Occupied from about 600 AD, Kuelap was the strongest, most easily defended of all Peruvian fortress cities, something that can be seen in the narrowing defensive form of the main entry passageways. This is thought to be the site which the rebel Inca Manco considered using for his last-ditch stand against the conquistadors in the late 1530s. He never made it here, ending up instead in the equally breathtaking Vilcabamba, northeast of Cusco.
It has been calculated that some forty million cubic feet of building material was used at Kuelap, three times the volume needed to construct the Great Pyramid of Egypt. An estimated three thousand people would have lived here at its height, working mainly as farmers, builders and artisans and living in little, round stone houses.
The site’s enormous walls thrust 20m high, and are constructed from gigantic limestone slabs arranged in geometric patterns, with some sections faced with rectangular granite blocks over forty layers high. The average wall thickness is around 80cm and the largest stone 2m thick.
Inside the ruins lie the remains of some two hundred round stone houses, many still decorated with a distinctive zigzag pattern (like the modern ceramics produced by the locals), small, carved animal heads, condor designs, deer-eye symbols and intricate serpent figures. These are similar in style to the better-known Kogi villages of today’s northern Colombia; and, indeed, there are thought to be linguistic connections between the Kogi and the Chachapoyas peoples, and possible links to a Caribbean or even Maya influence. There are a few rectangular buildings, too, which are associated with the later Inca occupation of Kuelap. Some of the structures in the central area have been recognized as kitchens because of their hearths, and there are a few that still have ancient pestles. The higher part of the site was restricted to the most privileged ranks in Chachapoyas society, and one of the buildings there, with fine, curved outer walls, is believed to have been a temple, or at least to have had a ceremonial function.
The site is overgrown to some extent with old trees laden with epiphytes. Even though it’s high, this is still considered to be cloud forest. There are also various enclosures and huge crumbling watchtowers partly covered in wild subtropical vegetation, shrubs and even trees. One of these towers is an inverted, truncated cone containing a large, bottle-shaped cavity (known as the tintero or ink well), possibly a place of sacrifice, since archeologists have found human bones there, though these could date from after the original inhabitants of Kuelap had abandoned the citadel.