Kuelap: Discovering the Ancient Fortress of the Chachapoya

Update as of Dec 2022: A recent landslide caused damage to Kuelap. As repairs go on, visitors are not permitted to enter the fortress walls. The cable car is still operating and visitors can walk the grounds outside the walls for free. It is unclear as to when the repairs will be completed, so confirm with the tour company before booking a tour if entering the ruins is an important factor to you.

We arrived in Chachapoyas around 6:30 in the morning, feeling groggy from a restless night of sleep on the bus. We set out on foot to find our hostel, ready for the day ahead. Before arriving in the city, we hadn’t had a plan for the day, but we met several fellow travelers and all decided to venture out to the ancient ruins of Kuelap.

After putting our bags at the hostel, we headed out to find a tour and grab some breakfast. Many of the tour agencies sit around the Plaza de Armas in the center of the city. We found the Santa Maria Travel & Tours agency and booked a last-minute tour with them for 75 soles each. The tour included transport, lunch, a guided tour of the ruins, and tickets for both the gondola and entrance into the ruins.

The park in the center of the small town of Nuevo Tingo
The park in the center of the small town of Nuevo Tingo

Getting to Kuelap

At 8:30 a.m., our group departed for Kuelap in a van. We stopped in Nuevo Tingo to place orders for lunch after the tour and had a quick look around the small town. The van took us 10 more minutes up the street to the gondola station.

The cable cars opened in early 2017, eliminating the long approach hike and bringing more tourism to the area. It is also the first cable car system to be built in Peru. If you visit on your own, you’ll pay the 20 soles for the cable car ticket at the little station and 30 soles to enter the ruins. When we visited, they only accepted cash.

Stunning views from the gondola on the way to Kuelap
Stunning views from the gondola on the way to Kuelap

The gondola glided high over the valley and up the hill below the ruins. A short, ascending hike led our group to the towering walls that surround the fortress. Our tour was entirely in Spanish despite our guide telling the group there would be an English-speaking guide at the ruins. Luckily, Matt and I could understand a fair amount of Spanish.

Touring Kuelap

Kuelap is open daily from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. The cable car does not operate on Mondays and holiday hours may differ.

After the gondola ride, we hiked up to the ruins and wound our way outside the walls. Our group entered the fortress on the backside through a small opening in the stone.

Kuelap was built around 500 AD before Incan times by the Chachapoya and served as a small city and a fortress to protect its inhabitants against intruders. The Incans invaded and destroyed many of the structures, but the foundations of the homes and ceremonial buildings still can be seen. The downfall of Kuelap came with colonialism, and it became a lost city. Due to its remote location, it wasn’t discovered again until the mid-1800s.

Standing structures atop the fortress
Standing structures atop the fortress

The views around the fortress were stunning. Green mountains that were partially covered in a patchwork of agricultural plots surrounded us. The day was hot, and we found ourselves overheating in pants even though the morning was cool. There were a fair amount of people visiting the ruins, but our guide did a great job of spacing us between the groups of people so that we could enjoy the area and snap some pictures.

We could only imagine what this place looked like in its prime
We could only imagine what this place looked like in its prime

At the end of the tour, we hiked in the scorching sun back down to the gondola and the bus. Tired and sweaty, the group was ready for a tasty lunch at the restaurant in Tingo.

Extra Notes on Touring Kuelap

Taking a tour of Kuelap is a great chance to learn about the lesser-known cultures of ancient Peru. When on the tour, respect the ruins by staying on the trail. Don’t stray away from the group! Our group was held up for a long while as our guide went searching for a couple people who decided to wander off on their own.

While we were there, it was mandatory to have a guide to access the area inside the walls. We have been told that visitors can now access the full ruins on their own. However, when we visited, public transport was more time consuming and it didn’t seem much cheaper to go on our own. We also enjoyed having a guide because there is so much to learn about the ruins and the people who once lived here, all of which our guide explained terrifically.

A partially standing home at the edge of the fortress
A partially-standing home at the edge of the fortress

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