingo Viejo (if going up).