|By Laurel Thompson, Kuoda Tours|
Monthly Archives: December 2009
By Laurel Thompson, Kuoda Tours
Kuelap is an ancient and truly magnificent structure. The only place that can really compare to its size, mystery and grandeur is the Sanctuary of Machupicchu, but even then, Kuelap is at least twice as old and quite a bit bigger- it is estimated to contain 3 times more material than Egypt’s largest pyramid!
It was built by the Chachapoyas (meaning the warriors of the clouds), which was what the Inkas called these people (the name they used to refer to themselves is unknown). Very little is currently known of this culture and since the Incas and the Spanish conquistadors were the principal sources of information on the Chachapoyas, unbiased, first-hand information of this indigenous culture remains scarce. Much of what we do know about them is based on archaeological evidence from ruins, pottery, tombs and other artifacts.
The Chachapoyas were an Andean people who lived in the cloud forests of the Amazonas region of present-day Peru and one of the most advanced civilizations to develop in this tropical jungle region. Studies of pre-Inka Chachapoya skeletal remains from Salsipuedes and other burial sites indicate that the Chachapoyas were of Andean stock but, on average, taller than their contemporaries in other parts of ancient Peru (1.59 meters for men and 1.46 meters for women).
Among the scattered colonial descriptions of Chachapoyas, almost all the Chroniclers commented on the beauty of the women. Even Father Calancha succumbed to their beauty, noting:
“These are the… most graceful Indians in all the Indies and the women are the most beautiful.”
The chronicler Pedro Cieza de León described them:
“They are the… most handsome of all the people that I have seen in Indies, and their wives were so beautiful that because of their gentleness, many of them deserved to be the Incas’ wives and to also be taken to the Sun Temple (…) The women and their husbands always dressed in woolen clothes and in their heads they wear their llautos, which are a sign they wear to be known everywhere.”
Their art style also reflects a mixture of influences. According to the analysis of the Chachapoyas objects, their cultural artifacts have Andean, not Amazonian roots. The well-preserved burial offerings found near the Laguna de los Cóndores (the lake of the condors) are playing a vital part in revealing answers regarding the genesis of the style. Recurring images found throughout the area in pictographs and in textiles and gourds display human figures sporting feathered headdresses, which suggests common narratives and beliefs and the myths they reflect. Another image found near the laguna is that of a feline-like animal with fanged teeth. Such representations may reflect aspects of Chachapoya symbolism, whose meaning has been lost in time.
Kuelap is the biggest and most famous of Chachapoya architectural sites, only one among hundreds of similarly constructed settlements straddling ridges and clinging to mountain tops. It is presumed to have taken at least 200 years to complete and was only brought to the world’s attention in 1843, when it was found in remarkably good condition by Juan Crisóstomo Nieto.
It was built on top of a huge mountain peak using millions of cubic feet of stone and consists of massive exterior stone walls, which contain more than four hundred buildings inside. It is roughly 584m long and 110m wide, with 20 meter high walls.
Inside the Kuelap fortress can be found various structures whose use, or purpose, is a complete mystery. One, known as “ El Tintero,” is a large stone structure built in the shape of an inverted cone, a real challenge to the laws of gravity, since the diameter of its top is much larger than that of its bottom. Some think it was a prison. Others think it was an oracle observatory where the shaman would go inside to observe a special star pass over “the lens” to signal an exact time or event of the year.
Around the fortress, set inside each of the five walls, are gigantic open doorways or portals. The best preserved portal, and probably the principal one, is 10m high and 3m wide. As you go inside the entryway, you’ll see a passage that looks like a ramp with walls, and if you continue along this passage, it will start to narrow down to a small tunnel until, eventually, it will only allow the passage of one person at a time. This would have been an ideal place to fend off enemies; since the walls are too high to scale or raise ladders to access, the gigantic doors would seem the logical way for an enemy to storm inside. However, once they had started up the ramp, they would discover too late, that the passageway narrowed down to where only one person at a time could squeeze inside the citadel.
Though it might seem that Kuelap was built for defensive purposes, the true reason for its construction remains unknown. Some have tried to demonstrate that it was more than a fortress; it might have been a fortified place destined to serve as refuge to the population in emergency cases. Some say that the Chachapoyas didn’t build their citadels on the tops of mountains for defensive reasons at all, but in order to make maximum use of the land for cultivation.
Referred to as the ‘Machupicchu of the north,’ there is still a great deal to discover and investigate about Kuelap. It has a veil of mystery that intrigues all those who visit it, although they are few due to its remote location, but many say that its beauty far outweighs the hardships of getting there. Over the past decade, the Peruvian government has been working on making it easier for tourists to access. Kuelap is a treasure of ancient secrets that deserves to be viewed and protected.