Kuelap: A Walk Through The Clouds

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Known by some as “The other Machu Picchu, this ancient Amazonian fortress draws visitors from around the planet. Like so many other sites of Peru, this wonderful site brings us more questions than we might have answers for.

Photo: (Wikipedia)

A gem of the Amazon

High up on the top of a mountain, amongst the clouds of the Amazonian Andes, there’s a stone fortress of a similar size to Machu Picchu. Hundreds of people walk through the lush vegetation every day as they make their way to this wall, a captivating experience no doubt. Behind the imposing wall lay a series of well-organized buildings that forms one of the great treasures of the Amazon: Kuélap

“The main contribution left by the Chachapoyas is their capacity for survival in an ecologically rich, but a complicated area in terms of elevation and humidity. What is most impactful on the one hand is their monumental architecture, and on the other, you have their mortuary vestiges, like the sarcophagi”, explains Krzysztof Makowski, archaeologist, and professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP).

Some investigators identify Kuelap as a fortress, while others consider it a citadel. So what was this stunning archeological complex all about?

Those who built Kuelap, and where they might have come from

Photo: (Wikipedia)

Much like in painting, to better understand a work, one must first understand the artist. How did the Chachapoyas arrive in the Amazonian Andes? One hypothesis is that they migrated from the southern Andes in search of new agricultural lands. Others believe that they were escaping the overpopulation of their previous homelands.

Studies confirm that the Chachapoyas people were actually a combination of various groups who lived in the same territory under a unified leadership. There were strong divides in their social structure between the elite and the common people, and these realities are reflected in Kuelap’s design. “There is an effort made by these populations to share with each other the task of building an outstanding religious and political center in order to claim the area, and to encourage a somewhat regulated lifestyle in attempts to minimize potential disputes among neighbors,” explains Krzysztof Makowski.

A fortress? A ceremonial center? For Kuelap, there may be more questions than answers.

The construction of this architectural monument was no easy feat. The Chachapoyas took 500 years to culminate the project, during which some buildings were buried and then built upon; giving way to the height and style that the site is known for today.

A construction of that magnitude, with so many details, generates a number of questions: Why build it on a mountaintop, 3,000 meters above sea level? Was it really a fortress? And what might have been the strategic importance of building this site?

Makowski suggests that the layout of the archaeological complex does not correspond to that of a typical military site. Rather, it appears to have been a place for ceremonies. During excavations, archaeologists uncovered underground chambers destined for the storage of grains that might have been utilized in rituals.

Cover photo: Wikimedia

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Diego Oliver is a Peruvian writer and author whose work can be found in the travel magazine Ultimate Journeys. He loves to focus on Peruvian culture both modern and classic, traveling the country, as well as social responsibility.