In one of the more remote northern regions of Peru lies the most mysterious kingdom in the country. This realm of the “The Chachapoyas”, which translates to “ The People of The Clouds”, lasted for 500 years.
The ancient wonder “Kuelap” is their Machu Picchu and a trek to the sacred site is a must for any traveler interested in one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of the Americas.
The Chachapoya people lived in Andean mountaintops around the year 900 A.D. Remnants of the culture are some of the most stunning and least understood in South America. The Chachapoya are largely still a mystery to us and even the name we give them came from the Incas rather than themselves.
One of the most curious stories about this civilization is that they were fair-skinned. Even today, you may run into people living nearby who have blond hair and light eyes but insist that they have no foreign ancestry.
To get to Kuelap you must first travel to the town of Chachapoyas. There are direct buses from Lima that take about 22-24 hours to reach the town.
You can also take a short flight to Chiclayo and from there take a 12 hour bus. The Casa Andina Classic Chachapoyas is a highly recommended local hotel located in a renovated hacienda on the banks of the Utcubamba River.
The next day starts with an early morning departure from Chachapoyas to Tingo. The trek from Tingo takes about two to three hours and once you have completed the ascent you will be standing 3,000 metres above sea level with a view of the Amazonas landscape below.
It is recommended to climb to the watch-tower in order to get a view of the ancient complex in its entirety. Here you will begin to appreciate the full scale of the massive fortress which it is believed to have taken 200 years to complete.
While in operation there were about 3500 permanent residents living in over 400 circular shaped dwellings.
Kuelap highlights the engineering skills of the Chachapoya people. The site blends harmoniously with the surrounding nature and the three narrow entrances were constructed to be defended by a lone warrior.
The design made it impossible to penetrate until the Incans managed to conquer the Chachapoya people.
This area still remains largely unexplored but it will probably not stay that way for long. The Peruvian government has been improving infrastructure in the area and this is slowly making it more tourist friendly. Kuelap has also been promoted as an alternative to Machu Picchu.
Rather than set the trip up by yourself, you may want to use an agency which can create an expanded trekking experience that includes a visit to the nearby Gocta Falls which, at 771 meters, is one of the tallest in the world. There is also an burial site at Karajia that can be incorporated into your trip.
As much fun as it can be heading off on your own, if you don’t speak Spanish and/or your time is limited, you may want to enlist some help in the planning. Limited transport can end up costing valuable vacation time if you don’t know exactly when buses leave or if there are cancellations.
However you choose to get there, it’s worth taking the plunge and visiting this off the beaten track destination while it still remains so. Revel in one of the most spectacular archeological monuments in the Americas. Be inspired by one of the most important cultures in Peru.
Originally from Canada, one of Paul’s first memorable experiences in Peru was volunteering at an orphanage in 2004. He moved to Lima in 2006 and continues travelling around the country whenever he has time. He wrote this article on behalf of Peru for Less, organizers of Peru treks such as the Inca Trail and more.