August 29, 2007
This morning I walked with the Americans from Tingo up to the ruins of Kuelap. The path covered 10 KM horizontally and climbed 1200 meters, but it wasn't too hard and only took about 2.5 hours to make it to the top.
As soon as I reached Kuelap, I was greeted by Carlos, a local guide who would be at home in an Italian pizza joint. He was leading a group of French Canadians, who had also hired a French-Spanish translator. Before entering Kuelap proper, we were shown a typical house of the people that lived there. The houses were round, which supported the theory that everything was equal in Chachapoyan society. We were also shown a model of the site, which included hundreds of similar houses. Kuelap is the largest stone structure in South America, larger even than Machu Picchu.
I stuck with the Canadian tour group as we walked along the outer wall of Kuekap past the ubiquitous grazing llamas. We learned that Kuelap was actually a fortress with outer and inner walls so the people could have two chances to defend themselves in an invasion. Eventually we reached the entrance, which was wide at first, but narrowed as we walked further inward, to the point that it was only a meter across. This was to slow down any potential invaders. The walls around the entrance were high to make it easy for the Chachapoyans to throw rocks down on their enemies.
The next thing we saw confused me. Carlos showed us the remnants of a stone structure and explained that it was Incan in origin because of its square shape. I had read that the fortress was never invaded, and that by the time the Incas arrived, it had been long since abandoned. Carlos claimed that the Incas had to fight a bloody war against the Chachapoyans to conquer the site, and he had a point. If the Incas came to an abandoned Kuelap, why would they bother building their own houses instead of moving into the ones that already existed? Maybe the books were wrong and Luigi, err, Carlos was right.
Next we walked to the other side of the fortress, where we had a great view of the area. Kuelap could have been built on a higher hill, but this location was chosen instead because it was between two valleys and had lookout points in which all of the little villages in the area could be seen simultaneously.
Our last stop was to what remained of several of the houses in Kuelap. The markings on the outside of the houses indicated the importance of the families that lived there: The more concentric diamonds in each pattern, the more important the family. Most of the houses contained rocks for processing grains and a long, hollow line of stones which served as a cage for the family's guinea pigs. Carlos then revealed to us that he used to be the director of tourism for the entire Amazonas department of Peru, and that he personally was responsible for the reconstruction of one of the houses in Kuelap. The bottom floor was original, the top floor was redone, and the roof pointed upward at a steep angle so that it would last longer. Whereas a flat roof would last no longer than a few months, a steep one could last fifty years, which even tops today's standards.
A lot of excavation work was being done on the ruins, but they still had a very original feel. Other than the group I was with, there were only a few Peruvian tourists visiting the site. Much like Choquequirao, it was amazing to walk around such an important site without having to deal with hordes of other tourists. And Carlos, with his wealth of knowledge and constant jokes, was the perfect guide for a place like Kuelap.
Ben, Liz, and I all made the long walk back to Tingo at the end of the day. After a bit of waiting around, we managed to get separate rides in colectivos (taxis that act like buses) the rest of the way to Chachapoyas. I was tired after the long day of walking, but I still had a few days left in the area to, as my trekking book put it, "fascinate my inner-Indiana Jones."
The photo album for this entry is here.