Visiting Kuelap, the next Machu Piccu

If I asked you to name a tourist attraction in Peru I can almost guarantee what your first answer would be… Machu Picchu! It is one of most famous attractions in the whole world and rightly on the modern list of Man Made Wonders. However, there is another Peruvian ruins in the less travelled northern part of the country that is laying down a claim as the next Machu Pichu… The ruins of Kuelap.

Kuelap is located just outside of a small town called Chachapoyas, accessible by bus from either Chiclayo or Iquitos. The journey to get there from Chiclayo is a long, windy one taking around 8 hours. We used Movil Tours and would highly recommend them for any trips around Northern Peru, cheaper than Cruz Del Sur but still very comfortable and including meals/snacks depending on the length of the bus.

Kuelap ruins entrance sign
Looking pretty under the entrance sign

Originally we had planned on visiting Kuelap without a tour, but a combination of reasonably priced tours, the promise of an English speaking guide and a lack of confidence in my own Spanish ability led us to taking a tour. We used Hostal Revash to book both a tour to Kuelap and to the Sarcophagi of Carrachi (more on this later).

Our tour began at the hotel at 830am where we were shown to our transport. It was here we learned the English speaking guide we had been promised simply didn’t exist. Our guide spoke Spanish and not a single world of English, excellent! A great start to the day. The drive out to Kuelap took around 90 minutes, it used to take a lot longer but they have recently finished building a new cable car that takes you from the town of Tingo straight up to the ruins. After riding the 20 minute cable car we stopped at the museum for a quick bit of history about the ruins. It was here we learned that one of Peruvian ladies on the tour was an English teacher in Cusco and she was happy to become our translator for the day.

Kuelap was the capital city of the Chachapoyas people, this civilisation pre-dated the Incas but eventually were conquered by the Incas . We learned later in the tour that is is believed the Incas and Chachapoyan’s lived in relative harmony and it actually the Spanish who finally saw end to the civilisation. Items of pottery and other artefacts from around the site had been carbon dated to as far back as the 6th Century and as recently as the 16th Century! So they were around for a while.

One of the 3 entrances to Kuelap
The narrowing entrance path up into the city

From the museum there is around a 20 minute walk up to the first view of the city itself. From the first view of the city it was an impressive sight. The city itself is built on top of a mountain with 360 degree panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. To add to this, the city wall adds another 18 metres to the height making it a pretty formidable looking place. We first hiked around the Eastern perimeter to the entrance passage at the most northerly point. All the entrance ways are built like funnels, starting wide and finishing just about wide enough for one person to fit through. The entrance we used was also the main one used by traders, you could actually see Llama hoof-prints in the rocks were they have been so well worn.

Once inside the city walls we were treated to an array of ruined houses, the building style is completely different to that of the Incas. The Inca’s prefer rectangular shaped buildings, whereas the Chachapoyan’s were really into circles. It’s hard to describe in writing how seriously impressive the ruins were, so here are a selection of photos that still don’t really do it justice.

Ruined house at Kuelap Ruins
Not a bad view from your bedroom window

The final visiting point inside the city was the Temple Mayor (major temple). This building was a huge circle which appeared to be completely sealed. Archaeologists have found that through a small hole in the top there is actually a large cavernous area inside. Inside here they have found various offerings and potteries, it is currently believed this was once used as a ceremonial area and offerings were made here. Yes, human remains were found. Just up from the temple we were also told a mass grave had been found, it is completely unknown the reasoning why but there were lots of burnt remains found including children, adults and older people. Age or gender doesn’t seem to have mattered.

This kind of activity is definitely ‘my thing’, in a similar way to Angkor Wat in Cambodia (you can read about our time there here). I love visualising exactly what it would have been like a bustling city and what the way of life would have been like. Human sacrifices aside it seemed like a pretty epic place to live!

The Sarcophagi of Carraci & Caverns of

Carrying on with our history lesson in Chachapoyan culture we spent our second day in Chachapoyas visiting the Caverns of Quiocta and the Sarcofogi of Carraci. We also booked this tour through the same hotel and hadn’t been promised an English guide for this one. Although on the morning of the tour the owner told us our guide for the day would be Augusto who spoke 5 languages, great we though! Getting into the tour bus we soon realised that Augusto was about as real as the Loch Ness Monster, it seems English speaking guides in Chachapoyas are mythical creatures.

Stalgmites in the cavers of Quiocta
Stalegmites/tites/whichever ones they are

We drove for around 2 and a half hours out of Chachapoyas to the Caverns before donning our wellington boots (honestly the highlight of Vicki’s trip) and heading off into the darkness. Slightly concerned as the tour guide padlocked shut the metal gates behind us, leaving us lacked inside a cavern we flicked on our flash lights and headed off inside. The cave was huge and filled with numerous piles of bones, skulls and small sarcophagus’.  There were also 5 or 6 areas where the rock on roof had formed an absolutely perfect circle, very strange. Stalagmites and stalactites (still no idea which is which) were aplenty including some huge ones towards the far end of the cave.

After luckily being let back out of the cave and a quick stop for lunch we headed off to the days main event, the Sarcophagi of Carraci. More specifically, these are 5 Sarcophagus perched on the edge of a cliff face. Through our basic Spanish we managed to ascertain that the more important somebody was the higher they were buried, we also learned that there used to be a lot more on the cliff but through a combination of theft and falling these are the remaining lucky souls.

The Sarcophagi of Carraci
The sarcophogi sitting on the side of the mountain, certainly beats a British burial

One of the guys on our tour to Kuelap had told us they weren’t actually very impressive and you couldn’t even get close enough to take a photo. It was a pleasant surprise when we got there to see they were perfectly easily view able and plenty close enough to get some good photos.

I would highly recommend Chachapoyas to anybody wanting to visit somewhere a little more off the beaten track from the normal Gringo route through Peru! I can’t compare it to Machu Picchu at the minute as we haven’t yet visited, but we were one of only 2 tour groups we saw that day so it was much much quieter than the hordes that visit Machu Picchu every day of the year. If you have the time make the trip out there and if you don’t have the time then make the time… Simple!


another on the list, backpacking, chachapoyas, day tours, exploring


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