Kuelap, Peru - Ancient Fortress of the Cloud Warriors

Kuelap, Peru - Ancient Fortress of the Cloud Warriors

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Built by the Chachapoyas, the fortified citadel of Kuelap was home to the Warriors of the Cloud in Peru, before they were conquered by invaders. Massive stone walls and hundreds of ruins stand as a reminder of a formidable culture lost to history.

Machu Picchu is arguably one of the most well-known archaeological sites in Peru. Its builders, the Incas, are also one of the most recognizable peoples of South America. For instance, the Peruvian minister of foreign trade and tourism, José Luis Silva Martinot claimed in 2011 that 70 percent of international tourists that travel to Peru are there just to see Cusco or Machu Picchu, both of which are Incan sites. Yet, Peru has so much more to offer, as it is also home to many other archaeological sites, native tribes, and cultures. One such site is Kuelap, built by the Chachapoyas culture.

Kuelap is one of the largest ancient stone monuments in the New World, and is located 3,000 meters (approximately 10,000 feet) above sea level on the slope of the Andes in northern Peru.

Massive exterior walls, eastern facade of the Kuelap citadel, Peru.

Massive exterior walls, eastern facade of the Kuelap citadel, Peru. Wikimedia Commons

Believed to have been a fortified citadel, the monument was built by the Chachapoyas. These people, known also as the “Warriors of the Cloud”, were a Pre-Incan people living in the cloud forests of what is today the Amazonas Region of Peru. Based on the archaeological evidence, Kuelap was built around the sixth century A.D., and continued to be in use until the 16 th century A.D.

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The sarcophagi of Carajia, emblematic of the lost Chachapoya culture.

The sarcophagi of Carajia, emblematic of the lost Chachapoya culture. Source: BigStockPhoto

Due to the structure’s strategic location and massive stone walls (up to 20 meters in height, and with an average thickness of 80 centimeters), Kuelap has been popularly called a fortress, suggesting that it served a military function. It has been speculated that the Chachapoyas built Kuelap to defend themselves against neighbors who might have been hostile towards them. Yet, the site, which covers an area of almost 65,000 square meters, contained not only military buildings, but also buildings that were civil, religious or domestic in nature. In addition, it has been estimated that at its height, Kuelap had a population of up to 3,000 inhabitants consisting of not just warriors, but also merchants, shamans and farmers. It would perhaps be more fitting to call Kuelap a walled city, rather than a fortress. 

Inside the walled city of Kuelap.

Inside the walled city of Kuelap. José Porras/Wikimedia Commons

It has been thought that the Chachapoyas were conquered by the Incas sometime in the second half of the 15 th century. Kuelap, however, seems to have been left alone by the Incas, and the Chachapoyas continued to live there. With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16 th century, however, the Chachapoyas culture collapsed, and Kuelap was abandoned.

Over the course of the centuries, exposure to the elements has taken a toll on Kuelap. While locals were likely to have been aware of the existence of Kuelap, it was only in 1843 that the site was rediscovered by the outside world.

One of the entrances to Kuelap.

One of the entrances to Kuelap. Jorge Gobbi/ Flickr

Since its rediscovery, archaeologists have learned much about Kualep. Ruins, such as over 400 round houses, allow archaeologists to speculate about the functions of the site, as well as the possible number of inhabitants during its heyday. Most recently, a study by the University of Florida claims to have discovered the earliest instance of bone surgery . This is based on evidence of trepanation (the surgical practice of drilling holes into bones) on the bones of the legs of two male skeletons from Kuelap.

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Apart from archaeologists, the Peruvian government is also paying attention to Kuelap, as they intend to further develop it as a tourist destination. One of the plans in place is the use of cable cars to transport visitors to the site. In the past, travelers could either opt for a three to four hour hike, or a car journey on unpaved road taking up to an hour and a half. When the cable cars are in place, the travel time will be drastically cut down, as there will only be a drive from the village of Tingo Nuevo to the cable car, followed by a 20 minute passage to Kuelap. While this is expected to boost the number of tourists to the site, it has also raised concerns about the livelihood of the villages that travelers would bypass. As these villages offer food and accommodation to travelers during their journey to Kuelap, the cable cars would almost certainly have an impact on their lives, unless there are still tourists preferring to travel to Kuelap in the old-fashion way.   

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