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The Kuelap Fortress, the hidden gem of Peru

Tierras Vivas Travel > The Kuelap Fortress, the hidden gem of Peru

The Kuelap Fortress, the hidden gem of Peru

An impressive fortress that dates back to the 11th century -approximately- and is located at 3000 meters above sea level. n. m. Amazing, right? It is the archaeological complex of Kuélap, an architectural jewel built by the inhabitants of ancient Peru and that stands out for the perfection of its finishes, the monumental size of its buildings and how complex it was (yes, past tense) to access it.  

Kuelap is located in the province of Luya, one of the seven that make up the Amazonas region. The northeastern Andes were the location chosen by the members of the Chachapoyas culture, those responsible for the construction of this enigmatic city, which has administrative, religious, ceremonial spaces and even homes. It could be said that it was a city, strategically located and guarded by great walls, but at the same time surrounded by dense nature and beautiful landscapes, worthy of photographs. 

Pre-Inca ancestors 

Yes, the Chachapoyas culture is even older than the Inca Empire. Its six hectares of extension were discovered during an expedition made in 1843 by the judge of Chachapoyas, Juan Crisóstomo Nieto. However, this city would have been inhabited from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, approximately. This is the estimate of the time in which Kúelap would have worked, since it was during the heyday of the Chachapoyas civilization (which was made up of various indigenous communities, each one led by its own curaca), which is highly regarded for being masters of construction, engineering and anti-riot strategists. 

The perfect finishes of the city of Kuelap, with its narrow streets, and the 420 circular houses, do nothing more than agree with those who point to them as privileged when designing and building. This, in addition to its walls up to 20 meters high, for which more than 100 thousand blocks and their weight in mud were needed. By having these imposing walls only on one flank of their fortress, they made the work of the soldiers in charge of protecting the safety of the inhabitants from attacks by strangers and wild animals easier – and more effective. 

The Chachapoyas

Kuelap was built and inhabited by the Chachapoyas (1000 to 1400 AD), a nation formed by a group of curacazgos, which is the political organization that has the Curaca as ruler, who have left us many and very beautiful monuments along the river. Utcubamba, mainly, like Olán, Yalapé, Purunllacta or Monte Peruvia, Gran Vilaya, Vira Vira, Karajía, Gran Pajatén and Leimebamba, among others. About them, Father Blas Valera said in the 16th century that their name derived from the words “Sacha” which means forest and “phuyu”, cloud. 


According to the researchers, the founders of Kuelap began its construction during the Late Intermediate Period (1100 to 1450 AD) and it was in operation during this period and the following one, the Late Horizon, when they lived under the rule of the Incas of Cusco, until 1532, the year in which the Spanish Diego de Alvarado, after conquering the Incas, moved all the inhabitants of this site and surroundings to a new city. 

The Spanish conquerors had as control policy to move and gather the conquered population to new cities called “indian reductions”, located in low areas of the valleys and easily accessible. 

Geographic location

Kuelap is located in the upper part of the Utcubamba river valley, close to the Kuelap village in the district of Tingo, Luya Province, Department of Amazonas (Peru) at 3000 m.a.s.l. As a reference, it can be mentioned that it is 35 kilometers away in a southerly direction from the modern city of Chachapoyas. The weather is hot during the day (26 to 35 degrees Celsius) and cool at night with periods of rain during the months of December to April.


After the forced abandonment of Kuelap in 1532 at the hands of Diego de Alvarado, this city was forgotten for most people, until the year 1843 when Don Juan Crisóstomo Nieto, judge in the city of Chachapoyas was taken to this site. to settle some land disputes. So he is led to the top of a mountain where, to his great surprise, he saw a huge wall built with high quality carved stones and on it hundreds of houses, also made of stone. He was so impressed that he wrote a report entitled “Tower of Babel in Peru” for the Geographical Society of Lima who years later published it in their Bulletin. 

In later years, this archaeological site received the interest of researchers such as the Italian scholar Antonio Raimondi in 1860, Charles Wiener, Adolph Banbelier, the Swiss geologist, Arturo Werthemann, Loors Langlots, Paul Henri Reichlen in the following decades until today the archaeologist Alfredo Narváez, between 1985 and 1987, made a complete and detailed description of the site. 


Kuelap is made up of two gigantic superimposed artificial platforms, on which a city was built that covers an area of approximately 450 hectares. In general, and seen from the air, its shape resembles an elongated bird’s wing with a north-south orientation, measuring approximately 584 meters long by 120 meters wide on average. According to some specialists, 25,000,000 cubic meters of material would have been used in its construction. 

The retaining walls that form the aforementioned platforms give the impression of being a gigantic wall that protects this site since in some stretches it reaches 30 meters in height, an impression that is also reinforced by the presence of architectural elements identified as surveillance posts. , a tower and three narrow entrances, two of them facing east and the third facing west. The aforementioned entrances are long ramps excavated inside the platforms that have the peculiarity of being funnel-shaped, with an initial width of 3 meters on the outside, gradually narrowing to 70 centimeters on the inside exit, thus forcing the entry of only one person at a time, which has been understood as a measure of control and defense. 

Within its “walls”, Kuelap houses 505 houses, most of them circular. Outside the city, at least 198 more houses were built, adding a total of more than 700 buildings. 

Kuelap can be considered a fortified city as it is built on high platforms with high stone walls and narrow entrances. Its interior is divided into two large sectors, one low and one high that correspond to the two platforms that form it where most of the houses are located, which are organized around patios. The upper sector is the smallest and contains the best built houses and for this reason it has been considered as the dwelling area of the Kuelap aristocracy. 

In addition to the houses, other structures known today as “El Tintero”, “El Torreón” and “El Castillo” stand out for their unique architectural characteristics. 

“El Torreón” is built on the second platform, the highest. It is a 7-meter-high structure to which a defensive function is assigned and from where you have an unbeatable panoramic view of the surroundings. 

“El Tintero” is considered a ritual structure because its peculiar inverted cone shape has been understood as an astronomical observatory. “El Tintero” reaches 5.5 meters high with a base diameter of 13.7 meters. Inside this structure you can see a bottle-shaped chamber, which has led some researchers to think that its true function would be that of a “chulpa” (mausoleum). 

Kuelap is not alone, in the surroundings the Chachapoyas built more “fortresses” and enclosures that are still under investigation and many are even covered by thick vegetation and in areas that are difficult to access. 


The main material for construction in Kuelap are blocks of limestone edged without polishing, which have different qualities of finishes, the most elaborate being those intended for ceremonial constructions.

The Homes

Inside Kuelap there are, as mentioned above, around 505 structures considered as dwellings distributed in different areas and levels. Most of them have a circular shape, except for 4 that have a rectangular floor plan and one that has a square floor plan. Some of the houses have been rebuilt to the delight of tourists who can appreciate how these constructions were in the time of the Chacahapoyas. 

The houses with a circular floor plan usually have an average diameter of 7 meters and present on the exterior face (facade) friezes with figures of rhombuses made with stones or forming geometric figures that resemble birds or people. Evidence has been reported that the interior was plastered with mud and painted. 


A large city like Kuelap must have had a complete food supply system for its inhabitants. The valleys near this site are fertile and abundant in agricultural products, which in Chachapoya times were cultivated with corn (Zeamays), beans (Judíaphaseolus vulgaris), tarhui (Lupinus mutabilis Sweet), potato (Solanum tuberosum), achira (Canna edulis), mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), olluco (Ullucustuberosus), arracacha (Arracacia xanthorrhiza) and yacón (Polimniasonchifolia). As well as livestock such as the llama (Lama glama), domestic animals such as the guinea pig (Cavia sp.), the majás (Agouti paca), among other wild animals whose bones have been found but have been identified. 


The Archaeological Complex “Fortaleza de Kuelap” was declared a Cultural Heritage of Peru in 1998 favoring its protection and enhancement, which has in turn allowed a considerable increase in national and international tourism to this wonderful place, a jewel of Peruvian pre-Hispanic architecture.

Kuelap today 

It is one of the main tourist attractions in northern Peru. It is the essential place for nature lovers, tourists interested in outdoor sports and enthusiasts of ancient history and culture. A single place meets a series of requirements to be the favorite of different types of travelers. 

Do they want to amaze you with landscapes that you think can only be seen in books? Kuelap is the place for you. Are you a lover of outdoor sports like trekking? There is still a route to reach this fortress on foot. Yours is not so much physical activity, but you are interested in the ancient culture of the Chachapoyas? Don’t worry, accessing the Kuelap Fortress through its cable cars is quite simple. You will need 20 to 25 minutes to reach this place full of history and tradition!

Best Trekking and Tours in Peru

Many are the routes that take you to Machu Picchu, but none is like the Inca Trail Tours, the most famous pedestrian path in the Americas. After flying from the capital of Peru, Lima, you will arrive in Cusco to walk for four days along a path through forests and dense fog, millenary stone steps and discovering the ruins of ancient fortifications and Inca cities, and all the time enjoying majestic views. 

If you want to visit Machu Picchu, we recommend you to book your Machu Picchu Ticket in advance, so you will enjoy your Vacation in Machu Picchu without any problem. 

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