Kuelap, Chachapoyas & the Cloud Forest
On the lush eastern slopes of the Andes, where the mountains begin to tumble down into the Amazon rainforest, the mysterious Cloud Forest conceals one of Peru's best-kept secrets...
The small colonial town of Chachapoyas lies at the centre of an archaeological landscape of unsurpassed richness, and the Sachapuyas culture who made their home here before the Incas, have left behind some of Peru's most impressive and most enigmatic ruins, including the amazing Kuelap fortress.
What to See and Do on Holidays in Chachapoyas
The rich archaeological legacy left behind by the Sachapuyas culture is most people's focus for their holidays in Chachapoyas, but there are also some natural wonders for those who can spend a little more time up here in the Cloud Forest...
The Fortress of Kuelap
Located high in the cloud-forest, at over 3,000m above sea level, Kuelap is a huge, stone-built fortress, large enough to house thousands of warriors. It was the scene for the final battle between the Incas and the Sachapuyas and it took the Incas several attempts and thousands of lives to finally conquer the citadel. When you get there it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by the place as so much of it is still in perfect condition. You can still see the 5 distinct levels formed with walls which in places are 20m high and 500m long. The only concession to time is that many of the walls are now covered in what must be millions of orchids and bromeliads, bringing a peaceful tone to this warlike location.
In many ways, Kuelap is a northern counterpart to the much more famous Machu Picchu, and it's a pretty fair comparison. Arguably Machu Picchu's location is a little more impressive, but you have to weigh against that the fact that at Kuelap, you're likely to have this amazing site almost entirely to yourself...
Because there are no flights to anywhere near Chachapoyas, and the nearest big city is about 12 hours away by road, there are literally only a few visitors to the site every week, despite the fact that it's one of the biggest and certainly one of the most important archaeological sites in the whole of Peru. So if you do make the effort, you'll be rewarded with the time and space to really enjoy this amazing site.
Revash and Laguna de los Condores
To the south of Chachapoyas, the Revash Mausoleums are strange, house-like structures built into the cliffs of the Utcubamba valley, and contained dozens of well-preserved mummies dating back hundreds of years. They are understood to belong to the Sachapuyas culture, although the art and symbolism is still poorly understood.
The Revash site can be reached by road on the journey between Cajamarca and Chachapoyas, but the major site in the area requires a bit more effort on your part... A solid day's trekking from the road, however, is all made worthwhile once you arrive at the beautiful Laguna de los Condores. If you camp overnight by the lake, the morning will bring you the breathtaking site of the sun rising over the mist-wreathed waters of the lake and illuminating the cliffs where in 1996, local farmers found a series of hitherto unknown tombs containing over 200 Sachapuyas culture mummies.
Gocta Waterfall and Karajia
Heading north from Chachapoyas along the highway to Chiclayo, you can turn off along a dirt road to the hamlet of Cochachimba, from where a short walk takes you to the breathtaking Gocta Waterfall. With a drop of nearly 800m, this is one of the highest free-flowing waterfalls in the world and the lush Cloud Forest surroundings make it all the more beautiful.
We often combine visits to Gocta with a trip to see the Sachapuyas sarcophagi at Karajia. Perched on an inaccessible stone ledge high above the Rio Utcubamba, these 2-metre tall clay and wattle figures are reminiscent of the moai of Easter Island and housed eight mummies, referred to by locals as the "ancient wise men". Unfortunately one of the sarcophagi has since fallen apart, but the remainder are an enigmatic reminder of the ancient history of this area.
Getting To and From Chachapoyas
Although Chachapoyas does have an airport, there are currently no scheduled flights operating, so getting to the city requires a long overland journey by road.
The usual route involves an 11-hour journey on the new two-lane highway up from Chiclayo, where regular flights connect with Lima. However, to the east of the Andes, Tarapoto also has flights to Lima and journey times are similar, although less well-served by good public transport.
An alternative route which is arguably more interesting is overland from Cajamarca via the town of Leymebamba, where you can visit the interesting Leymebamba museum. Until 2014 the condition of this road was very poor so we only recommended this journey as a private transfer in a 4x4 vehicle, and only in season. However the route is now fully-paved and both quicker and more comfortable either by car or coach.
Tailor-made Tours in Chachapoyas
All our holidays in Peru are 100% tailormade, so if you'd like to customise any of the tours you see above, or just plan a trip completely from scratch then get in touch and let us know - we'll be delighted to help you plan your perfect holiday in Chachapoyas!
Did you know?
Because Chachapoyas is relatively unknown outside of Peru, you can frequently find that you're the only people on a tour of Kuelap - just you and a few llamas! It's quite a change from Machu Picchu...