Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Kuelap: the cloud fortress of the Chachapoyas

Kuelap is the mountain fortress of the Chachapoyas - a pre-Incan civilisation who chose to build, live and prosper in the high Andes. Kuelap itself is at 3,000 metres where even a brisk stroll leaves you gasping for breath.
Looking up at Kuelap
The mountain on which the ancient city stands is a fortress in itself. Sublime and powerful, its steep sides and jutting cliffs form natural defensive walls. It was on this formidable rock the Chachapoyas built something even more formidable - their own great towering walls with hunks of quarried stone. 

The walls of Kuelap loom threateningly over the visitor. It's easy to imagine how envious neighbouring tribes would be dissuaded from attempting to storm this fortress. In Kuelap's 1,000 year history its walls were never breached by force of arms. The invading Incan armies simply camped outside until the Chachapoyas had eaten all their cuy and drunk all their chicha. 

This brings me on to perhaps the most incredible fact about Kuelap - it survived as a habitable fortress from the 5th Century AD until early colonial times. The Norman castles of medieval England (constructed from 1066 AD onwards) were largely redundant by 1500 AD - ready for their transformations into Tudor stately homes. Until the gunpowder age, it's hard to imagine anything smashing Kuelap's walls (even the great Ottoman cannon that ultimately breached the walls of Constantinople would have had a hard time pummeling these stones).

The walls of Fortaleza de Kuelap, Peru

3,000 people lived within the walls of Kuelap during its heyday. All the surrounding villages and farms provided the necessary commodities for the privileged inhabitants of the city. Gazing over the walls of Kuelap at the cloud covered mountains and deep valleys, I really got an impression of travelling back through time. This same landscape, virtually unaltered by the modern world, was once admired over 1,500 years ago by a citizen of Kuelap. 

Like all pre-Colombian South American cultures, the Chachapoyans had no written language. Without these historic records the interpretation of a massive complex like Kuelap is still proving a great challenge for archaeologists. In the absence of written records, archaeologists studying ancient Latin civilisations have learned much from studying pottery and iconography. Unfortunately, these are two areas the Chachapoyans weren't particularly proficient. Instead, it is believed they were warriors and weavers.

The houses in Kuelap are circular, unlike the Incan square pattern, and built in heavy stone. The homes are separated into two living spaces, the cooking-living area and the sleeping area which were divided by a hollow wall which was used to raise guinea-pigs, an essential part of the Andean diet - even today. The houses might be relatively small in area (except by London standards) but if you count the stone platform on which they were built, the ceiling was about 15 meters high - you could squeeze six stories into that height today.

a Kuelap 048
Looking out over the ruins of Kuelap at the clouds
The walls of Kuelap still contain human bones, which were buried deep inside and are still visible today. I was able to stick my camera inside and get a few photos. By burying their ancestors in the very walls and foundations of their city, it reinforced the idea that Kuelap was proudly Chachapoyan and belonged to the long line of noble families.

Human bones embedded in the walls of Kuelap
Human remains in Kuelap
Fortaleza de Kuelap in PeruArchaeologists believe an aristocracy lived in Kuelap and many of the houses have much more elaborate stonework. The fine detail and craftsmanship has survived the centuries and is still stunning to this day.

The Chachapoyas came to a sticky end, like so many other pre-Colombian civilisations, when the irresistible Incan empire came knocking. Unlike weaker tribes, the Chachapoyas maintained a long struggle for their freedom from the Incan rule but were eventually conquered in around 1470 AD. The Incan influence didn't last for long and rebellions continued until the arrival of the Spanish, with whom the Chachapoyas formed an alliance in the myopic hope of a less demanding emperor. Ultimately it proved an epic fail, the Spanish enacted a regime of forced migration (what we'd call ethnic cleansing today), forced labour (what we'd call slavery today) and, of course, a bumper bag of novel diseases - Europe's gift that kept on giving for the New World. After 50 years under Spanish rule only 10 per cent of the population remained - perhaps they backed the wrong horse, after all.

Kuelap was burnt down and abandoned in this early colonial period and the greatness of the Chachapoyan civilisation was forgotten... until today. Amazingly (and quite excitingly) only four per cent of Kuelap has been excavated - there are bound to be some incredible discoveries in the future to shed more light on this fascinating and mysterious civilisation.

Strange dinosaur carving on the wall of Kuelap, Peru
T-Rex in Kuelap?
I was particularly struck by some of the carvings on the walls of Kuelap. One in particular looked just like a tyrannosaurus rex - I couldn't help thinking of Conan Doyle's 'The Lost World' and Professor Challenger striding arrogantly through Kuelap. 

The most depressing news is Kuelap has recently been sold to an American investment company who plan to build a cable car to the remote fortress - there's no way obese Yanks could be expected to wheeze their way up the stone steps. I shudder to think what fresh horrors await Kuelap. Its remoteness, inaccessibility and relatively unknown status on the Peruvian tourist trail make it something quite unique. To get into Machu Picchu you need to arrive early and join the long queues, it would be a shame if this became Kuelap's fate.

Lucy has been to Machu Picchu many times and I wondered what her impressions were, compared to my own.

"When I was 15 years old I was taken by my father to discover some of the great constructions of ancient American societies. It was time for me, he thought, to open my eyes to the impressive torrent of cultural production and to see the contrast with the now socially excluded descendants of these great civilizations. 
Lucy in Kuelap
Everything was a bit black and white in this discourse, but in the end, it got us to Cusco. We had to leave Ecuador because here the archaeological remains have either been looted, destroyed or are still buried (with some outstanding exceptions).

Machu Picchu had had the luck of having been covered with vegetation for several hundred years when it was “discovered” by Hiram Bingham. But lately the queues of foreign tourists have also changed the panorama, along with the hippie-types who believe they are the sons of the Incan sun God. In any case, it was the start of my never-ending interest for the pre-hispanic past.

A completely different experience, equally grandiose, is Kuelap. For starters, getting there is not easy. A fortress of the Chachapoyas people, it had been occupied until colonial times and afterwards was hidden in the cloud forest for some 300 years. It’s a complex of about 400 houses, ceremonial constructions and a huge surrounding wall. It was occupied since 500 AD until early colonial times.

Machu Picchu still feels like it is inhabited, such was the care of reconstruction. This is certainly not the case among the ruins of Kuelap. However, whereas Machu Picchu can feel like a Theme Park with its thousands of guides, tourists and exhibitions - Kuelap feels like the real thing. Trees still grow and llamas roam among the abandoned city and you can feel the presence of those that lived there and were lost."

DISCLAIMER - Kuelap is in Peru, not Ecuador, but I felt it deserved a special guest slot on the blog


  1. I found this very helpful, intriguing, and exciting. I'm a history fanatic and would like to someday see this place. I'm also a yank, and while I don't like the idea of such a place as this becoming a tourist magnet, I believe this place should be experienced, and the history remembered. But the cable car is probably too much.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I might edit my 'yank' sentence- it sounds a bit pejorative reading it back. We've got our fair share of obesity in England

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