Nestled in the cloud forests of remote northern Peru, the city of Chachapoyas is the gateway to the fascinating but little-known region of the same name. A long way from the established Peruvian tourist trail, this part of the country is home to enigmatic pre-Incan archaeological ruins, towering waterfalls and rewarding treks in Peru.
Little is known of the Chachapoya people who inhabited the area as they had already been subjugated and incorporated into the Incan Empire before the arrival of the Spanish Inquisitors. It is thought that Chachapoya people had established a distinct culture in the region by around 750-850 BCE, and by the time of the arrival of the Incas around the fifteenth century CE, they had erected monumental architecture to rival that of the Inca themselves. A visit to the Chachapoyas region offers the opportunity to discover a mysterious lost culture and a very remote region of Peru.
While short on real attractions, the Chachapoyas town itself is a pleasant place to be based, boasting colonial-period architecture and a perfectly square main plaza measuring 100 metres along each side. The town is famous for fruit liqueurs and anybody spending a night or two there may choose to track down some of the bars where they can be sampled. Decent eating and sleeping options are also available
This corner of Peru is a far cry from the usual tourist haunts of the Sacred Valley or the popular hiking trails of the Cordillera Blanca like the Laguna 69 hike or the Santa Cruz trek, or the Inca Trail, but it boasts some of Peru’s most compelling and underrated sights, all within striking distance of Chachapoyas. Below are some of the highlights of the Chachapoyas Region:
The imposing pre-Incan city of Kuélap is one of the attractions of the Chachapoyas region. Built in the sixth century CE, this site was lost until its rediscovery in 1843, and much of its significance is still unknown today. Kuélap is characterised by massive stone walls up to 20 metres in height and includes several religious structures including the Tintero (‘ink well’), a site of supposed human sacrifice.
Kuélap lies around two and a half hours by car from the city. It is also possible to arrive on foot from Tingo, a village that can be reached from the town by taxi or colectivo (shares taxis). The walk takes about two hours. Another option is to incorporate a visit into a longer, multi-day trek (please read below).
At 771 metres, the famous Gocta waterfall is claimed to be one of the highest waterfalls in the world. A two-hour trek from the village of Cocachimba takes you close to the waterfall from where you can witness the immense power of the water cascading down from high above. Alternatively, a less common walk starts at the village of San Pablo. The easiest way to see the waterfall is to join an organised tour but both villages are also reachable by taking a combi as far as Cocohuayca and then a moto-taxi the rest of the way.
Only recently discovered and even higher is the 895-metre tiered Yumbilla waterfall near the village of Cuispes, located about 20 minutes from Pedro Ruiz by moto-taxi but can be reached by a combi as well.
The Chachapoya had elaborate burial rituals and two cliff burial centres can be found in the Chachapoyas region. The first of which is known as Karajía, located near the village of Cruz Pata. Here you can see six huge and elaborately decorated sarcophagi (up to two metres in height) ledged on a narrow cliff edge high above a river gorge. They contain the mummies of high ranking people of the Chachapoya culture. A little farther from this group are other less ornately decorated ones.
The second is Pueblo de los Muertes (‘Town of the Dead’), which contains similar sarcophagi. It can be reached from the village of Lamud and requires a 45-minute walk. Both villages are hard to reach due to little public transport available.
Leymebamba , a small town located on the road between Chachapoyas and Cajamarca, is best known as the home of a museum containing over 200 Chachapoya mummies. Most tours of the region involve a stop in Leymebamba solely for a visit to the museum. The town makes for a convenient stop for those hoping to break up the journey between the two larger towns and for those who stay even longer, it is possible to organise hikes into the surrounding countryside as well.
Apart from the various sites of interest in the region, Chachapoyas is a good place for trekking as well. A three-day trek can combine all the points of interest to form a standard Chachapoyas tour. A standard itinerary would be per the following:
Day 1: Chachapoyas – Karajía
Two-hour drive from Chachapoyas to the start of the trail plus three-hour trek to see the sarcophagi at the Karajía burial site. Accommodation in tents in Karajía.
Day 2: Karajía – Gocta – Cocachimba
Trek from Karaija to see the impressive Gocta waterfall and then on to the campsite at Cocachimba. Accommodation in tents at Cocachimba.
Day 3: Cocachimba – Tingo – Kuélap – Chachapoyas
Six or seven hours of tough hiking to the most famous site in the region, the imposing ruins of Kuélap. Return to Chachapoyas by car.
Please note that there won’t be a clearly marked trekking route between the above stops outlined in the itinerary, and hence, you may want to use a guide when doing this route. The area is quite remote and not crowded – so the tracks and trails you will be following won’t be that well-trodden.
An alternative one-day hike is going from Leymebamba to Laguna de los Condores. It can be done on foot or on horseback. The maximum altitude on this day-hike is 3,900 metres and it takes around nine to ten hours. Hikers spend the night in a farmstead at the Laguna and then hike back again the following day.
The best time to visit Chachapoyas is during the dry season which runs from April to December. However, it should be noted that it is during the rainy season that the waterfalls of Gocta and Yumbilla are at their most spectacular.
The cheapest way is by bus that run directly from Lima every day, taking around 22 hours. Buses to Chachapoyas are also available from nearby Chiclayo and minibuses run from the towns of Cajamarca (via Leymebamba) and Tarapoto. All these cities are connected to Lima by plane. However, flights do not depart every day and should be checked in advance. While in Lima, check out some of the fun things to do in Lima.
For those determined to escape the masses and head off-the-beaten track, Chachapoyas in Peru offers the perfect solution. In this zone of transition between arid cordillera and rainforest, you will find ancient archaeological ruins that have been swallowed by the jungle, mighty waterfalls, evocative landscapes that fire the imagination, and a few great trekking trails.
Peru is the premier destination for some of the best treks in the world. Learn more about the best treks in Peru besides the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. If you are not an avid trekker, there are other amazing things to do in Peru that contain activities for every age and interest. Please see some of the best Peru Tours and Holidays for more information.