The persistent fog was all around us. It had completely enveloped the mountain landscape, stealthily hiding the thousand-foot sheer drops and allowing our location on this craggy peak to be forgotten. Originally we were hoping for the dense clouds to clear but we had come to realize how perfectly fitting they were. Deep in the northern Peruvian highlands, we were about to explore the well-preserved but little-visited ruins of Kuelap, home to the Chachapoyas or “People of the Clouds.”
When most people think of Peru, they understandably think of the Incas. Despite enjoying a relatively short stint at the top, the Incas ruled over an empire so vast it stretched all the way from modern day Colombia to modern day Chile. By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s, the Incas and their subjugated peoples dominated the landscape. Thus, forgotten by history are the numerous civilizations that proceeded them. The Andes, however, have kept these long-lost secrets; they are dotted with evidence of these once important civilizations.
The Chachapoyas controlled a vast swath of land in Peru’s northern highlands from AD 800 until the 1470s. Little is known of this civilization but they were thought to be great warriors, powerful shamans and prolific builders. Despite fierce resistance, they were eventually conquered by the Incas, though never fully subdued and would later aid the Spanish in their conquest. Lack of Incan influence in Chachapoyas culture is evident by the fact that the people never learned to speak Quechua (the language of the Incas) and today Spanish is spoken almost exclusively by the people in this region.
We began the 2 km hike up to the city of Kuelap, taking advantage of each break in the fog to soak up the impressive panoramas of a land once inhabited by the Chachapoyas. Immediately Kuelap gives off an imposing impression, as the entire fortress is surrounded by a 700 meter long, nearly impenetrable wall. The wall reaches over 20 meters high in places and is only breached by three deep, narrow gates – a security system that would have forced attacking parties into vulnerable single file lines. As we entered the ruins through one of these gates, we imagined ourselves dodging the well-aimed arrows and heaved boulders of the city’s protectors.
For the next couple hours we explored the ruins in isolation, passing only a handful of helpful guards along the way. The grounds encompass hundreds of dwellings and temples which show off the distinct Chachapoyas architecture, characterized by circular stone construction and intricate masonry friezes.
Northern Peru is filled with mostly unexcavated archaeological sites, many of which can only be reached through multi-day treks. As we wandered solo through the region’s most accessible ruins, we couldn’t help but feel the magic of the place. The cycle of the fog, lifting temporarily and then penetrating ever more deeply, kept the city enshrouded in as much mystery as it did mist. The abundant greenery of the landscape, the bromeliad-covered trees and moss-covered stones reminded us that nature waits patiently, eventually reclaiming all that was once hers.