That said, don’t skip one of the New Seven Wonders of the World just to be different or to deal with smaller crowds. Kuélap may be best appreciated on a second Peruvian visit; getting there can be a herculean effort and signage is so minimal you’ll need a guide to understand what you’re looking at. Archaeologists have explored only 20 percent, if not less, of the site — and tourism here didn’t begin in earnest until around 2012.
Getting there can be a bit of a slog. Budget travelers typically make their way to the city of Chiclayo, on the country’s northwestern coast, and then take a 10-hour overnight bus through the mountains. Low on time and worried about bus robberies we had been warned about, we instead flew into the jungle town of Jaén, where the airport recently started receiving one LATAM flight from Lima per day. From there, we still had a three-and-a-half-hour car ride through the Andes to our year-old hotel, Casa Hacienda Achamaqui, a colonial villa nestled in a river valley, with wooden balconies and red brick walkways built for contemplative strolls.
Another 50-minute car ride on a mostly unpaved road got us to the tiny town of Nuevo Tingo, where a cable car to the base of Kuélap opened in 2017. It took us 20 vertigo-inducing minutes to go two and a half miles across multiple ravines, a distance that used to require a two-hour drive or a four-hour hike. From there — from there! — we had a 15-minute horseback ride up a muddy mountain path to the ruins themselves. The indigenous woman who was guiding my horse tackled the mud barefoot. When I asked her if my horse was feeling O.K., she laughed and responded, “He doesn’t talk! He’s a horse!”
Outside the walls, locals had set up booths selling grilled plantains filled with cheese. Inside, we spotted one of three llamas, which our guide, Michel Richard Feijóo Aguilar, told us had been brought in around five years ago for the sake of tourists. He pointed out diamond-shaped stone patterns that he said represented the eyes of sacred animals such as jaguars, serpents and condors, and showed us how to spot human bones placed in the walls of homes. “The Chachapoyas liked to share their spaces with their ancestors,” he said. The most important discovery among those bones has been evidence that the Chachapoyas performed trepanation, a form of brain surgery that involved drilling into the skull to relieve pressure after warriors received bangs to their heads.
Archaeologists believe Kuélap was populated from 500 to 1570. The Chachapoyas survived an Inca occupation in the late 1400s, but abandoned the settlement after the Spanish Viceroy Francisco Álvarez de Toledo introduced an evangelical program that forced the displacement of indigenous populations from their native communities and into colonial towns. The site has remained largely untouched ever since. Spaniards never lived there and the remaining Chachapoyas returned only to bury their dead. “Kuélap is a big cemetery,” said Mr. Feijóo Aguilar. (Los Sarcófagos de Karajía, consisting of seven anthropomorphic funerary sculptures containing mummies in a remote river gorge, is another area draw.)