Kuelap, the Machu Picchu of the north

High-perched at almost 3,000m/10,00ft, this fortress was erected in the 10th century by a Pre-Incan civilization, the Chachapoyas. This jewel of northern Peru, located in the Amazonas region, can now be reached by cable car.

Up until now you would only have encountered a handful of tourists, a class of Peruvian school children and the odd llama ambling around the remains of the 420 cylindrical habitations dating from the 10th c. Spread over nearly 15 acres of ruins overrun with wild orchids and swamped in mist and cloud, the site quickly conjures up images of intrepid adventurers uncovering lost treasures… Some edifices are adorned with friezes, whose different lozenges symbolise puma or condor eyes. The view from this 3 000 m/10 000 ft-high eagle’s nest in the Andean cordillera over the carpet of brown and green terraces of crops is quite spellbinding.

Kuelap fortress was built by the Chachapoyas, a Pre-Incan civilization that was conquered in the 15th c. by the powerful Incan empire based at Cusco, the “navel of the world”. The Chachapoyas were dubbed the “warriors of the clouds” and Spanish chronicles relate that the beauty and sweet temper of their women were such that they were one of the favourite ethnic groups from which the ruling Incas chose their concubines. The citadel, encircled by 20 m/65 ft-high ramparts, housed both administrative offices and sacred rituals. Entrance was through one of three gates, so narrow that only one person could pass at a time. However, in the 16th c., shortly after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, its inhabitants were slaughtered by neighbouring tribes, who, according to recent historic research, accused the Chachapoyas of being responsible for the havoc and devastation of the period.


Since March 2017, cable cars whisk visitors up to the “Machu Picchu of the north” in twenty minutes out of the village of Tingo Viejo. From 56 000 visitors in 2016, the numbers are expected to rocket, whilst remaining significantly below the million or so tourists that take the legendary Machu Picchu by storm, a victim of its success and sadly over-crowded.


Chachapoyas mummies

The former kingdom of the Chachapoyas is rich in treasures. A few valleys from Kuelap, a path leads up to the necropolis of Revash from the village of San Bartolo. Red- and ochre-coloured funerary monuments, reminiscent of small troglodyte houses, are carved into the cliff face. The mummies that escaped pillaging are displayed in Leymebamba Museum in the valley. Look out for the clone of Rascar Capac in the museum, thought to have inspired the Peruvian Inca prince in Tintin and the Seven Crystal Balls

©J. Kraft/Panther Media/age fotostock


Cajamarca, another pearl of the north

Another star attraction of northern Peru’s Andean cordillera is Cajamarca, 330 km/205 mi further south. It was in this former colonial city that the last Incan emperor, Atahualpa, was killed by the conquistador Francisco Pizzaro in 1533. You can visit the “ransom chamber”, filled once with the gold and twice with silver against the promise, broken, for his freedom. On the site of Cumbe Mayo, admire the ingenious hydraulic system some 3 000 years old at the foot of two gigantic stones towers worn down by erosion. It can be difficult to decide which is most admirable: the work of man or that of nature ?

©T. Labra/age fotostock


Practical informations

Peruvian tourist office


The tourist attractions mentioned

Fortress of Kuélap Fortress of Kuélap
Fortress of Kuélap
Machu Picchu Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
Aguas Calientes
Revash Revash
Aquaduct of Cumbe Mayo Aquaduct of Cumbe Mayo
Aquaduct of Cumbe Mayo