Utter the words “Peru” and “ruins” in the same breath and 99 per cent of people (Phil and I included) would probably think of Machu Picchu.
But hidden away among the clouds above the Utcubamba Valley in the northern Andes lies the imposing limestone fortress of Kuelap, a pre-Incan walled city that is the largest stone structure in not only all of Peru, but the entire continent.
The concealed treasure that history temporarily forgot is a three hour drive from the colonial town of Chachapoyas.
Phil and I squeeze into a minibus and sit back to admire the stunning views of looming green mountains either side of the winding dirt road, where each bend prompts the driver to beep a few times to prepare for any oncoming truck, pedestrian or, as in one case, baby donkey.
In the distance I see curved lines of different rock layers sweeping upwards from the mountains’ base, a hint of their age-old tectonic formation, before glancing down at the plunging drop to the frothing, fast-flowing brown river below.
The Chachapoyan culture can be traced back to 400BC, but carbon dating has proved work on Kuelap did not commence until 500AD. It is believed it may have taken a gobsmacking 1,000 years to complete, using more weight in stone than the Egyptians laboured with at Cheops.
Aptly, the monument’s name is believed to have derived from the Quechua words meaning “fortress on top of the mountain”.
Our knowledgable guide, Augusto, tells us between 3,000 and 4,000 people once inhabited more than 500 round-shaped houses (6 to 8 per home) at the site. The city was divided into two tiers, separating the nobility from their subjects.
The only traces of the houses remain in the form of piles of stone neatly arranged into circles, with a deep hole in the centre for storage or later use as a tomb, a flat stone for making bread and a narrow rocky tunnel for rearing guinea pigs.
Around their outsides are beautifully preserved decorations, with geometric shapes representing what is thought to be three animal gods the Chachapoyans worshipped – the caiman, puma and snake.
A solitary llama grazes on the grass now growing through the impressive structures.
Augusto picks a dark green leaf off a nearby plant, rubs it and hands it over, telling me it is an ancient remedy against altitude sickness. It smells fresh and lemony.
For many years the Chachapoyans (derived from “Chacha” – man, and “Poyas” – clouds) reigned supreme. A fierce, proud culture, it is said they resisted the Inca power that was spreading throughout the Andes on three separate occasions before they were finally forced into submission – possibly through a seige.
The fortress’ lofty location, its layered formation and watch tower all indicate the work of a people who would stop at nothing to protect their heritage.
The Incas arrived in 1470 and only co-governed for little over 60 years, but still their influence is felt in the square instead of round-shaped buildings, various Incan burial artefacts uncovered on the site and the fact that work on a second surrounding wall was abandoned.
Even today, historians are still researching and discovering new things about the precious archaeological complex.
Augusto explains: “Just six months ago archaeologists did the first excavation of the area surrounding the square block they believed was used for sacrifices, and they discovered hundreds of human and animal bones.”
He reaches to the side and carefully pulls out a rock at waist height from a nearby wall, pointing inside.
I stoop down and peer into the darkness to find a collection of human bones staring back at me, which, Augusto says, are one of the “secondary burials” found on land – remains once buried elsewhere but later moved to Kuelap.
When the Spanish conquistadors turned up in 1533, the Chachapoyans took their revenge by siding with the colonists, overthrowing the Inca powers-that-be.
For the next 300 years, the mighty Kuelap was forgotten. It was only in 1843 that a local judge came walking through the lands to draw up new boundaries and stumbled upon the immense ruins, by then overgrown with forest.
He reportedly found many mummies, some of whom had fine, fair hair, giving rise to the amusing theory that the Chachapoyans were somehow descended from Vikings.
A US archaeologist had started researching the people’s DNA, but died before he could complete his work.
So, for now, the rest of Kuelap’s secrets will have to remain untold.