Kuelap Archaeological Site


Location: 58 mi (93 km) from Chachapoyas Map

Open: 8am- 2pm daily

Official site


Description of Kuelap Archaeological Site

Kuelap is a former Chachapoya fortress and village in the northern Peruvian Andes. Kuelap sits high above the Utcubamba River valley near the town of Chachapoyas in Luya Province.

The village of Kuelap, which belongs to the district of Tingo, lies at about 2900 m above sea level just below the fortress.

The fortress stands on a ridge and housed over 300 individual houses on its three levels. Archaeologists disagree as to whether the fortress was a permanently inhabited village or whether the residents of the surrounding villages retreated there only in emergencies. They describe the surrounding area as having perhaps the highest density of undiscovered and unexplored "Places of Historical Interest" in all of South America.

In January 2017, a cable car was opened that runs just past the village of Nuevo Tingo to the entry area, making the site much more accessible.

Kuelap has been closed to the public since April 2022, visiting the historically significant site is not possible. Part of the enclosing wall collapsed on April 10, 2022, and another part collapsed a day later. Since then, access is no longer permitted. The event was mainly communicated locally, which is why Kuelap can often still be found in the offers of travel agencies, while the information about the closure is only given locally.


Location and access

The Kuelap archaeological complex is located in the department of Amazonas, province of Luya. It is accessed from the Leimebamba district road, leaving the paved road at the height of Nuevo Tingo, close to the banks of the Utcubamba river, where the road continues along a carriageway uphill, until it reaches a plain in the vicinity of the monument. where there is a path that leads directly to the Citadel. It is also possible to access it by a steep path that starts from the town of El Tingo, close to the banks of the Utcubamba, with a route of 8.9 kilometers and a drop of 1,200 meters. Since March 2, 2017, the complex can be accessed with the use of the cable cars.



This monumental exponent of the architecture of the Chachapoyas remained virtually ignored until 1843. The reason lies in the inaccessibility of the area, which is wooded and subject to permanent rain. However, on January 31 of the aforementioned year, when carrying out an investigation in the area, Juan Crisóstomo Nieto, judge of Chachapoyas, was able to admire its greatness guided by locals who already knew the archaeological site. This fact can be considered as the " discovery" of Kuelap.

Subsequently, Kuelap deserved the attention of some scholars and those curious about antiquities. Among them stands out the Frenchman Louis Langlois, who analyzed it in the 1930s, and Adolf Bandelier, who described it previously. However, it has been the Peruvian archaeologist and historian Federico Kauffmann Doig who dedicated the most time to the study and investigation of the site and the Chachapoyas culture.




The fort was built by the Chachapoya people, whose culture existed from the 900s to around 1400s. It was rediscovered in 1843 by don Juan Crisóstomo Nieto, a judge from Chachapoyas. The complex of ruins is 580 m long in the north-south extension, and the greatest width in the east-west direction is 110 m. In those places where there is not already a very steep slope, it is secured with a wall up to 21 meters high. Entry is only possible through one of the three tall, but extremely narrow, entrances through which, for strategic reasons, only one person can enter at a time. The main entrance is constructed in such a way that, should an enemy enter, he can be thrown out again at the exit directly opposite.

Different social classes lived in the different levels of the fort, which can be seen in the decoration of the houses with typical Chachapoya elements and patterns. The nobility presumably lived on the top level, the "Castillo"; the "upper village" was inhabited by members of the military. In the "lower village" there are simple houses, often with basements. The structure of the division of the room with the kitchen and grinding stone is still clearly visible in some places. In the middle of the fortress there is also a square house, which probably goes back to the Incas, since the Chachapoya traditionally built their houses round. It is believed to have been used for gatherings of the highest social class.



The fortress is bordered on the north and south sides by watchtowers, from which it is possible to see which of the present-day villages in the area date back to the Chachapoya. From the watchtowers you have a view of almost all the villages in the area, including La Jalca, the place where the Chachapoya probably first wanted to settle and in the vicinity of which there are many archaeological sites, including one decorated with Chachapoya symbols 16th century church.


El Tintero

El Tintero, which means inkwell in English, is one of the great mysteries of Kuelap, as to this day no one can say for sure what it was used for. The building is so named because it resembles an inkwell, tapering from top to bottom. It is not yet clear how the construction came about. In the meantime, it has to be supported from many sides in order not to collapse. Bones of predators were found inside the "Tintero". There are numerous theories about its use. Some believe it was used for torture, as a prison, or to carry out the death penalty, others believe it to be an observatory, since the rays of light from some cracks meet in the middle on certain important days.

Since Kuelap is not as famous as Machu Picchu, funds are sparse. The builders and archaeologists from the INC ("instituto nacional de cultura", National Cultural Institute) in charge of the restoration of the fortress work with the same means as the Chachapoya, namely with wooden scaffolding and muscle power; There is no electricity in the village of Kuelap. The archaeologists' house has a generator, but the water supply is quite unreliable. The road ends about a kilometer before the fortress in the "Malca", just after the village of Quisango. From there you can only get to Kuelap on foot or by mule.



Main access

The main entrance testifies to its use for high-status characters, not only because of its shape and architectural details, but also because of the location of numerous stone blocks in its construction that were decorated with various religious symbols that include faces and mythical animals. , snakes and symbols of deep religious content. In this access, the testimonies of the growth process of the site have been maintained, including large layers of fill that successively allowed the extension of the access, both in height and its growth towards the interior.


Main temple

The Templo Mayor is one of the most important sacred centers for the monument. This building, in the shape of an inverted truncated cone, is 13.5 m in diameter at its top, in which numerous evidences of various offerings in complex rituals have been recorded, which included placing human bones inside the inner container, which became so in a great ossuary. Around the building, various human burials and offerings have been found that come from the north coast, as well as from the Sierra de Ayacucho in the south and Cajamarca in the northern sierra.


Circular platform

The Circular Platform, located immediately on the southern wall of the site, had a function closely linked to the Templo Mayor. On this platform must have resided the character who was responsible for the operation of the temple. The end of Cuélap's occupational history is related to a large-scale massacre that occurred exclusively within the limits of this platform, which did not include women, but was carried out by a well-organized local group, within the framework of a conflict for power. This event was followed by a large fire that marks the final days of occupation of the site. Such a sad event must have occurred around 1570, when the system of Indian reductions was established by the Spanish colonial power. In the center of this platform there was an ossuary similar to the one recorded in the upper and central part of the Templo Mayor.


High Town

The Pueblo Alto is located in the northern and western part of the site and has a wall that delimits it and separates it from the rest of the settlement. It has three well-defined sectors, which are accessed through two places, one that allows access to the north and central sector and the other that allows access only to the south sector, basically residential.


Inca tomb of the Pueblo Alto Sur

Inside a special structure, an Inca tomb was discovered, of an adolescent character, with high-quality offerings, including fine ceramics, heavily destroyed wooden objects, and a metal nose ring. It is possible that it is an offering of the Capacocha type, an Inca custom in the most religiously important centers of the empire.


Central Sector of Pueblo Alto

This sector had to fulfill a public function during the last moments of occupation. For this reason, it only has three structures of square and rectangular shapes, from the Inca period, which overlap older circular structures. At the southern end of this sector, there is a highly destroyed quadrangular structure, which contained numerous primary and secondary human burials. This building must have had a gabled or hipped roof. Beneath it is evidence of older buildings.



This is an Inca period building. It is the largest in the site, it is rectangular in shape and its function has been proposed as Callanca, a building that served during the Inca period for indoor ceremonial purposes, but also as lodging for travelers or guests.


The tower

A solid, ceremonial-type building located at the northern end of the site, it is part of the northern sector of Pueblo Alto and adjoins an inaccessible chasm to the west. In the upper part, hundreds of limestone stones were found that were rounded to be used as projectiles for slingshots, which must have been used for ceremonial purposes, since they did not play a significant role for defensive purposes. If slingshots were used, the upper space should only have allowed the presence of very few people, perhaps a single one that threw them to the west, since to the east, the roofs of the neighboring houses impeded visibility.


Age and sourcing

It is evident that Kuelap is a monument prior to the Inca Empire. Considering its monumental nature, there is no doubt that it must have played a leading role in the past of the Chachapoyas culture. Indeed, the architecture of Kuelap is, in general terms, the same as that found scattered in the cultural area of the Chachapoyas. What has not been possible to specify until now is at what point in the long process of development of the Chachapoyas culture, whose beginnings could go back to the 8th century, the Kuelap monument was erected. Likewise, it is unknown how long it flourished and when and why it was abandoned.

There are other aspects that have not been elucidated, such as the transportation of the stone blocks to the top of the mountain and the skill of the architects involved in the construction, who knew how to provide it with a sophisticated rainwater drainage system. At present, because its ducts are clogged, the monument has been "swelling". As the great platform dilates, the stones of the walls that cover it gradually become detached. Nor has it been clarified how the water supply for its inhabitants was carried out; perhaps some of the enclosures lacking access have served as a reserve. The other enclosures, for the most part, must have been food stores in the manner of the Inca tambos, in which a conglomerate of granaries used to be built.



As for the function for which Kuelap was built, a satisfactory answer is also lacking. The monument is popularly described as a "fortress" due to its location and the solidity and height of its walls. Adolf Bandelier, and especially Louis Langlois, tried to demonstrate that Kuelap, more than a fortress, could have been a fortified place destined to serve as a refuge for the population in cases of emergency. They attributed to it, probably by analogy, the same role played by the boroughs in medieval Europe.

The high walls that clad the platform and the narrowness of the access to the citadel in its final section suggest, in effect, that the Kuelap monument could have been built with a view to serving as a defensive redoubt, or at least that it must have been a site protected from the intruders. But this possibility does not necessarily nullify other interpretations, perhaps of greater importance.

Thus, taking into account the role played by monumental architecture in the Peruvian archaeological past in general, which was related to socioeconomic needs motivated by the environment, it can be concluded that Kuelap could basically have been a pre-Columbian sanctuary in which a powerful aristocracy resided. whose primary mission was to manage food production, resorting to command and magical practices, in order to count on the collaboration of the supernatural powers that governed atmospheric phenomena, which, if not well honored, could make it rain excessively or whipping men with droughts that could endanger their existence.