Comments and articles compared the ruins of Kuelap (kway-lap) very favorably to those of Machu Picchu. “Better than Machu Picchu”, “the new Machu Picchu”, “Machu Picchu without the crowds”, they claimed. Kuelap lay on our way south and we determined to see if it lived up to the hype.

For 20 soles, a new cable car brought us from the town of Nuevo Tingo, across a valley and up to the fortress of Kuelap itself. Personnel at the cable car building informed us that the cable car was a mere three weeks old. We could not avoid the feeling of being guinea pigs while riding it, not least because of the evident recent landslides next to several of the relay towers.

For 20 more soles, we bought entry into the fortress. The fortress itself is an impressive sight, even in the rain. 60ft/18m high walls protect hundreds of smaller buildings, assumed to be houses, temples, storage facilities and water tanks, among others. Long known to the locals, it was “rediscovered” in 1843, when some villagers guided an outsider to the site, spurring a series of exploratory voyages to the fortress.

Today, the fortress remains under reconstruction, with not quite half of its structures fully repaired. Various sections are demarcated by yellow tape, beyond which archaeologists and other workers laboriously unearth stones, determine how they were originally placed and attempt to return them to their ancient locations. The work looks as far from Indiana Jones’s brand of archaeology as one can go.

Where the clouds part, the views are impressive. Information found online debates the possible uses of Kuelap, but the panoramic views and thick, high walls lend a solidly defensive feeling to the place. Reinforcing this feeling is a history of warfare, oppression and rebellion between the Chachapoyas culture, who built Kuelap and their perennial enemies the Inca. The Chachapoyas finally fell to the Inca, who scattered their people throughout the Inca empire as part of a system of ethnic fragmentation aimed at limiting resistance to Inca rule. Centuries later, infighting among the Inca themselves would leave them vulnerable to Spanish conquest.

Despite arriving early, a guided group of tourists entered the ruins at the same time as we did. Seeing no reason to be part of the crowd, we turned left when they turned right. Moments later, a guard told us that we were doing the circuit through the ruins the wrong way and needed to turn around. We explained that we just wanted space from the group. He looked concerned and explained that the arrows on the signs pointed the other way round. Can we just go around this way, we asked. He hesitated. I guess so, he said, still somewhat unsure.

On our way back down, we stopped for a snack at one of the food stands along the trail leading up to the fortress’s main gate. A shopkeeper named Estela Alba sold us butter-fried balls of mashed potatoes stuffed with meat and onions and cups of hot coffee. The stuffed potatoes tasted heavenly. Is there something in this coffee, we asked, some flavor? It’s made with habas beans, rather than coffee beans, Estela said. It’s better for my blood pressure. The drink was warm and tasted awful.

How long have you lived next to the ruins, we asked Estela. All my life, she said. My family has lived here for generations, how far back I don’t know. That must be interesting, we commented. Do the people living near the ruins ever help with the excavation? No, she said, the archaeologists want us to leave. They say that we’re bad for the ruins. Imagine that – some of our ancestors probably lived in the ruins and then some know-it-all from the city (I assume she meant Lima) comes once and says that we should leave. I’ll never leave, she laughs.

We caught the cable car down amidst driving rain. We spied a human skeleton in a mountainside cave on the way down. The bones looked too white to be old, although an attendant at the station laughed and assured us otherwise.

Is Kuelap better than Machu Picchu? The two places offer very different experiences. Kuelap’s inaccessibility certainly makes it a more personal and intimate experience (and a cheaper one). However, the same inaccessibility also makes it much harder to reach. It rests in an area of Peru that is not very developed and has little to no service industry, which may not be to many travellers’ liking. For those who do find themselves in the mountains of norther Peru, however, it would be a pity to pass through without stopping here.

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