Kuelap Fortress

Active Project
World Monuments Watch
Amazonas, Peru

Site History and Significance

One of the Largest Ancient Monuments of the Americas

Kuelap, one of the largest ancient monuments of the Americas, was a fortified citadel in northern Peru on the slopes of the Andes. The remains of the settlement sit 3,000 meters above sea level and the original fortress covered 15 hectares. It consisted of buildings of civil, religious, and military purposes as well as 420 circular stone dwellings, which contained geometric friezes, mural iconography, and high relief carvings. The citadel was surrounded by walls reaching 60 feet tall in some places and constructed out of large limestone blocks. 

The Political Center of the Chachapoya Civilization

Kuelap was the political center of the Chachapoya civilization, a pre-Columbian culture that flourished from about 900 to 1400 AD. At its height, the city may have had up to 300,000 inhabitants, mostly warriors, merchants, shamans, and farmers. The Chachapoya civilization collapsed in the mid-16th century due to the Spanish conquest, and Kuelap was abandoned. Kuelap’s condition deteriorated over time due to fires, rain, wind erosion, and lack of an effective drainage system, as well as growth of tree roots.

Kuelap provides an opportunity to understand the legacy left behind by an extinct civilization that contributed much to the region before its disappearance. The preservation of the fortress complex allows for greater understanding of the rituals and practices of a people inhabiting hillside dwellings at high altitudes. The structures are examples of the artistic and engineering sophistication of early cultures in the Americas.

Our Involvement 

2004 World Monuments Watch

Kuelap was placed on the 2004 World Monuments Watch to call attention to its continuing deterioration and need for improved tourism planning. After its inclusion on the Watch, World Monuments Fund (WMF) and other organizations came together to support a variety of conservation work at the site, with particular attention to El Tintero, a structure there known as the Inkwell in English. 

The supported work also included the conservation of the upper level of the Templo Mayor, the conservation of the Pueblo Alto Wall, the installation of a weather station, and the monitoring and evaluation of other significant structures at the site. Stabilization of the fortress was designed to allow public access to this historic site, with the highest priority given to developing tourist itineraries that would not contribute to further deterioration of the structure’s fragile remains. 

Heavy Rains Cause Collapse

In spring 2022, Kuelap Fortress suffered severe damage from heavy rains in the Amazonas region of northwestern Peru, which caused the collapse of part of the southern perimeter wall.

In response, in September 2022, WMF facilitated the donation of a LiDAR scan service by qAIRa to gather essential data about the archaeological complex. Collecting this data will help achieve the goals outlined in the Archaeological Program of Kuelap, approved by the Ministry of Culture of Peru. qAIRa also donated a weather station to the site in July 2023 via WMF.

Assesing the Impact of Climate Change

Thanks to the support of emergency funds from the U.S. Department of State through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP), WMF supported a structural study of Kuelap led by Dr. Iván Ghezzi in 2023 using satellite radar. The main objective of this study was to detect the deformation of Kuelap’s structures over time, helping identify the site’s most vulnerable areas and allowing for a better understanding of the changes at the site. The study’s results have shown that one of the leading causes of the perimeter wall’s disintegration was the extraordinary rains that occurred between 2018 and 2022. This indicates that climate change is one of the major causes of this collapse.

Learn More

World Monuments Fund safeguards cultural heritage around the globe, ensuring our treasured places are preserved for present and future generations. 

Sign up for our newsletter to receive regular updates on our projects, stories from the field, upcoming events, and more!

World Monuments Fund’s work at Kuelap Fortress has been made possible, in part, by The Selz Foundation and the U.S. Embassy Lima.

Last updated: March 2024.

Join us in safeguarding significant places.