Panorama of the Week: Pre-Incan Ruins of Kuelap, Peru

The Incan ruins of Machu Picchu outside Cusco, Peru grab the lion’s share of that country’s travel press. But before the Incas stormed through this region in the 15th century, there were actually some other clever people living in Peru. They built an impressive city and lived in circular houses on a mountaintop in the north, near the town of Chachapoyas (meaning “People of the Clouds”).

A shot of the ruins of Kuelap, the citadel they built in those clouds, can be seen in the panorama below.

We tend to carry a healthy dose of skepticism with us when visiting ruins, but this particular pile of rocks — and its stories — exceeded our expectations.

360-Degree Panorama: Pre-Incan Ruins at Kuelap in Northern Peru

panorama directions

Our Kuelap tour guide was refreshingly honest — he admitted that almost all the information available about the ruins was speculation. He offered competing theories from archeologists the world over and suggested that we decide which explanations made most sense to us.

Wonder why the “cloud people” lived in circular homes? One theory suggests that this structure offers better protection against earthquakes. Another keys off inhabitants’ superstition: circular homes don’t provide corners for spirits to hide in.

Our money is on the latter.

See those short rock wall dividers inside the dwellings? (You have to look really hard.) Piles of cuy (guinea pig) bones found in those areas suggest that they were family guinea pig pens. Now, before you think how cute it was for parents to allow their kids to keep their pets inside the house, we remind you of #1 on this post.

Although the Incas steal the limelight for Peru, remember there were groups of people living there before them…and no one really knows much about them.

That’s part of the fun.

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Comments

  1. says

    Great post guys! That was fascinating. I can’t believe how intact that building is! Did they re-build it? I’m right there with you regarding approaching ruins dubiously. Generally, I’ve found the more I know about the history of them the more interesting I find it – and if there’s a Rick Steve’s audio guide for it too even better!

    When I think about Peru I think of potatoes and guano. Apparently indigenous people of Peru had 150 varieties of potato, and valued them all. An Incan of five hundred years ago would have been able to identify varieties of potato in much the way that a modern wine snob identifies grapes. The Quechuan language of Peru still has a thousand words for different types or conditions of potatoes. Hantha, for instance, describes a potato that is distinctly on the old side but still has edible flesh.

    Why guano, you ask (or not)? Well into the nineteenth century no-one had any real idea about why plants needed fertilising or what constituted an effective fertiliser. Enter guano. Guano had been used in Peru since the time of the Incas, and its efficacy had been remarked upon by explorers and travellers ever since, but it wasn’t until the 1830s that anyone thought to scoop it into bags and sell it to desperate farmers in the northern hemisphere. For thirty years Peru earned practically all its foreign exchange from bagging up and selling bird droppings to a grateful world.

    Sorry, your post brought out the history geek in me. I blame it on Bill Bryson books. But yeah, it’s knowing random details like that that bring ruins alive for me.

    Love your panoramas by the way!

  2. says

    Yo Audrey & Daniel,

    That’s an awesome panorama. Amazing how much is preserved. And People of the Clouds is a beautiful name.

    Ancient people knew a lot of cool stuff. To explain those circular dwellings, my money’s on the sacredness of the circular shape. It shows up in many schools of thought as being divine.

    Thanks for the info on this amazing place.

    Peace,
    Lauren

    P.S. We found you via Amar’s Couple Travel Blogs post. Good to be on the list with you :)

  3. says

    Wow- that is stunning! We are planning our S.America tour for next Feb. and this is definitely on our list. Seriously, beautiful.

  4. says

    @Michael: As with most stone ruins, a good chunk of what you see has been rebuilt. I believe we asked the guide and he suggested more than half of it had been reconstructed. It may have been greater than that.

    Potatoes and Peru, for sure. When we visited Mistura, the Peruvian international food festival, last year, we were told that Peruvians now have something like 3000-4000 distinct varieties of potatoes, by this guy:
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/photos/picture/4044106659/

    As you describe Hantha, it reminds me of chuño, the shriveled, dried potatoes we found everywhere in Bolivia.

    As for guano, I can’t say that the word immediately comes to mind when discussing Peru. Poo-powered foreign exchange — now that is an absolutely fascinating story, and an almost unbelievable one.

    Thanks for the compliments, but more importantly, thanks for the thoughtful comment. No need to apologize. Very, very much appreciated!

    @Lauren: Glad you liked it. Regarding preservation, see my comment to Michael above. Having said that, the heavy-handedness of ruin reconstructions depends much on the archaeologists running the show.

    Ancient people — and their progeny who maintain their traditions today — bring a lot of wisdom to the table. I hope in our race for modernity and progress, we don’t lose that wisdom and perspective.

    We are with you on the divinity of the circle. There’s a bunch embedded in its symbolism.

    Thank you for a very thoughtful comment. Glad you found us…and we found you.

    @Andi: Thanks!

    @Jade: Enjoy planning and taking your trip. Any questions, just let us know. Enjoy the sights…and more importantly, have fun getting there. If you are going to Kuelap, half the fun is in the roads that take you there (wee, narrow, winding mountain roads that criss-cross various bits of the old Inca trails). Enjoy.

  5. Elisa says

    I don’t know how much time you have for reading on the road, but if you ever have the chance, you should read “1491” by Charles Mann. It’s nonfiction, a survey of some incredible recent discoveries on the inhabitants of the Americas before (& just after) the arrival of Europeans. It’s a fascinating read & definitely pounds home how little is known for sure about the earliest inhabitants, as well as how many & how complex they were.

  6. says

    @Elisa: Thank you. I’ve heard of the title before, but consider it officially added to the “must read” list. On Facebook, someone commented that the ruins looked surprisingly like some in Wales. In any event, I’m always fascinated by speculation on — and perhaps eventual clarification of — who really “discovered” the Americas and not-so-tangentially, who had been living there all along. I get the feeling that circumstances and our thirst for easily digested history have thus far only given us half the story.

  7. Matt says

    Hey. These ruins are great! Went there a few months back. Would reccomend staying with the family in the first house after the ruins, – very basic, but extremely generous and friendly, means that you can be the first people at the site, in the morning before other tourists arrive, also if you arrive at the weekend the eldest son makes for a great guide.

  8. says

    @Matt: Thanks so much for the recommendation of staying with families close to the ruins. That’s a great idea. I do think that having a good guide helps one appreciate Kuelap and what it took to build it.

  9. says

    Very interesting story, and I enjoyed the panorama view of the ruins. It’s amazing how well preserved everything is. With so much uninhabited land in Peru several hundreds of years ago, it makes you wonder why this group of people chose to live “in the clouds”.

  10. says

    @Felipe: Nope, eating cuy will not be going away anytime soon. We personally don’t like the taste of it, but it’s obvious we’re a minority in Peru.

    @Michelle: Often communities were built on hilltops or “in the clouds” as it provides them a military advantage in that they can see when invaders or armies are approaching. A few of the buildings were renovated, but most of them were in their natural state – quite a testament to their construction.

  11. Dave Braun says

    Hello! Great blog. When I read peoples blogs, I like to look to see if they have left the main stream to explore real life in a country. Your report on Peruvian food was excellent. Peru has so much to offer, and there are so many interesting sites to see, away from the Cusco/Machu Picchu hype. The cultures along the coast are much older and much more interesting (Caral, Chan Chan Tumbes, etc. etc. etc.). Chachapoyas is incredible and one of my favorite places in Peru. I am glad I found your site, and hope to find a lot of interesting information for my own travels.
    Thank you for sharing,
    Dave

  12. says

    @Dave: We hadn’t heard much about Chachapoyas and northern Peru before crossing the border from Ecuador. In fact, our guidebook barely had any information on it. But it turned out to really surprise us by how beautiful the area was and how friendly people were.

    Thank for your kind words about our Peruvian food article as well!

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