Chachapoyas, the best-kept secret in Peru
Explore the rich culture, history, and nature in Peru’s Amazonas region.
I hadn’t actually heard of Chachapoyas until a few days before I came here, but I’m so glad I was able to change my plans. Hidden away in Amazonas, one of the regions bordering Ecuador, tourism is increasing in the region but there are some places that you’ll still have all to yourself.
This quaint, colonial town’s historical centre is filled with whitewashed buildings, open plazas, and some great places to eat and drink. It’s a great place to have a wander and take in the atmosphere of a traditional Peruvian town.
Although the town is a really enjoyable place, it was the surrounding areas that really took my breath away. Set at 2,800m, Chachapoyas is surrounded by some of the most stunning, green mountain landscapes I had ever seen. Hidden in these landscapes are some of Peru’s least visited yet most important archaeological, cultural, and historical sights. Throw in some natural wonders as well, and you have the perfect destination.
I was awe-struck by ancient ruins and mummies, invigorated by bathing in gigantic waterfalls and had a great time getting to know a number of kind and friendly people from both Peru and abroad.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Now we get to the downside – Chachapoyas is very far away from most other tourist destinations in Peru. From Lima, it’s a 24-hour bus trip. It’s a good idea to split your trip up if you have the time – Cajabamba is a ten-hour bus trip.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Pretend you’re Indiana Jones and explore the ancient city of Kuélap
A popular destination for Peruvians who come as much to ride the country’s first and only cable car, Kuélap is an ancient pre-Columbian city 3,000m above sea level. Come here to see the remains of a city that was bigger than Machu Picchu, and was home to more than 3,000 of the Chachapoyas people. Constructed in the 6th century AD, the former stronghold features traditional architecture such as roundhouses, watchtowers, and the temple of the sun. The views of the surrounding valleys from Kuélap are simply spectacular, and if you’re lucky you might even meet the llamas that wander around parts of the site.
Kuélap is 60km south of Chachapoyas. Several agencies offer daily tours.
Take a shower in one of the world’s highest waterfalls
Amazingly, La Cataracta de Gocta (Gocta waterfall) was only discovered in 2002, and a path to it took another 4 years to build. Originally thought to be the 3rd highest waterfall in the world, the 771m giant is now considered to be 15th. A 5km hike from the village of Cocachimba, which is worth a visit in itself for the sweeping vistas of the mountains, you’ll need a guide to walk to the waterfall. Bring a good pair of hiking boots as the track climbs hills and descends down to bubbling streams and rivers. Once you get to the waterfall, it’s not what you’d expect. By the time it reaches the bottom, it’s a pleasant spray rather than a huge rumble. The waterfall moves with the wind, but if you find yourself underneath it, you’ll be soaked through!
Unwrap the mystery of the mummies of Leymebamba
In 1996, local workers mining for precious gold at the Laguna de los condores came across something no-one was expecting – 219 mummies, thought to be from the indigenous Chachapoyas people. The mummies are now on display in a temperature-controlled room at the museum of Leymebamba, about 90km south of Chachapoyas. The museum also provides a comprehensive history into the Amazonas region and is a great place to spend a couple of hours.
Get up close and personal with hummingbirds at Kentikafé
Just over the road from Leymebamba museum, is Kentikafe where there’s a bird feeder filled with nectar. Spend some time here to get some stunning pictures of the hummingbirds, and also to listen to the beat of their wings as they fly around the garden while you enjoy a coffee.
Be awestruck by the sarcophagi at Karajía
There are mummies dotted throughout the hills around the Utcubamba valley, but the most famous are the sarcophagi at Karajía. These 2m tall sarcophagi are topped with real human skulls and are thought to have stood here since the 15th century. Originally, there were 8 but one was destroyed in an earthquake in 1928.
Mausoleos de Revash
A lot of Chachapoyan culture was destroyed or merged when the Incas colonised, but like the sarcophagi and mummies, these mausoleums were untouched. The red-topped buildings, hanging from a cliff face, are actually reconstructions of chullpas (funerary complexes) where the Chachapoyas people buried their dead.
See the legendary Pozo de Yanayacu
If you’re tired of heading out of the city to see the attractions, you’ll be pleased to know that a short walk from the centre, you’ll be able to find the Pozo de Yanayacu (Yanayacu well). Local legend says that it holds sacred ‘black water’ (what the name translates as), which was magically unleashed by an archbishop who would go on to become a saint.
Stay – Accommodation
A great hostel minutes from the Plaza de Armas (the main square and town centre), this is a good option for those on a budget. A dorm bed is 20 soles per night, and privates start at 40. You can take advantage of free wi-fi, hot showers, and a kitchen to prepare your own food,
Casona del Triunfo Hotel
An upmarket option also close to the Plaza de Armas, La Casona del Triunfo is set around a colonial courtyard and is complete with balconies and a fountain. Rooms are equipped with wi-fi, flatscreen TVs and there’s a daily buffet breakfast.
Eat – Restaurants
Chachapoyas is a great place to try some traditional Peruvian dishes. If you’re feeling brave, why not try cuy (guinea pig)? Cecina and trout are popular local dishes too, and there are a number of restaurants which offer vegetarian options.
Although pizza isn’t considered as traditional Peruvian food, Candela’s wood oven churns out delicious pizzas with a local twist. Some people may have difficulty accepting bananas on a pizza, but local chorizo and banana is one of the most popular options!
El Batán de Tayta
A great restaurant which offers an unusual take on traditional Peruvian dishes, El Batán de Tayta is deceptively cheap for the quality of food on offer. The regional décor is sublime, as is the presentation of the food. Main meals start at around 25 soles. The best place to eat in town.
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Time – Seasonality & Schedules
The best time to visit Chachapoyas is the dry season, which runs from April to December. The roads are safer, and there are fewer landslides. La cataracta de Gocta and the other waterfalls in the area are more spectacular in the rainy season.
Safety – Possible risks
Risks are low in the city itself, they mostly lie in getting here and travelling to the nearby attractions. Mountainside roads are undergoing work at the time of writing (December 2018), but try to avoid travelling at night if possible. If you have rented a car, make sure that you’re not driving tired. You need full concentration.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim to those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
It’s insanely cheap here – tours are roughly the same price as doing trips solo. I spent the equivalent of £100 in 4 days here, which included 3 tours, 4 nights’ accommodation, and food.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Travel hasn’t been huge in this area for a long time. Kuélap has only seen visitor numbers increase since the introduction of its cable car, and paths to both La cataracta de Gocta and Los mausoleos de Revash were only constructed in 2006 and 2008 respectively. These sites are well maintained and it’s clear that the locals take pride in their maintenance. Please do not litter here (or anywhere), and do not attempt to do these treks without a guide. The money that doesn’t go to the guide is used to maintain the paths and attractions.
Reality Check – Be Aware
So, the first is actually getting here. Chachapoyas is far away from pretty much everything. Currently, the roads around the city are undergoing work to make them easy to travel on, and the government are looking at opening up direct flights to the area. At the moment though, it’s a 24-hour bus trip from Lima, 15 from Vilcabamba in Southern Ecuador, and 13 from Trujillo on the coast.
The second thing doesn’t sound like it should be a problem but bear with me. There is so much to do from Chachapoyas. The issue is, if you do all of the stuff nearby, you’re going to be up very early each morning and spending the whole day having a great time. You’ll be exhausted. I’d suggest planning about a week here, and taking some rest days in between to relax and sit in the plazas or cafes around town.
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This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!
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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?
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