When Juan Crisóstomo Nieto, a judge from Chachapoyas, stumbled upon Kuelap in 1843, the site had been abandoned and reclaimed by forest for some 300 years. The report on his discovery remained unpublished until 1892, but once word got out, though, it attracted a stream of notable and intrepid nineteenth-century explorers such as Adolph Bandelier, Ernst Middendorf, Charles Wiener and Antonio Raimondi.

Perched on a ridge high above the Utcubamba at 3,000 meters, Kuelap is one of the most impressive Chachapoya sites, not only because of the natural beauty of its setting but for the sheer audacity of its surrounding wall. Orchids and bromeliads festoon large trees within the site, hinting at the lush forests that once blanketed much of the region. Excavations and analysis of ceramics uncovered at Kuelap indicate that the site was occupied from around AD 500 until its abandonment in early Spanish colonial times.

A natural fortress, the citadel runs north-south along a limestone ridge almost entirely encased by a colossal retaining wall. The citadel measures some 600 meters in length, averages 110 meters in width and occupies around 6 hectares. The entire complex, however —including the citadel, outlying settlements, tombs and agricultural terraces— covers some 450 hectares. People living in surrounding rural settlements and scattered farmsteads provided Kuelap’s residents with food. An unfinished walled area to the south of Kuelap, an area known as Malcapampa, contains the remains of 50 circular buildings. It was probably an extension of the fortress, whose construction may have begun in Inka times, but was interrupted by the Spanish invasion.

Some sectors of the perimeter wall reach as high as 11.5 meters, although the height varies, depending on the terrain. The wall is entirely built of cut limestone masonry —some blocks weigh up to 2.5 metric tons— that covers an interior core of limestone rubble fill and mud mortar. Three entryways punctuate the perimeter wall, two on the eastern side and one on the western, cliff side. The main entry is trapezoidal and was once covered by a corbelled vault, part of which has survived, but is on the verge of collapse. Carved stones depicting two circles and a serpent flank the entryway. The 60 meter-long ramped entryway narrows into a walled corridor culminating in a passageway that allows only one person at a time to enter.

An ambitious restoration and excavation project, begun in 1999, is repairing sectors of Kuelap’s perimeter wall, installing drainage systems to prevent future collapse. In spite of Kuelap’s seemingly solid appearance, conservator Ricardo Morales notes that the site is extremely fragile. Heavy rainfall, wind, solar radiation and the weight of upper courses of stonework have fractured limestone blocks. Despite the ravages of time and the elements, however, Morales notes that unmanaged tourism is by far the greatest threat to the site.

Within Kuelap, the main entrance is flanked by two rows of houses, one of which has a double doorway. This unusual feature has been observed only at two other sites: Llaqtacocha on the north side of Laguna de los Cóndores and Monte Viudo, near Tajopampa, halfway between Leymebamba and Atuén. The structure at Kuelap may have had some sort of administrative function or may have served as a control point.

Excavations and mapping by Peruvian archaeologist Alfredo Narváez uncovered some 420 structures, all of them circular, except five, four of which are rectangular and one of which is quadrangular. Narváez notes that Kuelap’s design is not as random as it appears at first glance. Buildings are either distributed along corridors, with doorways facing into the corridors, or are arranged facing patios or with walls touching each other or set very close to each other. The dense concentration of buildings, variety of architectural forms and function, as well as frequent rebuilding and remodeling, indicate that Kuelap was a vibrant urban settlement. Houses average 7 to 9 meters in diameter, with the largest measuring 12 meters in diameter. Smaller, round constructions set next to larger ones may have served as annexes or kitchens.

Many of the buildings are built on solid circular foundation platforms that range from 40 centimeters to 3 meters in height, and serve as the bases of the circular constructions. Decorative friezes of zigzags and rhomboids embellish five of Kuelap’s platforms; only one survives on the bottom half of an upper structure. In flat areas, the platforms are shaped like half-moons. Other platforms follow the terrain forming semicircular terraces while still others are completely round. All are ringed by cornices of jutting limestone slabs that form semicircles around the foundation platforms, protecting them from rainfall. The recent discovery of a deer antler on the floor of one of the circular structures suggests that antlers may have decorated building interiors, an embellishment observed at the site of Chequillo in the Atuén valley and on one of the Laguna de los Cóndores chullpas.

The walls of the houses average 50 centimeters in width and the best-preserved wall rises 4 meters, probably close to its original height. Some interior walls have small, square openings set in the walls that may have supported the wooden beams of an attic. Square niches averaging 40 centimeters in width and ranging from 22 to 50 centimeters in height, probably used to store possessions, are found in the few houses with standing walls. more

left: Restoring Kuelap's main entrance (Adriana von Hagen).
right: Scaffolding on Kuelap's perimeter wall, part of a reconstruction effort to restore the site (Adriana von Hagen)

More Information:
The Chachapoya Religion Language
Economy Residential Architecture Funerary Architecture
Art Style Kuelap