What is Kuelap? A primer to Peru's 'Machu Picchu of the north'

January 29, 2019

It’s difficult to think of Peru without immediately thinking of Machu Picchu, the centuries-old Inca citadel situated high in the picturesque Andes mountains. It’s one of Peru’s best-known landmarks — and one of its most-visited tourist destinations, with an estimated 5,000 visitors checking out the ancient infrastructure every day.

There is, of course, much more to Peru — from the bustling cities of Lima and Cusco to the serene Ancient Valley — to discover. But there’s also another way to check out the country’s storied, historic Inca infrastructure: Kuelap, which is often referred to as the “Machu Picchu of the North.”

For history buffs, Kuelap may hold more interest than Machu Picchu: for one thing, it’s about 900 years older than its more famous counterpart. Kuelap was constructed in the 6th century by the Chachapoyas, a pre-Incan civilization which was, in fact, conquered by the Incas in the same century as Machu Picchu was constructed (the 15th). Kuelap is located about 10,000 feet above sea level, and until recently, was not easily accessible by tourists.

The site is characterized by the circular buildings that inhabit it, which were mainly homes for the site’s estimated 300,000 inhabitants — though one building, which is built like an inverted cone and where human remains were discovered, is theorized to have been an observatory. There is also a tall tower-like structure that may have been used for strategic defense purposes, helping the inhabitants of Kuelap, which was a walled city, protect themselves against intruders or invaders.

The site was first discovered in 1843, and gradually excavated until well into the 1980s. A series of cable cars, opened in 2017, have made the site fully accessible to tourists.

Getting there

Want to visit Kuelap for yourself? Check out our Explore Northern Peru tour here.

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