Posted by: Jessie Kwak | October 19, 2009


There’s something about leaving the beaten path that can distill the process of connecting with people down to its essence.  You’re both in a strange world, and the fact that you both ended up so far from the normal “gringo trail” means that you definitely have something in common.  Mix in a few beers, dinner, and a rain-drenched hike and you’ve got a solid traveler’s friendship.

In Chachapoyas Rob and I formed a rapid unit with Kevin of England and Angela of France when we all found ourselves on the same corner of the Plaza de Armas looking for a place to stay.  We all ended up in the Hostal Karajia, then signed up for a private tour of Kuelap the next day.

I always worry about the quality of the guide when we’re paying so much for a private tour, but once again we lucked out.  José spoke great English, and was passionate and knowledgeable about local history and landscape.

The road to Kuelap is long, with only a few villages from time to time.  As we bounced along in the van, I kept looking at the houses on distant, inaccessible hillsides and thinking:  “Why the hell would you live there?”  That wasn’t the first time I’ve thought that in Peru, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  From time to time José pointed out the clump of trees that hid Kuelap from our view.  They seemed impossibly far away, and we had the luxury of driving.  The idea of climbing up to Kuelap on foot was mind-boggling.

José explains the world to us

José explains the world to us

Just after a town called Maria we ran into a landslide which has turned the road into a muddy mess.  Another tourist van had already tried to pass twice and failed.  Together the drivers and José decided to go back to Maria for shovels and a “machine.”

The four of us waited, Rob and I making tiny Cumbe Mayo-inspired waterworks in order to divert the flow of water from the road and drain the pools that remained.  A half-hour later, however, a shiny yellow backhoe was bouncing its way toward us, followed by the two vans.  Oh.  <u>That</u> kind of machine.

Ten minutes later the backhoe has destroyed all Rob and my waterworks, scraping the thick silky mud off so only firm roadbed remained.  It danced alarmingly close to the edge, charging around the roadway corner with brutish speed, but graceful agility.  That was a man who knew what he was doing.

Our saviour.

Our saviour.

Soon after we arrived the Kuelap parking lot, bought our tickets, and began the two kilometer hike up to the site.  In the distance we could see the perimeter wall, yellow-tan limestone cut and stacked perfectly.  In some places the wall is 20 meters high.  I would have expected that living inside such a monstrous wall would be somewhat claustrophobic, but Kuelap is genius:  the wall doesn’t stand alone, rather, it’s filled in with dirt to make a level surface upon which houses were built.  The entrance is a ramp that climbs at a steep angle up to the level of the houses, and from there you can walk to the edge of the wall and see an amazing unobstructed view.  It is a city built in the sky.

The ramp up through the walls

The ramp up through the walls

The entire site had been covered with plants and vegetation when it was first reintroduced to the world, but since then successive digs have cleaned and unearthed the ruins.  Ishpingo and lanche trees still grow in the most of the site, in the ruins of the houses that the Spanish conquistadores destroyed.  They are ghostly, dripping with lichens and hung with bromeliads.

The view from the highest point is astounding—vast, deep valleys and towering mountains, every surface steep and inhospitable, but many covered still with a patchwork quilt of farm plots, just as they have been for centuries.

On an architectural and engineering level, I’ve never seen anything so complex.  What would it have been like to live here before the Spanish came, to see the city in all its glory?  José gave us theories and hypotheses, but though much research has been done it is still impossible to know for certain what everyday life was like, and what some of the more mysterious structures were for.

We’d opted to hike back down to the river valley rather than returning in the car, and as we skidded and slid down the steep, muddy trail we turned to look back up at the huge walled city.  “Imagine if you were the invading army,” Kevin said, and we all laughed to think of facing that seemingly impossible task.  We stood a good 200 meters below the walls, with the prospect of an exhausting climb followed by the problem of breaking the fortress’ formidable defenses.  “I’d say forget it,” José said.  “Let’s just go back home.”

So we, the invading tourist army who had breached the ancient walls but were still denied all but the most basic knowledge of that mysterious place, turned our backs and pulled up our hoods against the rain, defeated.




  1. like your blog and your writing. see for my peru pix, and search “kuelap” for my account & pix of same territory.
    weren’t you also quite taken with the fact that unlike the incas (and most of us) the people of the clouds lived in circular houses? wish i knew more about ’em. there’s a neat book on the area and the people, by a guy who wandered around there, way back in the back country, and is now a dean or something at university of santa cruz.

    • Thanks for stopping by! I actually ran across your blog a few months back when we were planning this trip, and loved your account of traveling from Chachapoyas to Cajamarca.

  2. […] I posted about it on our blog, as well: Kuelap. […]

  3. I went to Kuelap a few days ago. It’s an awesome place and, for me, a more than worthy rival to Machu Picchu.

  4. Great article and thanks for sharing! Just wrote a piece about Kuelap today. Have you also been to Machu Picchu? If so, which did you like more? Do you think that Kuelap could eventually become as popular as Machu Picchu?

    • Thanks for the kind words! We did also go to Machu Picchu (we eventually switched our blogging over to Unpaved South America, you can find the articles there). I think we both preferred Kuelap because of its remoteness and lack of other tourists. I really wish we’d spent more time in the Chachapoyas area, taken a few hikes and such.

      There’s a huge lack of easy tourist transportation to Chachapoyas, which I think will keep Kuelap out of the Machu Picchu trap for some time. People can easily visit Machu Picchu without ever having to leave their comfort zone, and without taking too many days of paid vacation time to do so. Kuelap, on the other hand, requires one to actually enjoy the experience of traveling, and to want to experience life in another country.

      I certainly hope Kuelap stays under the radar. :)

      • I completely understand you when you say you hope it stays under the radar! Something about it getting overrun with tourists has a somewhat unappealing feel, but at the same time, I would love more people to be able to see it and learn more about the culture in the Amazon. Can’t have it both ways I guess, but due to the terrain and Amazon, I think you are right in that it will be some time before it gains real notoriety.

        Will check out your “new/other” blog!

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