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Kuélap and Chachapoyas: Underappreciated Ruins and Underappreciated Area

Jeff Blum has been a digital nomad since March 2009. He is an online entrepreneur specialising in the curation of online business and travel information. Jeff runs a number of online websites, including Lengthy Travel, and also offers consulting services to entrepreneurs and fast-growing small businesses.

It’s pretty difficult to travel around South America and meet a fellow traveller who hasn’t been to Machu Picchu or isn’t at least planning to visit. It’s equally difficult to find someone who has been to Kuélap.

Lest you think I am about to clue you in to a long lost and still hidden treasure of the travel world, I am not. In fact, Kuélap is recommended in the Lonely Planet, even in their less detailed South America version, where they write “matched in grandeur only by Machu Picchu, the fabulous ruins of this pre-Inca citadel…receives remarkably few visitors, though those who make it get to see one of the most significant and impressive pre-Colombian ruins in South America.”

So, with a glowing recommendation like that from the bible of travel, why doesn’t anyone bother going? The most obvious explanation would be that it is incredibly difficult to reach. Except, um, actually, it isn’t hard to reach at all. So, truthfully I have no idea why more people don’t go.

About Kuélap
Wikipedia says: “The fortress of Kuelap (or Cuélap), associated with the Chachapoyas culture, consists of massive exterior stone walls containing more than four hundred buildings. The structure, situated on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru, is roughly 600 metres in length and 110 metres in width.

It could have been built to defend against the Huari or other hostile peoples however evidence of these hostile groups at the site is minimal. Radiocarbon dating samples show that construction started in the 6th century AD and the site was occupied until the Early Colonial period (1532-1570), however through the pre-Columbian, conquest and colonial periods we have only four brief references to Kuelap. In lieu of newly discovered documents, there exists no other testimony concerning the site until 1843.”

Also known as “Chacas,” it happens to be the name of the city from which you will base yourself to visit these ruins. Interestingly, it is the capital of the Amazonas department, though it will not in any way feel like you are in the Amazon when you are there as it is mostly surrounded by mountainous terrain.

Getting to Kuelap
Once you arrive in Chachapoyas , just go to the main plaza and you will see several tour agencies. Most charge roughly the same price for a day tour to Kuélap, though if you are in a group or are an especially good haggler you can usually get a discount. 

You can actually go to Kuélap by yourself but it will be almost impossible to do in one day without a car. I met a couple of Dutch hikers who went to the small town nearest the ruins, spent a night and then hiked up to the ruins. Their basic assessment was that it was difficult (due to the altitude) and not an especially impressive hike and they wouldn’t recommend others do it. 

Beyond Kuélap
I highly recommend you spend some days in and around Chachapoyas because there is a lot to see. Hiking enthusiasts can do a three-day hike to Laguna de los Cóndores or the five-day Gran Vilaya trek to the Valle de Belén. Chachapoyas is also en route to Tarapoto, the gateway to Iquitos.

A closer, and great same-day option, is the Catarata de Gocta, reportedly the world’s third tallest free-leaping waterfall and basically unknown to the outside world until 2005. Also worth a one-day visit in the area around Chacas are the Sarcófagos of Karajía and the funeral buildings of Revash.

South America is a fascinating place. Although we don't visit Kuelap, you can get a taste for the adventure on one of our South American trips. 

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