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Kuélap is an imposing 9th century fortress known as the Macchu Picchu of the North, which was once the stronghold of the Chachapoyas people, a tribe who lived in the region until shortly before the Spanish conquest.

History of Kuélap

Looming some 3,000 metres above sea level, Kuélap is an impressive site, with limestone walls surrounding a settlement of around 450 stone houses. It was once home to up to 3,000 people, and many of the structures still include their thatched roofs along with intricate carvings. The fortress itself contains the remains of an ancient tower, guard posts and eight metre high walls containing fortified entranceways – the walls were designed to keep out hostile groups like the Huari.

Some have reconsidered the idea of the site being a defensive fortress however, due to the lack of defensive marks on the walls, suggesting it was perhaps more of a religious or ceremonial centre.

The Chachapoyas people started to build the site in around the 6th century AD, but the majority of the structures were added between 900 and 1100AD. It’s unclear whether the site was ever captured by the Incans, but it was definitely abandoned by 1570 in the wake of the Spanish conquest. The site was ‘rediscovered’ in 1843, but was only really excavated in the mid 20th century.

Kuélap today

The site is undeniably impressive – perched atop a mountain, and with its high defensive walls, it’s a sight to behold. As you enter, note the narrow gateways which would have forced any attacking force into single file, slowing them down and making them much easier to take down. Many of the stones are inlaid with ornate designs and some of the friezes sheltered from the elements still survive.

Look out for the 7m high torreón, which although militaristic in appearance, was probably used for ceremonial or ritual purposes rather than keeping watch. The Callanca was also thought to be the ritual centre of the city.

The Templo Mayor (often called El Tintero – the inkpot) is the most mysterious and impressive structure in the site, housing animal remains which are believed to have been sacrificial. Some archaeologists have hypothesised the site was in fact some sort of solar calendar.

Scattered around the ruins are stone tombs known as ‘purunmachus’, which were built in the shape of people: these were reserved for the mummified remains of Chachapoyas

Getting to Kuélap

The site is relatively remote, located 3000m above sea level in a cloud forest. In 2017, a cable car stretching 4km opened, which drops visitors 20 minutes’ walk away from the entrnace – horses and carts operate if you need help getting to the summit. Some companies do still run treks, but it’s a steep 9km (roughly 3 hour) hike each way, so go prepared.

The town of Chachapoyas is about 100km away: you’ll need to get a combi or colectivo to the town of Nuevo Tingo, and then find a bus or motorcycle to take you the last few kilometres to the ruins. Check timings of buses so you don’t get stranded: it’s worth leaving from Chachapoyas early to make the most of the day.

Historical bites

News portal “Peru this week” reports the “first ever evidence for ancient bone surgery in Peru”.
Two male skeletons dated between 800 and 1535 AD from Kuelap (see: have holes in their bones. Those holes are not random and were probably made to cure build-up of fluid in the leg. The bones don’t show healing, meaning the two males died soon after the surgery.

The find is indeed about the oldest evidence in Peru, but not the world. The oldest trepanation (drilling holes to get rid of pressure or fluid) was found in Aşıklı Höyük (25 kilometres southeast of Aksaray in Turkey) and is about 11,000 years old. Some of the trepanations in Aşıklı Höyük are however unrelated to physical healing. Perhaps they were used as a training or as an experiment.

I found on Wikipedia that trepanation was also used in the Paracas culture (in present day Peru) which is dated between 800 – 100 BC. Thus, the Kuelap find is about trepanation on leg bones, not heads.

Still, the discovery still shows surgery has a very long history and it’s interesting to see trepanation was used throughout the world and ages.


Like this:

Kosmara Modifier

Bata cugexafa stabrega ke Chachapoyas vegeduropa riwe kali 1843 zo afanayar. Lazava tir merovansanuca ke aalafa gola elupkon muvakirapafa. Wori ba 31/01/1843 Juan Crisóstomo Nieto gan lizukaf irubasik zo nyapeyer nume va debak winugon kosmayar.

Azon Kuelap gan konak rilitik isu grupelik zo dulapeyer. Tulon Adolf Bandelier va in pimtayar azen Louis Langlois francik bak 1930 -e sanda drunayar. Isen dere Federico Kauffmann Doig peruaf rawopik va debak is Chachapoyas araya vayapayar.

What beauty remains

Today, Kuélap has an almost mythical beauty. Of course, great natural beauty is an important part of the Peru holiday experience, but this is something wholly unique.

It’s this mixture of its place high above the sea and surrounded by incredible greenery which has melded together with the city that creates sights like no other.

But none of that would be the case if the buildings left behind weren’t such architectural masterpieces.

The adoption of ceramic technology gave the Chachapoya a signature style, along with their use of huge, awe-inspiring walls (some of which reach 20 metres in height, with a thickness of 80 centimetres, an incredible architectural feat for the time) and creative use of shapes.

Kuélap is also a larger area than many people expect or realise. Home to hundreds of buildings, it’s far more than a fortress, as is often suggested due to its imposing figure.

This was a city, complete with buildings for all kinds of purposes beyond military use.


You can visit Kuelap from Chachapoyas either independently or with a tour. Every alternative has pros and cons, but the bottom line is that the site is nowadays well-accessible, and you will be able to get there any time of the year.

We will cover the topic of whether it is better to travel to Kuelap independently or as part of a guided group later on here's a guide on how to get to the ruins.


Without any doubts, the easiest and most common way how to visit Kuelap from Chachapoyas is with a tour. The tour starts early in the morning in Chachapoyas and usually includes transport, cable car, entrance fee to Kuelap, a guide, and lunch.

There are many travel agents around Chachapoyas' square, and the all-day tour cost around S/90.

Please note that the cable car is often closed on Mondays, so in that case, the cable car ride is substituted by a regular car ride, which takes longer, but views are impressive as well.

The best way to score the cheapest rate is to walk around Chachapoyas and ask for a tour personally - Kuelap is the top tourist attraction in the area, and departures are every day.

On the other hand, if you travel on a strict schedule, it is possible to book the Kuelap Guided Tour online in advance.


If you want to travel to Kuelap on your own and make the journey more adventurous, it is possible as well.

In Chachapoyas, take local public transport from Terminal Terrestre to the village Nuevo Tingo. The colectivo leaves the station roughly every hour, but it is better to start early in the morning.

The drive to Kuelap takes about an hour and costs S/7.

In Nuevo Tingo, go to the cable car platform, buy a return ticket for S/20, and a private bus will take you to the boarding platform.

The cable car ride takes about 20 minutes, and you will disembark at parking lot La Marka. Here buy a ticket to Kuelap for another S/20 and walk uphill to explore the site.

It is also possible to skip the cable car, and from Nuevo Tingo, either hire a taxi (this will add another hour because of the zig-zag road), or you can also hike up.

Hiking to Kuelap is certainly the least common way how to reach the ruins, but the trail from Tingo village is well-marked.

Be prepared to ascend 1200 meters and to cover 9 kilometers, you will need three to four hours one way. To return to Chachapoyas, you must get back to Nuevo Tingo (on foot, by car, or cable car) and catch a van back to the city.

Why Comedian Kulap Vilaysack Got Deeply Personal for Documentary About Finding Her Birth Father

Comedians often mine their own lives for a good joke, but Kulap Vilaysack bared her soul for a very different purpose.

The actress and director set out to explore her family history in her new documentary Origin Story, available on VOD now. The film, which just won the Special Jury award at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Fest, follows as she finally decides to seek out her birth father after decades of pushing the hard truth down.

“I found out my dad wasn’t my real dad when I was 14 and I just didn’t ask any questions after that,” Vilaysack, now 39, tells PEOPLE. “I really just did put it away. And once I said that I wanted to have a family, that just changed for me.”

Vilaysack decided to bring a camera along as she asked these questions, which became more urgent after she and fellow comedian husband Scott Aukerman started trying to have a family.

“I think having a camera was like having an unbiased witness to kind of be my second pair of eyes, because memory is so tricky and a lot of the film is about that,” she explains.

Vilaysack also says the cameras helped her family open up, including her mother and father, who had never talked about the past while she was growing up.

The documentary eventually took her back to her native Laos, where her family is from. Her parents fled the war-torn country during the Vietnam War, when the U.S. military dropped countless bombs into the bordering country. Vilaysack was conceived in a refugee camp and born in Washington D.C. before a Minnesota family sponsored hers and relocated them to the northern state.

Decades later, Vilaysack returned as an adult and finally found her past. Though it wasn’t an easy journey, and the documentary shows how much she went through emotionally, Vilaysack says she’s glad she went through it and found the answers she’s always craved.

“I do have a sense of a weight being lifted off of me,” she admits. “I feel a sense of freedom that I didn’t have before because I’m not defining myself by a story that wasn’t true or not complete. I really am better off that I was at the beginning of that journey because I have so much more information. And while I thought it was going to go a different way, the way it went was the way it was supposed to.”

The Dead Among the Living

In the vision of this civilization, the body and the soul were not considered separate, and to be dead actually implied to keep on living in the world of the dead. This was why they built houses for the dead where they would place the mummies of their deceased.

Massive exterior walls, eastern facade of the Kuelap citadel, Peru. ( CC BY 3.0 )

Their sorcerers were feared throughout Mesoamerica as they were believed capable of shape shifting into any kind of wild animal and of placing terrible curses on the mummies of the deceased. The Incas feared the mummies of the Chachapoya, viewing them as the living dead who could rise and inflict death upon all those arrogant or ignorant enough to disturb them.

Inside the walled city of Kuelap. (José Porras/ CC BY-SA 2.5 )

The most relevant example of Chachapoya sacred landscape can be found at Kuelap where the dead have been buried in the walls of the great construction. Dozens of people have been buried there as part of the predilection the Cloud Warriors had for burying their dead on high cliffs. The zenith was considered as having a special importance, especially for ceremonies, so the entire construction was built in such a way that the sun rises on one side of the site and it sets directly opposite. The shamans of the Chachapoya knew the exact dates when the sun would shine upon the construction, such as March 4, and that was when they performed the sacred rituals, festivities and celebrations. The sun always had to be at the zenith for the ceremony of communion between the souls of the living and of the dead.

A Guide To Kuelap

It is a 1km walk from the top of the cable car to Kuelap citadel.

Kuelap, a fortified city on top of a mountain, is one of the most impressive and significant pre-Columbian ruins in all of South America, perhaps only matched in grandeur by Machu Picchu.

And yet, for the time being, it still receives only a fraction of the visitors that go by train or make the trek to Machu Picchu, despite the inauguration of a cable car - the first in Peru - to the site in 2017

The stunning road to Kuelap.

This travels from the town of Tingo Nuevo, covering 4 km (2.5 miles) and rising 661 m (2,169 ft), up to an area near the Kuelap ruins.
NB. The cable car is closed for maintenance on Mondays.

Until then, this journey had been done either on a spectacular, but hair-raising, mountain road, taking an hour and a half or by a strenuous four to five-hour hike of 10 km (6 miles).

The novelty and increased convenience of the cable car has led to an increase in visitors, but there are still logistical impediments - such as the lack of daily flights to Chachapoyas - that mean it will still be an unspoiled gem for many years to come.

This is the largest and most important Chachapoya site, beautifully located at about 3,000 m (10,000 ft) on a craggy mountain-top overlooking the Utcubamba River valley, giving superb views.

The wet, cloud forest at this elevation supports a rich growth of bromeliads and orchids, which plaster the walls of the site.

Most of the site was constructed from AD 900 - 1100, although some remnants near the main entrance have been carbon-dated to the 6th century AD.

The Incas added a few buildings after they conquered the Chachapoya in the 1470s.

For three centuries after the Spanish conquest, Kuelap lay forgotten by the outside world, until its re-discovery in 1843 by a local judge, Juan Crisostomo Nieto.

The main structure is an awe-inspiring, walled stronghold, almost 600 m (2,000 ft) long and 120 m (400 ft) wide. The massive wall, built of large limestone blocks, sometimes reaches heights over 17 m (50 ft), although much is about half of that.

Narrow entrance to Kuelap citadel.

There are only three entrances, all of which are narrow and highly-defendable.

The main entrance, used today, slopes upwards and becomes increasingly narrow, with high walls on either side, ending in a section which allows only single-file foot traffic. One can easily imagine that attackers would easily be picked off and would find it impossible to enter.

Inside, over 400 round buildings were found, which would have been covered with steep, conical thatched roofs. Many were used as dwellings by the estimated 3,000 inhabitants of this urban citadel.

Distinctive Chachapoya stonework at Kuelap.

Some of the walls are decorated with tiled friezes in rhomboid or zigzag patterns which are a hallmark of Chachapoya architecture. The mural decorations include representations of the eyes of felines, snakes and birds, all different gods to the Chachapoya.

Five square or rectangular buildings were added by the Incas or early Colonialists, during their brief stay.

It is still not precisely known how water was transported to this remote site.

Typical circular dwelling at Kuelap.

When Kuelap was finally abandoned, the thatched roofs were torched, leaving charred beams as evidence.

The most enigmatic structure is the inverted cone-shaped tintero (inkwell) found at the south end, with a face carved in bas-relief on its eastern side.

The function of this 5.5 m (18 ft) high temple is unknown, although several proposals have been made, including as a solar observatory, water tank, and jail.

The discovery of offerings in conjunction with this building has led archaeologists to consider this to be Kuelap’s main ceremonial temple.

At the other end of the citadel, a 7 m (23 ft) high D-shaped torréon (lookout tower) dominates the wall. In its base, archaeologists discovered a cache of 2,500 rocks which would have been a perfect size for slingshots.

The many buildings in between are slowly being restored through a project that began in 1999.

How to Visit Kuelap:

Kuelap is the jewel-in-the crown of the Chachapoyas region and so included on all PeruNorth overland itineraries to the area:

Kuelap’s Discovery

Due to the dense vegetation, difficult-to-access location, and heavy rainfall, this magnificent complex was left undiscovered for many years. Kuelap was finally found on January 31st, 1843 by Juan Crisostomo Nieto, judge of the nearby town of Chachapoyas, while wandering through the zone.

Afterwards, many researchers came to visit Kuelap in order to research the people who lived there and their culture. It was the historian Federico Kauffmann Doig who contributed the most to Kuelap research thanks to his passionate dedication to studying the Chachapoyas culture.

Suggested Packing List

To help you get ready for your expedition, below is a suggested packing list. You may find many of these items in our Gear Store, plus many clothing and accessory items.


  • Medium to heavy weight cotton pants
  • Lightweight pants for mosquito protection
  • Lightweight, long-sleeved shirt
  • Windbreaker or rain jacket
  • Medium to heavy weight jacket
  • Hat
  • Bathing suit
  • Socks (bring extra pairs)
  • Hiking shoes
  • Sandals or casual shoes for town or around lodge


  • Binoculars
  • Flashlight
  • Pocket calculator or phone to assist with currency exchange
  • Small backpack for day walks
  • Overnight bag for short journeys to places where luggage is limited
  • Photocopies of all documentation, passport, and tickets
  • Prescription drugs and a copy of the prescription
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellant
  • Camera
  • Resealable plastic bags

In addition to your toiletries, it is useful to pack a small medical kit, which you can easily prepare. Helpful items include bandages, mosquito repellant, antihistamine, a pain-reliever, individually wrapped moist towlettes, anti-diarrhea medicine, anti-fungal cream, and an extra pair of disposable contact lenses or eyeglasses if you wear them.


​It’s not necessary to bring all of your baggage with you. Peru Rail has a luggage restriction a maximum hand-carried allowance of only 11 lbs per person, measuring not more than 62 inches is allowed without charge. Please be prepared to pack a light overnight bag for the journey to Machu Picchu. You can safely store excess baggage at the hotel or at one of our field offices.

Watch the video: Machu Picchu, Peru in 4K Ultra HD (August 2022).