Machu Picchu may steal the headlines, but in northern Peru an older and even more intriguing lost city attracts far fewer visitor
A narrow ridge top three kilometres high in the Peruvian Andes. A stone watch-tower rises from the dawn mist that cloaks the ruins of an ancient city. I’m alone. Standing on the earth-filled top of the tower, inches from the cliff-edge, I gaze over cloud-obscured valleys to waves of distant brown hills. I feel like an explorer.
Yet this city in the clouds is not Machu Picchu, but Kuélap, perhaps the most imposing ruin in South America. But chances are you’ve never heard of it; few have. Tourists descend on Machu Picchu by the train-load, but during two days at Kuélap in ‘peak season’ I met just four other visitors.
Kuélap commands a spectacular hill-top position. The land in front of the ruin is cultivated: a gently-sloping plateau suspended on a cliff top overlooking the kilometre-deep canyon of the Utcubamba river. There is now a road to the ruins, or a steep four-hour climb if coming from the riverside village of Tingo.
Reaching the plateau, the less precipitous final approach runs along a path flanked by maize fields and farmhouses. Chickens peck away in their dirt yards and brown-skinned boys in baseball caps skip to school, oblivious to Kuélap’s massive walls dominating the ridge above.
Yet once inside these giant walls I feel like I’ve stumbled into a romantic secret garden. A sudden explosion of wild cloud-forest wraps itself around the crumbling remains of hundreds of small circular buildings. Scarlet bromeliads – air-plants that wrap their roots around the branches of trees – perch precariously overhead, the size of footballs.
The site follows the slope of the hill, with different levels connected by short stairways. Inner walls enclose the highest central section, perhaps earlier defences that the city outgrew. A two-man team, whose only tools appear to be a blunt machete and a wheelbarrow, wage a hopeless war against the ever-encroaching vegetation. Kuélap is almost unrestored, but comparisons with photos of Machu Picchu, prior to its restoration, show it to be in remarkably good condition. The overgrowth adds to the sense of mystery, especially with early-morning mist still hanging in the air.
Historian John Hemming claimed this to be the largest pre-Columbian structure in South America. He wrote, “Of all the myriad ruins in Peru, (Kuélap is) the most spectacularly defended, the strongest by European standards of fortification.”
Stretching 600 metres along the ridge, its back overhangs an almost-sheer cliff. At the front, overlooking the maize fields, are imposing 20-metre high walls, backfilled with earth to make breaching impossible. The only entrances are three narrow slits. Each leads into a long, high-walled corridor that rises steeply and narrows until only one person can squeeze through. Attackers entering these corridors would have been trapped, easily picked off from the ramparts above.
Why is Kuélap unknown? After all, it was ‘discovered’ in 1843, 68 years before Hiram Bingham stumbled across Machu Picchu. But while Bingham was an adept self-publicist, Kuélap was quietly recorded by Juan Cristóstomo Nieto, a local judge. The world failed to take note.
Its remoteness didn’t help. Tingo, where the trail to Kuélap begins, is itself two hours on the back of a truck from the sleepy town of Chachapoyas. The road follows the Utcubamba river through its impressive canyon, flanked by towering cliffs.
An hour into the ride, I realise that the sack I’m sitting on contains two sheep and a chicken, all alive. Chachapoyas is capital of Amazonas, which despite its name is a mild and hilly province half-way down the eastern slope of the Andes, below the high peaks but above the jungle. The valleys are sub-tropical while the brown hillsides are topped with cloud-forest, full of hummingbirds, orchids and bromeliads and known as la ceja de selva – the eyebrow of the jungle.
To the east lies impenetrable rainforest; to the west, separating it from the high Andes, is the vast and deep canyon of the Marañón, the Amazon’s greatest tributary. Until 30 years ago, no roads connected Chachapoyas to the outside world: the weekly bus still takes over 20 hours to negotiate the hair-raising 225-kilometre route across the Marañón canyon to Cajamarca. A less frightening road has been opened to the coast which, although three times longer, takes half the time. The easiest option is to fly from Lima, although the service is often suspended when one or both of the local airline’s two planes break down.
But the main reason for Kuélap’s obscurity is simple: it is not an Inca city. To most people, the Incas are Peruvian history. Yet civilisation here goes back 4,000 years, while the Inca Empire lasted less than a century. Peru is full of ancient ruins and few of them are Inca. The Incas deliberately obscured this earlier history, claiming that before them the country was overrun with primitive tribes.
In fact, Peru was one of five centres of early world civilisation (along with China, India, the eastern Mediterranean and Meso-America) and there were many sophisticated cultures: the Chimú and Moche on the north coast; Nasca and Paracas on the south; Huari and Chavín in the central Andes. And here in the northern hills, the mysterious Chachapoyans.
These ancients left no written records and archaeological investigation is hamstrung by lack of funds and graverobbers; so much of the pre-Inca past remains unknown. Scholars have identified three particularly dynamic periods of Peruvian history, called Horizons. Very roughly, the Early ‘Chavín’ Horizon lasted from 1000 to 300BC, the Middle ‘Huari’ Horizon from 800 to 1100AD. The Late Horizon, the Inca Empire, lasted only from 1438 to 1530.
Kuélap belongs to the Middle Horizon, making it perhaps twice as old as Machu Picchu. This period may have been even more splendid than the Incas, with advanced terracing, irrigation, pottery and metalwork. More food was grown than in modern Peru. Most of the ‘Inca’ roads that criss-cross the Andes were probably built during the Middle Horizon, as were all the great cities except Cusco.
The Chachapoyans were probably a loose confederation of cities and tribes. The Inca chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega, writing after the Spanish conquest, describes Inca Túpac Yupanqui defeating them in 1480. He refers to them as tall and fierce fighters. They built their cities and forts only in the ceja, high in the cloud-forest and on the ridge tops.
The most startling is that the Chachapoyans actually were Vikings. The evidence is flimsy. Another early Spanish historian, Cieza de León, noted that, “These Indians, natives of Chachapoyas, are the whitest... in the New World.” And the name Chachapoyans, probably derived from Quechua, could mean either ‘people living in the clouds’ or ‘cloud-like (ie white) people’.
The Vikings certainly reached North America, around 1000AD: might they have followed the coast to South America then sailed up the Amazon? It seems far-fetched. Yet Viking-like runes have been found in Argentina. The Incas worshipped a god called Viracocha, who was tall, white and bearded and came from the east. And near the town of Mendoza, just east of Kuélap, there is a curious phenomenon: isolated communities as blond and fair as any Scandinavian. Some claim they were there before the Spanish.
A more respectable idea is that the Cloud People came from Asia, where there are also isolated light-skinned groups. Thor Heyerdahl’s famous Kon Tiki expedition proved that maritime contact between ancient Peru and Asia was at least possible. A third possibility is that they came from the jungle. Patterns at Kuélap suggest that the Chachapoyans worshipped a snake-god and a jaguar-god; both jungle animals.
Despite these enticing theories, it’s most likely that they were indigenous Peruvians who were simply a little fairer and taller than their neighbours. The present-day Chachapoyans offer few clues. To prevent rebellions, the Incas forcibly relocated most of the defeated Cloud People to distant corners of their empire. More recently, many locals have moved to Lima in search of work. So the descendants of Kuélap’s builders now live elsewhere. The white communities in the Mendoza valley remain a mystery, but are most probably post-conquest settlers, somehow isolated and forgotten.
The Cloud People may have vanished, but they’ve left a collection of monuments to rival any in the Americas. If Kuélap can be compared to Machu Picchu, the whole region around Chachapoyas surely surpasses the Cusco area for its staggering number of ruins, all unrestored and hardly explored. There are other great city complexes such as Purunllacta and Yalape. There are ‘cities of the dead’ – groups of sarcophagi resembling the statues of Easter Island, tucked into inaccessible niches in sheer cliff-faces. West of Kuélap is what the American archaeologist-explorer Gene Savoy dubbed Gran Vilaya – a vast region of cloud-forest and remote valleys littered with ruins.
There are almost certainly other still-unknown sites: if you fancy yourself as Indiana Jones then this is the place to come. Peter Lerche, a German anthropologist who has lived here for 14 years and wrote the region’s only guidebook, calls it “a paradise for discovering”.
Descending the worn steps of the watch-tower, I reflect that if Kuélap was in the USA or Europe, there would be tourists swarming all over it. Millions would be pumped into restoring and investigating it. Then I notice one half of the two-man maintenance team hacking away at some overgrown roots with his blunt machete, and I remind myself: this is Peru.