Kuelap – Peru’s New (Older) Machu Picchu?

View of Machu Picchu Sun Gate Entrance

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu was recently voted as the number one place to visit before you die by the Huffington Post, and it truly is a marvel to behold.  Securely constructed on the precarious slopes of a mountain, this architectural wonder has been delighting visitors and archaeologists for decades.  Recently, though, the national park has seen an increase in the number of people visiting and there has been a cap placed on the total number of people allowed per day in an effort to preserve the site from wear and tear.  While I think that is an understandable step to take, what happens to the people who aren’t able to get tickets because the daily limit has already been met?  Or what about the people who do not want to deal with crowds; must they choose between battling tour groups or skipping it altogether?

The answer (at least the Peruvian government hopes) is to brush off the overgrowth and restore many of the other ruins that dot the Peruvian countryside that have been left in the shadow of Machu Picchu’s fame.  One such ruin that the country hopes to turn into the next “star” is Kuelap (pronounced quai-lap…quai as in quail), an ancient citadel in the cloud forest of Chachapoyas Province.  This ruin is painstakingly being restored to attract tourism to its massive exterior stone walls containing more than four hundred buildings.  The structures have been dated to the 6th century AD and continuously occupied at least until the early Spanish Colonial period (1532-1570); however it is hard to tell as there is little to no documentation of the site before it’s “discovery” in the 1840s.

Kuelap Fortress is 3000 meters (9840 feet) above sea level and consists of more than four hundred buildings with stone walls of heights of up to 19 meters (62 feet).

Kuelap fortress walls Peru

View along the fortress walls

From Peru Travel Guide:

Chachapoyas, which means “People of the Clouds” is the name of a civilization that fought from high forest strongholds in resistance to Inca expansion and Spanish invasion. One of the last kingdoms to succumb to the Inca, its legacy includes one of South America’s archaeological wonders – the defensive fortress of Kuelap. Perched on the shoulder of a 10,000-foot mountain, this 9th Century citadel comprises an urban complex of more than 400 stone edifices – homes, palaces and temples enclosed by a 70-foot-tall stone wall. Their architecture demonstrates decidedly non-Inca features, such as protruding geometric patterns, cornices, and friezes. Kuelap’s setting is unforgettably beautiful – a tropical cloud forest festooned with orchids and steeped in mystery.

The Revash Tombs, the Karajia Sarcophagi and the extensive network of Chachapoyas paved trails also serve as a reminder of the greatness of this vanished nation. Archaeologists just now are mapping and excavating many important Chachapoyas sites. The museum in Leymebamba, which displays 200 mummies recovered from the remote Lake of the Condors, describes the extraordinary embalming methods of the Chachapoya, their lifestyle and culture. The Museum also houses a collection of knotted Quipu, the record-keeping device of the Incas.

Amazon cloud forest

Aerial view of the fortress (click photo for bigger view)

Kuelpa ruins structures Peru


Ruins of Kuelap Peru

Ruins and a view

Ruins of Kuelap

Human or animal?

Kuelap fortress entrance

Only one entrance to the whole structure. That would help keep invaders out!

Chacaopoyas Peru Kuelap Fortress

Another view of the fortress walls of Kuelap

Could Kuelap be the next Machu Picchu? Only time will tell.  But in the wake of the publicity around the 100th anniversary celebration of the rediscovery of Machu Picchu, and in an attempt to spread tourism throughout Peru (and the jobs that go with it), Peru is hopping to tap into more of its history and culture to diversify its tourism market and bring prosperity to more parts of the country.

Would you like to visit Kuelap?  Would you come here instead of Machu Picchu? Or make time to see both?  Did you know about Kuelap before now?  How should Peru begin marketing this ruin?


8 thoughts on “Kuelap – Peru’s New (Older) Machu Picchu?

  1. Wow, this is an amazing find. I had never heard of this before! How can Peru be keeping this so quiet? I wonder why Machu Picchu took off in popularity over this, considering it was “discovered” before Machu Picchu?

    I would definitely like to visit it, especially since right now it probably would be pretty much empty! I am caught between wanting it to be well known and turning into a tourist haven and keeping it hidden for the “discerning” few :p

    • That’s a really good question! I would hazard to say that part of the reason Machu Picchu took off with such success over the years is due in part to two things: 1. The study and history of the Inca people is more popular with scholars and Peruvians, therefore there was more effort put into learning more about the site and discovering the past that dominates much of Peruvian culture; 2. Cuzco city is quite close to the ruin site, and is a very large and important (always has been) city for Peru and the Inca.

      The problem with Chochapoyas is that it is located in the Amazon. Granted, it is in the mountains of the jungle, but that still is difficult terrain, and civilization in jungles always tends to be kept a “secret” due to the daunting nature of jungles! The Amazonian region was never really heavily settled like coastal and mountainous regions, and so the cultures and people that inhabited these regions probably had limited contact with others outside of the rainforest which means limited knowledge by “outsiders” of all the advanced cities and structures built.

      Peru and most jungle regions, I think, are still ripe for discovery. If this mega structure has been there, who knows what else is in there!

    • Of course! I think it is still pretty much off everyone’s radar, but I do believe it would be well worth the visit. It’s just a little harder to reach, which takes more days of vacation. Needs better infrastructure to get there, but then question becomes to tourist it up, or keep it sort of like a hidden gem? Hard to decide!

    • Well, you know that you would be most welcome and not the first! And as I mentioned earlier to you, you would actually save a lot more money living here :p BUT! I don’t want to tempt you to the point where you stop your great progress with your snowball effect in money AND exercise!

  2. Pingback: Happy Valentine’s Day! And Oh Yes, It’s A Day Off In Peru « Rischmöller Real Estate

  3. I visited this place and surrounding areas in 2011. Personally, I find it more fascinating than Machu Picchu. That part of Peru is stunningly beautiful.

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