The Chachapoyas culture was conquered – but never fully defeated – by the Incas a few decades before the Spaniards arrived. When the Europeans showed up, local chief Curaca Huamán supposedly aided them in their conquest to defeat the Inca. Because of the relative lack of Inca influence, the people didn’t learn to speak Quechua and today Spanish is spoken almost exclusively. Local historians claim that San Juan de la Frontera de las Chachapoyas was the third town founded by the Spaniards in Peru (after Piura and Lima).

The People of the Clouds

The Chachapoyas, or ‘People of the Clouds,’ controlled the vast swath of land around present-day Chachapoyas from AD 500 to around 1493, when the Incas conquered the area and ended the Chacha isolation. Very little is known about this civilization, whose inhabitants were thought to be great warriors, powerful shamans and prolific builders who were responsible for one of the most advanced civilizations of Peru’s tropical jungles. Today, among the many dozens of cliff tombs and hamlets of circular structures left behind, archaeologists match wits with grave robbers in a race to uncover the heritage of the Chachapoyas.

The Chachapoyas were heavily engaged in trade with other parts of Peru. However, isolated in their cloud-forest realm, they developed independently of these surrounding civilizations. The Chachapoyas speculatively cultivated a fierce warrior cult; depicted trophy heads as well as uncovered human skulls show evidence of trepanation and intentional scalping. The eventual expansion of the Inca Empire in the 15th century was met with fierce resistance, and sporadic fighting continued well after the initial conquest.

Environmentalists long before Greenpeace, the Chachapoyas built structures that were in perfect harmony with their surroundings and that took advantage of nature’s aesthetic and practical contributions. The Chachapoyas religion is believed to have venerated some of the salient natural features of these territories; the serpent, the condor and the puma were worshipped as powerful representatives of the natural world, as were caves, lakes and mountains.

The unique use of circular construction was complemented by intricate masonry friezes, which used zigzags and rhomboids. The buildings were covered by thatch roofs, which were tall and steep to facilitate the runoff of the area’s frequent rains. Hundreds of ruins illustrate Chachapoyas architecture, but none stands out as much as the impressive fortified citadel of Kuélap, surrounded by a colossal 20m-high wall and encompassing hundreds of dwellings and temples.