The small, modern town of CHACHAPOYAS, at 2334m high up in the Andes, is first and foremost a springboard for a wealth of nearby pre-Columbian remains. With the opening up of the road networks in these parts, Chachapoyas has developed into a thriving little market town (with a wide range of fruits and veggies, some craft goods, and some smaller woollen accessories such as straps and belts), supporting a mostly indigenous population of around ten thousand, themselves with a reputation for being among the most friendly and hospitable people in Peru.
The nearest ruins to Chachapoyas include the ruined city of Purunllacta – 40km south of the city and one of the likely capitals of the Chachapoyas people – while west are Pueblo de los Muertos and Carajía, two impressive cliff-face burial centres for the elite of this quite sophisticated culture. However, most famous and most worthwhile of all the Chachapoyan archeological remains is Kuelap, a fabulous, huge citadel complex. South of here lie Balsas and Leymebamba. To some extent, the ancient culture lives on in some of the remote, traditional communities like La Jalca, 76km south of Chachapoyas.
Much of the land in the Chachapoyas region is full of ravines and very steep sided valleys. All land over 3500m is considered jalca, or wild, and should be approached only with a guide. Spectacled bear, puma and white-tailed deer roam while hummingbirds flutter about in the remote highland plains. Less than 30km north of Chachapoyas Town gush the fabulous Cataratas de Gocta, reputedly the tallest in Peru.
In Aymara, Chachapoyas means “the cloud people”, perhaps a description of the fair-skinned tribes who used to dominate this region, living in one of at least seven major cities (like Kuelap, Magdalena and Purunllacta), each one located high up above the Utcubamba Valley or a tributary of this, on prominent, dramatic peaks and ridges. Many of the local inhabitants still have light-coloured hair and remarkably pale faces. The Chachapoyas people, despite building great fortifications, were eventually subdued by the empire-building Incas. Chachapoyas was once a colonial possession rich with gold and silver mines as well as extremely fertile alluvial soil, before falling into decline during the Republican era.
The main attraction for most travellers in the Chachapoyas region is the unrestored ruin of KUELAP, one of the most overwhelming pre-Inca sites in Peru. Just 40km south of Chachapoyas (along the Cajamarca road), the ruins were discovered in 1843, above the tiny village of Tingo in the remote and verdant Utcubamba Valley. In 1993, Tingo was partly destroyed by flash floods, when more than a hundred homes were washed away, yet the village is still inhabited and remains an important point of access for visiting the ruins. A new village, Nuevo Tingo, has been built higher up above the valley.
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.