Kuelap is been a hidden gem in Peru for many years, one that you could only access on foot and unknown even for Peruvians.
It’s only been in the last years that the Peruvian government has been putting some effort into making this awesome site more accessible.
However, I loved the untouched feeling of the Kuelap fortress and I would prefer that the government invested more in discovering and protecting the place and not in doing a cable car to arrive there.
Let me tell you some tips for visiting the Kuelap fortress and how to arrived there.
Where is Kuelap fortress located?
Kuelap, located in the north of Peru in the Amazon department, is one of the largest ancient fortresses in the country and older than Machu Pichu.
It was accidentally rediscovered in 1843 and since the 1980s many Peruvian and foreign archaeologists have continued with excavations and studies, even that only a small percentage has been studied since it is usually no funds available.
From my experience, the Peruvian government doesn’t put a lot of effort into other sites except for Machu Pichu, so it is common to find abandoned or unexplored ruins around the country.
Despite that, Kuelap was placed on the 2004 World Monuments Watch, a program by the private non-profit organization World Monuments Fund to call attention to its continuing deterioration and need for improvement.
Fun fact, Kuelap was also voted the best Overseas Attraction in 2017 by the National Geographic Traveller Reader Awards and in 2018 was one of the 10 hot destinations mention by the Wall Street Journal.
Why Kuelap is incredible?
Kuelap was the political center of the Chachapoya civilization but the civilization collapsed in the mid-16th century due to the Spanish conquest, and Kuelap was abandoned.
The fortress deteriorated over time because of rain, wind erosion, and lack of an effective drainage system, as well as the growth of tree roots. Now, these trees are part of most of the buildings that are still in the place.
Time, nature and stones became one, and that’s one of the things that I like the most about Kuelap, the feeling of authenticity and untouched that you don’t have in other ruins.
The Chachapoyas people, also known as the warriors of the clouds, are one of the most important cultures in Peru.
They build this fortress on top of a mountain at 3000 meters above the sea where they could see all the Utcubamba Valley.
When planning your trip to this area, be aware of the altitude and make sure you plan some days around to adapt to the high and avoid altitude sickness.
If you are traveling through Peru and you know that altitude is hard on you, you can purchase “Sorojchi Pills” in almost any pharmacy, they are a miracle!
What is inside the Kuelap fortress?
Kuelap is incredible from the outside and inside. The first thing you find when arriving at the settlement is the 20 meters wall that is used to protect the citadel.
The Chachapoyas built a real fortress here, the wall only has three entrances and all of them start as a tight corridor, almost as a funnel that only allows one person at a time. Take that, enemies!
Inside the fortress are over 500 structures, most of them only have their foundations or walls remaining. The cool thing about the architecture of the place is that the buildings are circular and other weird shapes.
Only a few of the structures have been restored to give an idea of the real houses, but most of them look like how they found it with the forest eating part of the buildings, this makes the place really genuine.
Many stones inside have different designs engraving on them.
There are also water canals made of stone, which are believed to have supplied water to the settlement from a spring at the top of the mountain and the area is the home of 130 bird species that live in the surrounding ecological reserve.
How much does Kuelap cost?
Nowadays, the entrance has a cost of 30 soles (8USD).
When I visited the place, Kuelap was still unknown to a lot of people, but some local guides awaited at the entrance for lost tourists wanting an explanation on the inside. After discussing a price, we had a tour guide for 3 hours that was more than excited to talk about this incredible place.
You can also visit the site without any guide, the fortress and the views are gorgeous, but for a reasonable price a local will tell you all the stories and answer all your questions, it’s a win-win.
The cost of the cable car is 21 soles (5USD), and so far they don’t have a combined entrance for the fortress plus the car.
How to get to Kuelap?
There isn’t a direct way to get there from Lima or other important cities in Peru.
First, go to Chachapoyas
The closest main city is Chachapoyas where you can arrive by plane or bus. The bus takes 24 hours and the cheapest ticket can cost around 80 soles (20USD).
Other cities where you can flight are Jaen and then take a 3-hour bus or Tarapoto follow by an 8-hour bus to Chachapoyas.
For more information about buses check Redbus.
If you choose to go by bus, as I did, I recommend planning other stops in between, so you can visit other cities, rest from the bus and adapt to the altitude. I stop in Cajamarca because it’s one of my favorite cities, took a bus to Celendin and then another bus to El Tingo, it’s not the best or easy route but it was incredible fun.
Once in Chachapoyas, go to Kuelap
You have three options: hiking, book a tour or take the cable car.
Hike to the Kuelap fortress:
From Chachapoyas take a local bus for 1 hour to El Tingo, the closest town to the ruins and spend the night there.
There are a couple of rustic hostels in the small town that doesn’t need a reservation.
It’s nothing to do in El Tingo except spend time there. However, sleeping here will allow you to wake up early for the trekking to the ruins.
A horse trail along the left bank of Tingo river leads to Marcapampa, a small level upland near the site, it is impossible to get lost and any local on the way up will point you in the right direction.
The hike takes around 4 hours. It isn’t a hard walk, the main difficulty is the altitude. Finishing the hike in front of the big fortress walls was a rewarding feeling.
Book a tour:
You can book a tour directly from Chachapoyas.
They will drive you really close to the site and show you around, a no-brainer option.
Taking the Kuelap cable car:
In recent years a cable car has been completed from Nuevo Tingo to Kuelap.
It takes visitors within 2 km of the site in a journey of 20 minutes. From there you just need to walk a little bit, or you can even take a horse, and be at the entrance without sweating.
The cost of the cable car is 21 soles (5USD) and so far, you can only buy the ticket directly at El Tingo station.
What to pack for Kuelap?
- Whatever option you choose to get there make sure to pack water and some food. Between the visit and the time to get there you will probably spend a full morning and you don’t want to get hungry or thirsty, also hydration is key for altitude sickness.
- Bring cash and leave your cards, most of the entrances like the cable car ticket can only be paid by cash. Outside the fortress, there are usually stands with food and souvenirs only accepting cash. Basically, take your money in Chachapoyas and make sure you have enough cash for everything.
- Pack a jacket or warm clothes. Even if you are visiting the area during Peruvian summer the place is located 3000 meters above the sea, it can get windy and especially in the shadows, you will want that extra layer.
- Kuelap is open all year, however, the best season for visiting the site is from June to October during Peruvian summer. During the rainy season, from November to April, you can find some complications and it can be uncomfortable.
Have you visited Kuelap? Did you like it? Do you have more tips? I would love to read your comments
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