I’ll admit to not being a huge follower of travel lists published by the big travel companies (even if I’ve contributed to them over the past few years). Although they can be a great way of highlighting truly fascinating travel destinations that would otherwise get overlooked, they can also help to perpetuate the challenges that many growing tourism destinations face.
One of these is Kuélap, a mountaintop citadel built in the sixth century by the Chachapoyas culture that overlooks the Uctubamba Valley in northern Peru, has been on the receiving end of increased global attention.
Ranked at number 29 on the New York Time’s 52 Places to Go in 2018 list, the “experts” really think you should add it to your travel bucket list this year (another term that I just can’t get behind).
Regardless of its appearance on this list, I’ll admit to having been excited about the prospect of visiting the ruins for as long as I’d known I was going to be heading back to Peru. Unlike Machu Picchu, a photo of which you can’t go more than a few steps into the country without being bombarded with from all angles, I thought that it had a sense of being untouched by tourism, seemingly resistant to the effects of mass visitation – largely because, plonked strategically on the top of a mountain, it remained difficult to access.
Broadening access to Kuélap, the cloud warrior fortress
But things have changed. Last year, a French company received a contract to build a cable car from Nuevo Tingo at the base of the mountain to the ruins, streamlining a journey that had taken anything from 90 minutes (minibus) to four hours (hiking) down to a mere 20-minutes. The resulting transport is run with the precision that I wasn’t aware was even possible in this country: in the waiting room just above the town, a screen indicates the timing of the next minibus that will take you to where you board the cable cars (ours left at exactly 10.17 for example). You’re even expected to queue up in an orderly fashion five minutes ahead of your allotted time slot to ensure the smooth running of the schedule.
It’s certainly efficient; within 20-minutes, we’d faced a somewhat hairy plunge down into the valley, before being yanked back up the other side and spat out at the visitor’s centre. En route, my guide pointed out holes in the mountainside where the interred bones of previous inhabitants of the region were visible from our seats in the cable car.
Once we arrived at the top, it was another 10 minutes on foot to reach the ruins – although enterprising locals were on hand to provide horses for those who weren’t sure about the required exertion.
It was at this moment that the dream of this mystical stone fortress atop a mountain, a place from where the Chachapoyas had surveyed their territories and protected themselves from their enemies before finally being subsumed into the Inca empire, started to fade. As we passed the dramatic stone walls that surround the Kuélap fortress – not nearly as slick as those for which the Inca are famed, but still reaching up to 18 metres in height – we could see many being rebuilt, an act that I can only hope does not see the ruins following those at Machu Picchu – which I’ve been told have been rebuilt to almost beyond recognition.
Entering the ancient city from the east, we climbed upwards to the first level of circular stone houses, only to find ourselves competing with another group busily taking selfies and standing on the ruins themselves (much to the annoyance of our tour guide who was repeatedly being forced to break off from her explanations and chastise members of other groups for this behaviour).
Stoning the clouds
Despite this, the ruins themselves are truly spectacular. There’s always something about mountain-top buildings that leaves you truly in awe, from the question of how on earth they managed to get all of those rocks up there to the sublimity of the views. Like the Inca, the Chachapoyas wanted to get as close to the sky as possible, so the Kuélap fortress’ position is both strategic and religious.
At the northern end of the ruins, we stood in front of the remains of a tower where over 2500 stone projectiles had been found: here, our guide told us how archeologists believe that the Chachapoyas had catapulted stones up into the sky to “hit the clouds and bring down the rain”.
Further along our loop around the site, we stopped at the remains of a circular house, the walls only now a metre or so above the ground. Our guide pointed at a stone tunnel that’s just about visible beneath a layer of grass and which is where they stored their guinea pigs – which were later cooked up and eaten, of course. But that’s not all; our guide pointed again at the ground. “The Chachapoyas lived with their dead,” she tells us, describing how the mummies of the deceased would have been buried beneath the dwelling and covered by a slab of rock that could be removed to take them out again for rituals or celebrations.
As we wandered around the site, it was hard not to be struck by its height – the ruins stand at 3040m above sea level – and the sheer drop that surrounds this mountaintop plateau from all angles, with the other mountains disappearing into a haze of cloud.
A cable car too far?
Even though it still felt there were a few too many people for my liking, I was certainly glad that I was there in January; apparently, in the peak months of June and July, visitor numbers can reach up to 1800. Given how Machu Picchu has recently had to change its ticketing system in a bid to lessen the impact of thousands of daily visitors to the site (although, as this article points out, visitors’ numbers are set to increase under the changes), it is concerning to think about what impact increasing tourism and the new improved access will have on the ruins.
What’s more, conversations I had with people living in and around Chachapoyas proved how the introduction of the cable car has had other negative effects on tourism in the region. Previously, the minibuses would take the long route around to Kuélap, passing via the village of Choctamal among others, stopping for lunch in restaurants along the way and even staying the night in accommodation en route. The cable car has effectively cut these communities off from the tourism that had served as their main income for many years.
Visiting Kuélap, Peru: can it be done responsibly?
I enjoyed my trip to the ruins, although the experience certainly made me aware that there’s little energy being spent by the Peruvian government or tourism board on controlling access to the ruins so that they don’t end up facing the same challenges as Machu Picchu.
What this means is that it’s on us, as travellers, to consider how best we can visit the ruins responsibly. These are my suggestions for visiting Kuélap:
- Head to Kuélap out of high season (June-August), where possible. This helps to spread out the arrival of visitors, which is not only a bonus for you, as you’ll be sharing them with few others, but helps to ensure tourism is a year-round source of income for the local families who rely upon it. Bear in mind that February-April is the rainy season and access to Chachapoyas can be difficult, so these months are best avoided.
- Consider taking the old route that passes through local communities, rather than the cable car. Yes, the cable car was beautiful (if a little terrifying at times), but adding an extra 90-minutes to your trip time isn’t the end of the world – but can make a real difference to local people. Even better, consider spending the night at one of the accommodations close to Kuélap; not only will your money go into local coffers, but you’ll also be able to enter the site before all the tour groups get there.
- Don’t wander on the stones! Even though the site is very open and you can visit without a guide, this doesn’t mean you can stand on the ruins themselves. Some of the parts of the path are very narrow and difficult if you’re trying to pass another visitor but hey, don’t step on the stones!
Finally, there’s so much more to see in the Uctubamba Valley than just Kuélap, with the region comprising a veritable collection of sarcophagi, hikes to ancient burial sites, private conservation areas and sustainable ecotourism projects. By exploring the region, you can help to broaden the positive impacts of tourism and reduce the negative ones, such as overcrowding and the domination of big, multinational businesses over small, sustainable local enterprises.
To get you started, have a read of this article about the best responsible tours (visiting small-scale, often community-run tourism projects) in Northern Peru.
Useful information about visiting Kuélap, Peru
How to get to Kuélap, Peru
I visited with Nuevos Caminos Travel, who specialise in responsible local tourism and offered a no stress way of visiting Kuélap, particularly given the short timeframe I had to do so. Their tours cost S/95 ($30 USD) and include transport from their office on the Plaza de Armas, Chachapoyas to the cable car station and back again, plus lunch in a local restaurant and an English-speaking guide.
They can also arrange hiking tours (with a cable car up and the hike down) and have a wide range of other tours visiting fascinating local destinations, such as Mipuj, Yumbilla, the Coffee route and even Leymebamba and the Laguna de los Cóndores (where the mummies in the Museo de Leymebamba were uncovered).
You can also visit independently by taking a colectivo (minibus) from the bus station in Chachapoyas. A return ticket costs S/14 ($4 USD) and will drop you off at Nuevo Tingo. From here, the cable car costs S/20 ($6 USD) each way and run daily 8am–5pm (although they’re closed most Mondays for maintenance); the final cable car down leaves at 3.30pm. The earlier you get there, the less likely you’ll be vying for photography space with the crowds.
What to take with you to Kuélap, Peru
walking boots as the path up to the fortress can be muddy if it’s rained and you cover a few kilometres as you wander the site. A waterproof coat, hat, sun cream and water are essentials as the weather can change rapidly in the space of a few minutes.
I was a guest of Nuevos Caminos Travel for my trip to Kuélap, although, as always, all of the opinions in this article are mine and showcase my honest opinions of the experience. If you’re interested in booking one of their sustainable tours (which incorporate a wide range of different attractions from the Uctubamba Valley and Chachapoyas), you can visit their website: NuevosCaminosTravel.com.