New Cable Car Gives Easier Access to the Kuélap Ruins
The Kuélap ruins in the Amazonas Province of Peru (near the town of Chachapoyas) have been considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites of Peru for some time already. They are the remains of the oldest fortified stone city in South America. Until a few years ago, people had to hike 10 kilometres uphill to reach the site – now it takes 20 minutes sitting in the comfortable new cable car.
We were fortunate enough to visit the site just one month after the opening of the brand new ‘Telecabinas Kuélap’. We would like to share our experience of this visit to Kuélap, and give you more practical tips at the end of the post.
The Cable Car to the Kuélap Ruins
The new cable car was opened in March 2017. It now offers an easy alternative to the 32 km dirt road leading to the ruins entry. This road is so narrow and rough that it takes a normal car 90 minutes to drive, and for larger vehicles (like our Berta) it’s a real challenge.
The cable car was built at a cost of 81 million US$ (far exceeding the initial budget of $21M). The current price to use it is S/ 20 for a return trip.
An impressive new departure building has been constructed above the village of Tingo Nuevo. With its natural stone walls and grass covered roof, it looks like a mountain lodge – Peruvian style. It blends into the environment quite well. You buy your tickets there and board the shuttle bus, which takes you to the base station of the cable car. There seems to be plans for future development, with spaces set aside for a coffee lounge and a gift shop (both currently still empty).
Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.
The base station of the cable car sits at 2,000 metres; the Kuélap entrance station is at almost 3,000 metres. Along the way, the 8,200 metre long cable crosses a deep river gorge (people suffering from vertigo might want to shut their eyes).
The City of Kuélap
This walled city was built by the Chachapoyas culture, which dominated the region in the Amazonas province of Peru from 500 AD onwards. They were fiercely independent and often referred to as the “Warriors of the Clouds”. For a long time, they even held their position against the mighty Inca Empire. Unfortunately, the Spanish invasion brought an end to the city of Kuélap and the place was abandoned. It was rediscovered in 1848, then nearly forgotten again until major archaeological work commenced there in 1997.
The main city is located on a ridge at roughly 3,000 metres altitude. It covers a site of around 600 metres in length by 110 metres in width, and is laid out on distinct levels. The impressive limestone wall, which surrounds this complex, is up to 30 metres high.
The prominent feature of this city are the remains of around 470 cylindrical buildings. If you follow the current main path into the city you soon come to the top layer, where you also find ruins of several rectangular buildings. The first attraction on this level is a large tower at the northern end, called ‘Torreón Norte’. It sits right at the edge of a steep cliff face.
At the southern end of the lower level, there is a large circular turret in the shape of an inverted cone, which is called ‘Templo Mayor’. This structure almost defies gravity and must have been a challenge to build. It contains an inner chamber in a bottle shape.
Recent excavations discovered almost 150 human remains around this site, but it is not completely clear if these were human sacrifices or warriors killed in battle.
Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.
Most of the complex is covered in tropical trees, whose roots wind around the rock structures. Part of the site is currently closed for further archaeological digs; another section for the reconstruction of the ancient drainage system (as some of the outer wall is under threat from rain water seeping into it). Stage one of the restoration work is targeted to be finished in early 2019.
Our Visit to Kuélap
We certainly didn’t come on a good day – it was Good Friday, and ‘Semana Santa’ is one of the major holiday weekends in Peru. The site was packed like it has probably never been before. On the way back down on the cable car, we had a long and interesting conversation with one of the leading archaeologists for the site, Cristian. He told us that on Monday to Wednesday there had been around 50 visitors per day, on Thursday (the first day of holidays) there were around 800, and on Good Friday the number exceeded 1,000!
You buy your entrance tickets for the site near the cable car end station. From there a paved walkway, with many stairs, takes you roughly 2 km uphill to the site. Then you have to skirt along some narrow earth paths to the far right of the complex, to the current entrance (Entrance #3). The regular entrances #1 and #2 are both closed for restoration. These walkways were absolutely not suitable for the number of visitors on the day.
Most of the pathways inside the complex are covered with a slatted timber boardwalk, which is not suitable for shoes with high heels, which we saw some local women wearing. Sometimes we encountered “traffic jams”, particularly when large guided groups wanted to proceed along the narrow boardwalk.
But we are certain that on ‘normal’ days you won’t experience crowds like this – yet!
Although Kuélap is sometimes referred to as the “Machu Picchu of the North”, the site doesn’t receive anywhere near as many visitors: Machu Picchu had 4 million last year – Kuélap a little over 40,000. Thanks to the cable car, they are expecting close to 80,000 visitors for 2017, and a steady increase in numbers thereafter. This is still a far cry from the masses of people you find around Cusco!
The naming “Machu Picchu of the North” only creates wrong expectations. The two cities were built in totally different periods; Kuélap is much older and doesn’t display the same precise stone work the Incans are so famous for. In its time, Kuélap was of great importance for a much larger region, than is evident for Machu Picchu. Finally, the tropical vegetation covering the site gives Kuélap a completely different feel. There have been discussions about removing some of it, but apparently us foreigners like the atmosphere all that dense green creates.
Future Plans for Archaeological Sites in Peru
[We received some of the following information from Cristian, the archaeologist responsible for Kuélap and nearby Karajia (burial tombs in the cliffs, see below)]
Peru wants to promote its other significant archaeological sites to spread tourist attendance and money into different regions, and to reduce the pressure on Machu Picchu. There are 10 sites which are in the plan to implement this, with better access to, and facilities at, the sites. Pachacamac (our last post) is one of these. The tourism ministry realises that better preservation is also a key corner stone of any plan to bring more visitors to these sites.
I found this article about Peru’s ambitious plans for the future . Though some are already well behind schedule, as we have experienced first hand: we drove several sections of the planned ‘Carretera Longitudinal de la Sierra’, which includes the PE-3S and PE-3N , and there was no sign of any building activity. Unfortunately, bits of the already upgraded sections have been severely damaged by fresh landslides. There’s certainly a long way (and slow way) to go…
Concretely, for Kuélap this means:
- there are plans to upgrade the airport of Chachapoyas
- the site has been submitted for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List .
This UNESCO page goes a lot deeper into the history and significance of the Kuélap ruins – well worth a read!
Practical Information for a Visit to the Kuélap Ruins
Best time to visit seems to be on weekdays, but avoid Mondays unless you want to drive up to the site. An information board at the ‘Telecabinas Kuélap’ showed that they are usually closed for maintenance on Mondays (with a few exceptions).
A return ticket for the ‘Telecabinas Kuélap’ is S/ 20 per person and has to be bought at the departure building (there are no ticket sales where the cable car starts). They don’t offer any concessions (meaning no discounts for students, children, or aged people).
Pets are not permitted!
Entrance to the Kuélap Ruins:
- S/ 20 per person regular entrance fee
- S/ 10 for university students, accredited teachers, and seniors 60+
- S/ 2 for children and school classes
The ruin site is open 8:00-4:00 (on Easter they kept longer hours).
For some unknown reason, the 1st bus to the cable car leaves at 9:00am.
Allow at least 2 hours for the site visit (including the 2km walk to the ruins and back); we spent 2½ hours, including a short break for a snack.
Take a rain jacket, as the site is very exposed. You can expect short rain showers and strong cold winds at times. It’s best to wear solid shoes with good grip. Don’t forget that you are at 3,000 metres! It’s cooler than in the valley (where the cable car leaves from) and breathing isn’t as easy, so walk at a slow and steady pace. Take some snacks and drinking water, but please don’t leave any trash behind!
Chachapoyas as a Base to Explore Many Ancient Ruins
The nearest city is the laid-back Chachapoyas with its lovely colonial town square.
The region offers numerous other sights nearby, which are well worth a visit. You could base yourself in Chachapoyas and spend several days exploring.
“Every week you could have a new story about a newly discovered site.”
[Quote Peter Lerche, a historian and former mayor of the Chachapoyas, from this article on abc.net.au ]
The best known highlights of the region, aside from the Kuélap, are:
- The Sarcophagi at Karajia. The Chachapoyas tribe is well known for burials in cliff faces and walls. At Karajia you can see sarcophagi of high-ranking leaders and ordinary people , side-by-side.
- Revash, south of Kuélap, is where the Chachapoya built small houses into the cliff face to bury their dead. Unfortunately, due to our outdated guidebook, we didn’t visit this site. Later we learnt that access has been made easier by a new dirt road, which now takes you within 3km walking distance. (The link above, abc.net.au, shows a photo of Ravesh.)
- Roughly 90km from Chachapoyas is the small town of Leymebamba with its excellent museum, Centro Mallqui, which houses mummies and artifacts found around the Laguna de los Cóndores. Ask staff to turn the lights on in their mummy room (this is usually kept dark to preserve the mummies)! There are also a couple of interesting ruins sites around the town, like La Congona. If you take a tour to the museum enquire beforehand if they will include a visit to at least one site. The narrow road to Leymebamba follows a river valley through beautiful green rural pastures and small mudbrick settlements.
Right now this limits the number of tourists visiting the region – an advantage for individual travellers. The planned airport upgrade will give Chachapoyas a well deserved tourism boost. On the other hand, you might not find the same peace and quiet to enjoy what the region has to offer.