Kuelap, Peru - Ancient Fortress of the Cloud Warriors
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. The impressive nature of the Kuelap ruins explains why it is sometimes referred to as Peru’s Second Machu Picchu.
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.
Ruins with decorated walls at Kuelap, Peru. (peter /Adobe Stock)
Home to the Warriors of the Cloud
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. Specifically, it is located in a region where the rainforest meets the Andes mountain range. The Chachapoyas, like the Inca, wanted to get as close as the sky as possible – for both strategic and religious reasons.
Often described as an ancient fortified citadel, newer research suggests that the site was more likely to have been used as a settlement than a site where battles were fought. Nonetheless, it was built by the Chachapoyas – a group of people often referred to as the “Warriors of the Cloud.” This was a Pre-Incan group of people living in the cloud forests of what is today the Amazonas Region of Peru.
Some of the most famous archaeological remains left by the Chachapoyas are the purunmachu sarcophagi where they placed the remains of the deceased high up on cliff ledges. The process to make the purunmachu took a series of steps: First, clay was sculpted around the carefully wrapped bodies of the dead. Then a mixture of mud and straw was applied. Finally, the sarcophagi were painted cream colored of white and decorative details such as necklaces, feathered tunics, and faces were painted on in yellow and red. When placed on a ledge of a high cliff, the sarcophagi look like sentries guarding the dead.
Based on the archaeological evidence, Kuelap was built around the sixth century AD, and continued to be in use until the 16th century AD.
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The sarcophagi of Carajia, emblematic of the lost Chachapoya culture. Source: BigStockPhoto
Features of the Kuelap Ruins
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. Even if it rarely or never saw bloodshed, 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. With all this in mind, it would probably be more fitting to call Kuelap a walled city rather than a fortress.
The walled city of Kuelap. (peter /Adobe Stock)
It has been thought that the Chachapoyas were conquered by the Incas sometime in the second half of the 15th 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 16th 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.
Since its rediscovery, archaeologists have learned much about Kuelap ruins. Over 400 round buildings that likely served as 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 at Kuelap. This is based on evidence of holes drilled into the leg bones of two male skeletons from Kuelap.
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Archaeologists have identified over 400 round houses at Kuelap. (LindaPhotography /Adobe Stock)
One of the interesting practices that archaeologists believe Kuelap’s residents practiced was trying to ‘hit’ the clouds with stones shot up into to sky with catapults. This was thought to incite the rain to fall. Another intriguing ritual archaeologists have found is that the mummies of deceased ancestors were located under the floors of some houses. The ancestors were placed beneath stones that could be removed so the mummies could be taken out for ceremonies.
Much of Kuelap has yet to be excavated, which means that unlike Machu Picchu, it is a site where visitors to the site may still have something of the feeling of stumbling across a lost city when they are surrounded by the green and wild nature of the ancient settlement.
New Ways to Reach the Top
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 they put into place in 2017 is the use of cable cars to transport visitors to the site.
In the past, travelers could either opt to reach the site through 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 were put in place, the travel time was drastically cut down, as there is only a drive from the village of Tingo Nuevo to the cable car, followed by a 20 minute passage to Kuelap.
While the change has cut travel time drastically, it has also unfortunately cut tourism numbers just as much for the communities living around the ruins. Buses used to take a route that allowed for people to stop and eat or shop in local communities, but with more people using the quicker cable car, these communities have far less people visiting them.
The impressive stone walls and the hundreds of circular ruins remain at the site in Peru, as if time itself was unable to completely best the ancient Warriors of the Cloud. Perhaps future research will grant us more information on this interesting lost culture of Peru and their mountaintop city.
Llama at the ruins of Kuelap, Peru. (Jhon /Adobe Stock)
Top Image: Ruins of round houses of Kuelap, ruined citadel city of Chachapoyas cloud forest culture in mountains of northern Peru. Source: Matyas Rehak /Adobe Stock
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