Finding the Lost City of Kuelap

“Sure. We go to the Kuelap ruins,” our driver said; as he sold us three tickets in his cramped van-size bus.

What he should have said was, “sure, we can drop you off at the parking lot; but there’s no town and the nearest guesthouse is 2 miles away.”

With that knowledge, we might not have brought our 35+ pound backpacks.

My wife, Carrie, with our guide Jose and our friend Małgorzata
My wife, Carrie, with our guide Jose and our friend Małgorzata.

The Fortress of Kuelap

Although archeologists have rediscovered the lost city of Kuelap, Peru, the ruins remain an enigma for travelers.

Constructed in the 6th century and inhabited for nearly 1,000 years, the fortified city of Kuelap once held more than 400 buildings.

Surrounded by a massive stone wall and occupying 41 square miles, it’s amazing that the site remained “undiscovered” until 1843.

Perhaps this was due to the dense cloud cover that constantly envelopes the ruins.

The main outside wall surrounding Kuelap
The main outside wall surrounding Kuelap.

 

La Atalaya is a turret structure located at the northern end of Kuelap.
La Atalaya is a turret structure located at the northern end of Kuelap.

 

An upper wall at Kuelap
An upper wall at Kuelap.

The Ride From Chachapoyas to Kuelap

With a turkey was strapped to the roof, people sitting in the aisles and a box of chirping and urinating chickens on the floor, our  adventure to Kuelap began.

For three hours, our bodies were mashed left and right; as the microbus sped through every curve on the dirt road.

Finally, when the bus reached its last stop, we looked around at the empty countryside and wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.

Our microbus from Chachapoyas to Kuelap, Peru
Our microbus from Chachapoyas to Kuelap, Peru.

Kuelap: 2.5 Kilometers

Next to the parking lot, steep stone steps led up into the mountains.

A nearby sign simply said, “Kuelap: 2.5 kilometers.”

At that moment, we realized we had quite a walk ahead of us; and, we didn’t even know where the guesthouse was.

Thank goodness for Jose: a fellow passenger on our microbus.

Upon overhearing our concern, he immediately offered to help guide us.

Even the llamas were confused.
Even the llamas were confused.

The One Guesthouse in Kuelap

With bags dangling from our backs, chests and every available hand, we followed Jose up stone steps, down slippery mud paths and through a wall of rain.

Kuelap-Chachapoyas_Peru-Greg_Goodman-AdventuresofaGoodMan-2014-05-06 17-31-36It’s a miracle I only fell once; as it’s quite difficult to see through the big bag on my chest while walking downhill.

 

We made it!

After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at a large house on the mountainside and checked in.

Expecting the worst, we were pleasantly surprised to find a nice room, comfortable beds and electricity.

Finally, after a home-cooked meal, we ushered a giant tarantula out of our room and collapsed into bed.

Our room with three beds in this guesthouse cost 45 soles total ($16)
We were surprised to find a giant flat screen tv in the owner’s room.

 

Our room with three beds in this guesthouse cost 45 soles total ($16)
Our room with three beds in this guesthouse cost 45 soles total ($16).

 

Our pet tarantula was not a welcome guest.
Our pet tarantula was not a welcome guest.

Machu Picchu: Without the Crowds

With an average of 15 visitors a day strolling through its majestic ruins, Kuelap earns its title of “Machu Picchu; without the crowds.”

That’s because reaching the site involves anywhere from a 2.5 to 9 kilometer hike: depending on which route you take.

However, once you arrive and have the ruins to yourself, the journey becomes completely worthwhile.

A traditional house and roof at Kuelap.
A traditional house and roof at Kuelap.

 

The outer wall and portal of Kuelap.
The outer wall and portal of Kuelap.

 

Małgorzata the photographer.
Małgorzata the photographer.

 

Evidence of the restoration work being done at Kuelap.
Evidence of the restoration work being done at Kuelap.

An Epic Hike Leaving Kuelap

By midday, we had explored the ruins and were ready to go. However, getting out seemed to be just as difficult as getting in.

It seemed like we had three choices; both of which involved walking with our heavy bags.

  1. Hike 2.5 kilometers with our bags and take the same bus we arrived in; which left at 4:30 am the next morning.
  2. Hike 9 kilometers with our bags and catch a bus that afternoon in El Tingo.
  3. Hike 9 kilometers to El Tingo – but hire a local with a horse for $12 to carry our bags.

Needless to say, we chose option #3.

The view from atop Kuelap.
We had to get all the way down there.

Simona and Her Horse

They say it takes a village; and our journey to El Tingo proved it.

First, it took six people to strap our three big backpacking bags to Simona’s horse.

After setting off, we quickly learned they were not secure.

Every few minutes, we all had to stop and push the bags back into place; lest they fall into ankle-deep mud.

Trying to get our bags onto Simona's horse.
Trying to get our bags onto Simona’s horse.

Rain & Villages

Our bags continued to slip as we passed local villages, sheep, pigs, donkeys, roosters, chickens, dogs and other horses.

“How are we going reach the bus before dark,” we wondered; once again retracing our steps to find Simona stopped and pushing up our bags.

Then, just as a heavy downpour began, a kind local man stopped to help Simona take off all three bags and retie them more efficiently.

I tried to help; but, I think I just got in the way.

Incredibly, the now-soaked man wanted nothing in return. He was just helping because it’s the neighborly thing to do.

The amazing kind man who helped us retie our bags.
The amazing kind man who helped us retie our bags.

Onward to El Tingo

With our bags finally secured, it was another four hours before we reached El Tingo.

The whole time, a pair of local dogs accompanied us. We have no idea where they came from or how they would eventually get home; but they sure did love to be pet.

Finally, after reaching the bottom and waiting hours for the bus, we wound up hitchhiking a ride home from a tour bus full of local tourists.

I can only imagine their thoughts about the three smelly backpackers who crashed their ride to Chachapoyas.

Kuelap-Greg-Carrie-Gosha


This article was published thanks to a partnership with Expedia. As always, the stories and photos in it are entirely my own.

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