The lost city city of Kuelap in Peru had been overshadowed by the more famous Machu Picchu but that is changing
The Incan ruins of Machu Picchu may be the undisputed icon of Peru - but even older and equally enigmatic is the unsung fortified city of Kuelap.
Kuelap, nestled among the often impenetrable mountains of less-visited northern Peru, has been widely hailed as "the other Machu Picchu", once it became less arduous to travel to the distant citadel on its 3,000m-perch in the misty Andes.
Last year in March, a new cable car started ferrying visitors to Kuelap in 20 minutes from the village of Tingo Nuevo. Previously, it would have required either a four-hour trek or 90-minute car ride.
That enabled me to visit first Kuelap with ease and then Machu Picchu, discovering a different beauty and mystery at each place.
In terms of vintage, the Cloud Warriors, or Chachapoyas, started living in the walled settlement of Kuelap about 1,500 years ago.
Machu Picchu, a new kid on the block in comparison, was built about 800 years later in southern Peru by the Incans.
Both were lost cities. Kuelap was abandoned in 1532 after the Incans stormed the region, followed by the Spanish Conquistadors. It was rediscovered in 1843.
Our Kuelap adventure began with a fast-speed funicular ride, created by a US$200million French-Peruvian venture.
Ascending the cloud-shrouded mountains, we spied contrasting signs of beauty and death.
Brilliant red bromeliad were flowering on steep slopes and some summits were speckled with pocket patches of high-altitude potatoes and corn. Our guide pointed out skulls on the mountainside.
Skulls were also found within Kuelap, which was an unrushed 1km-walk from the cable-car station, followed by some uphill clambering on jagged steps.
These skulls were likely fractured by stone mace weapons during local power struggles linked to the Spanish arrival in Peru in 1531, according to Unesco, which has placed Kuelap on its tentative list of World Heritage Sites.
While Kuelap hides some sinister secrets, I remember best its tranquil, under-the-radar quality.
Within the brooding 20m-high stone walls, Kuelap looked rustic, unlike regal Machu Picchu.
With green groves, llamas and song birds amid pale ochre stones, Kuelap appeared hidden, making day-trippers like me feel like contemplative explorers.
Among the 400-plus structures was the intriguing Tintero or "Inkwell", an inverted cone that may have been a solar observatory or perhaps a religious site.
Built on a colossal platform atop a jungle-clad mountain, Kuelap was a sacred place and political centre that also housed people.
I peered at the remains of circular homes equipped with fire pits and little tunnels that were dwellings for guinea pigs - a source of protein in epochs past and also now.
The mathematically savvy Cloud Warriors had figured out that for the same interior space, round houses used about 12 per cent fewer stones than a squarish abode.
As I reflect now on the two Peruvian wonders, I am amazed again at the engineering marvel that is Machu Picchu.
Its location is beyond stunning, framed by the perfect peak of Huayna Picchu. Machu Picchu is wondrous at any hour. I visited in the afternoon, and again early the next morning when it was a misty fantasy.
An archaeological site that is ranked among the world's most eminent, it is meticulously maintained and massively documented, yet nothing prepared me for its magnificence and mystery.
But it was crowded, with 1.4 million tourists last year.
In contrast, Kuelap drew about 103,000 people last year, though the pace of visitor arrivals is rising.
I still wonder at the ingenuity and fortitude of its ancient builders, the pre-Incan Cloud Warriors.
While the Incans got much credit for constructing Machu Picchu, the Cloud Warriors were an earlier civilisation who were also masters of complex infrastructure - and Kuelap is even loftier, bigger and more remote.
And so Kuelap has its own lustre and, for now, it is still a secret next to Machu Picchu that rivets world travellers.
Perhaps not for long, for Kuelap is landing on more travel lists, including The New York Times's 52 Places To Go In 2018.
Personally, Machu Picchu is incomparable and has lingered longer in my memories of Peru. It is a symbol of South America.
But the less-told story of Kuelap continues to stir the imagination. It is also an emblem of the many other worthy but less-heralded monuments that Peru is so rich in.
Together, Kuelap and Machu Picchu embellish Peru's reputation as a deep well of fascination for wanderers.
• Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua.
Chachapoyas is a serene mountain town with a strong Spanish influence. Colonial Spanish buildings and a bronze fountain are planted in its Plaza de Armas. Surrounded by cloud forests, Chachapoyas is a gateway to the jewels of the remote north, including Gocta Waterfall which is visible from some corners of the historic city.
2 GOCTA WATERFALL
Gocta Waterfall is the third highest in the world at 771m. A moderate 5km trek leads to the precipitous plumes of water, hidden in the Andean cloud forest.
Found by a German explorer in 2005 - though locals had known of its existence for centuries - the discovery led to an overnight tourist influx.
Waterfall sceptics, however, using different measurements, have contended that it may not be the third highest and that it looks like a sliver compared to storied rivals such as the Iguazu Falls straddling Brazil and Argentina.
3 THE KARAJIA SARCOPHAGI
The Karajia sarcophagi are set dramatically on a narrow limestone-cliff ledge. These six sarcophagi - coffins carved in stone - were crafted by the Chachapoyas or Cloud Warriors about 600 years ago. They contain the remains of eminent people.
Sarcophagi dot the region but the Karajia group is more beautifully preserved - its isolated position high above a river gorge has likely saved them from looters.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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