In a remote corner of the northern Peruvian Andes lies Chachapoyas, a region steeped in an ancient culture unlike any other you’ll find in the country. Whether you want to explore unusual and pristine ruins, hike through lush forest to one of the highest waterfalls in the world or climb along cliffs to witness ancient tombs clinging to the rocks, Chachapoyas, a town well off the beaten track, is possibly the most adventurous place you’ll visit in Peru.
Where is Chachapoyas?
Tucked into the cloud forest of the Amazonas Region, 650 kilometres northeast of Lima, Chachapoyas is a small town that’s rising out of obscurity to become a firm spot on the tourist circuit.
The region is named for the Chachapoya civilization, a people known as the Cloud Warriors, and who lived in the cloud forest of the northern Peruvian Andes. Their way of life was completely different to all other Peruvian cultures and their old homeland has grown in popularity amongst tourists because of the variety and beauty of what lies on the hills.
It is a place of adventure, where there is still a lot to discover in the thick forests of the area. The town itself is quiet and inviting, with lots of restaurants, a big market, sidewalks paved with fossils and squares thronging with life. Visiting the attractions beyond the town requires a number of day trips, so it’s definitely worth spending a good few days there.
What to do in and around Chachapoyas
Part fortress, part city, Kuelap was the Chachapoya stronghold in the mountains. It was built centuries before Machu Picchu and is the largest ancient stone city in the Americas. Surrounded by gorgeous mountain scenery, this site’s popularity is growing rapidly, dubbed the “Machu Picchu of northern Peru”.
Built between 500 and 800 A.D., the fortified city was occupied until it was conquered by the Incas in 1570. The architecture of Kuelap is set apart from other Peruvian civilizations due to its round houses. On the first level of the city, there are around 420 houses, with many more being lost to collapse.
Something else that sets the houses of Kuelap apart is that most houses contain two or three graves. In the communal rooms, mummies were placed in one metre wide holes and covered with a large stone. Death was a very important part of the Chachapoya culture and if it sparks your curiosity, be sure to investigate the Sarcophagi of Karajia and Mausoleums of Revash (see below).
Another practice related to death caused the citadel to grow taller. The Chachapoya people had the custom of burying their entire house after the death of the head of the family, and rebuilding on top. As a result, the outer walls of Kuelap stand over 20 metres tall.
The site is only restored to keep it in its current condition, with the orchids and bromeliads still growing wild amongst the ruins. The variety of structures, the unusual history and the views of this archaeological site make it an absolute must of northern Peru.
How to get to Kuelap
It takes about three hours to drive from Chachapoyas, but this route is becoming very uncommon since the construction of a cable car in 2017. An hour’s drive from Chachapoyas is the cable car station in Tingo Nuevo. A 20-minute ride takes you up the mountain to entrance to Kuelap and gives you a chance to really admire the impressive view.
Whichever way you go, you will reach La Malca, the entrance to Kuelap. The ticket is S/20 ($6) to enter the site and you have to walk the two and a half kilometres up to where the city sits at the peak. There are horses available for those who can’t make it, but the walk helps you appreciate why it took the Incas so long to conquer a 1,000-year-old fortress.
This waterfall only became known to the outside world as late as 2002. While the locals knew of it, their existence was otherwise a secret until discovered by Stefan Ziemendorff, a German researcher out looking for sarcophagi in the jungle.
The falls are said to be 771 metres tall, but this is disputed by many who claim Ziemendorff did not measure them correctly. This height makes them the third highest falls in the world, but some sources put them fifth, or even as far down as fifteenth. However tall they are exactly, they are an awe-inspiring sight and definitely worth the trip.
The waterfalls are only accessible by hiking two hours each way through cloud forest. The fauna and flora are very unique to this region with many amazing birds and orchids along the way.
Route options for hiking to Gocta Falls
There are two route options, each of which start about an hour’s drive from Chachapoyas.
- From Cocachimba, six kilometres from the falls:
The first, and more common, option is from the village of Cocachimba, which takes you to the bottom of the falls. Here a fee of S/10 ($3 USD) is charged to start the trail. On this path you will walk through cloud forest and arrive at the base of the falls, where the water has fallen so far that it hits the ground as a mist. The wind created by the water falling from so high can force you to stoop into it and leaves having a quick swim at the bottom perilous and freezing but refreshing after the humid forest.
In Cocachimba, there are two great accommodation options, depending on your budget:
Hospedaje Gallito de las Rocas (double room with view of the falls S/79 ($24 USD)) is a very simple guesthouse but the owners are superbly friendly, can organise a great evening meal and, make sure you get the double facing back towards the falls as the views are spectacular.
In a very different price bracket, Gocta Natura (double cabin with terrace and all meals S/890 ($270 USD)) is an absolute slice of paradise just below the village. All of its five boutique cabins have terraces from where you can see Gocta Falls and the owners, Rocio and Augusto run various conservation projects in the area that you can learn about and potentially visit, too.
- From San Pablo, five kilometres from the falls:
The second option is from the village of San Pablo which takes you to the first level of the waterfall and passes some rock art. This trail is less common and usually quieter, but you don’t get the full experience of looking up at the true length of it. There is a steep trail down to the bottom level, so you can return via the second route to Cocachimba, making the whole route about 17 kilometres.
There is the possibility of horse hire in Cocachimba for around S/40 ($12 USD). However, the horses do not go all the way up and you will still need to walk about 40 minutes on your own.
How to get to Gocta Falls
As with most places in northern Peru, there are no direct collectivos. If you are heading to Cocachimba, you will need to take a collectivo to Pedro Ruiz and get off in the small village of Cocahuayco. From here, take a moto taxi up the winding uphill road. Otherwise take a collectivo to San Pablo for the alternative route.
There are many tours that go to Gocta, but a guide is not really necessary as the trails are well-marked.
While Gocta waterfall is better known, Yumbilla Falls are actually taller at a height of 895.4 metres and were only discovered internationally in 2007. The hike to the falls also takes you past two other, smaller falls: Cristal and Medio Cerro. There are actually 22 waterfalls in the valley.
The forest is thick and teaming with life and has been unharmed by mankind. There are monkeys and birds living in the area and you’ll never know what is waiting for you around the next bend.
The normal route means you return on the same path and takes about three and a half to four hours, but there is an alternative loop path. Usually the guides will ask for extra to take you on the alternative route, which takes you both above and below the Cristal falls.
Some tours also do canyoning in a variety of falls as part of the day trip, if you are looking for a little more adventure in your outing.
How to get to Yumbilla Falls
Directly, Cuispes is just over an hour by car but to get there by colectivo, you first have to go to Pedro Ruiz, and from there take a moto-taxi the last eight kilometers to Cuispes; ask to go to Plaza del Armas where you can ask the tourist information centre about the path. The ticket will cost you S/10 ($3) and you can get a guide for around S/30 ($9 USD) (however most of the guides are not licensed).
Sarcophagi of Karajia
On a cliff, in a treacherous ravine, are six sarcophagi staring wide-eyed out at the world. Due to their precarious positioning, the sarcophagi of Karajia have escaped the looting of centuries past to which most relics were lost.
They stand two and a half meters tall, built from a bamboo structured covered in mud and straw. The large flat faces represent funerary masks and their bodies are decorated with geometric patterns in red paint. Inside each humanoid structure was a mummy in the fetal position. Two of the sarcophagi are decorated with skulls, and archaeologists say that these were most likely fierce warriors, but all of the mummies had a high social class as only the most important dignitaries received this privilege.
How to get to the Sarcophagi of Karajia
If you want to visit this site, there are many tours leaving from Chachapoyas. If you want to do it alone, take a collective to Luya and then from there to Cruz Pata.
The start of the trail is about one and a half hours’ drive from Chachapoyas and the entrance fee is S/5 ($1.6). You will need to walk about 20 – 30 minutes to arrive at the bottom of the cliff from where you can observe the sarcophagi from a distance. You will, however still be close enough to admire them fully. The hike back out of the ravine is more strenuous but manageable with good shoes and a moderate fitness level.
Mausoleums of Revash
South of Chachapoyas, there are small mud houses, built side by side in a cave on the cliff face. While they look like inhabitable houses, they are in fact the Mausoleums of Revash. They are the final homes for the deceased Chachapoya who were greatly concerned with honouring their dead and mummifying their remains.
There is a lot of variety in the shape and height of these houses as they were adapted to fit the space available. Some have multiple floors, but all have side entrances to allow access from the cliff face.
Made from stone and clay, the houses are also decorated with red paint made from the seeds of the achiote fruit. The paintings range from geometric to organic forms, with some recognisable shapes being llamas and the Andean cross (a symbol often associated with power and war, and therefore death).
The precarious positioning and uniqueness of these tombs are quite spectacular. Scrabbling along the cliff face to get a closer look feels like an adventure and you can almost imagine just discovering them on your own.
How to get to the Mausoleums of Ravash
It takes about an hour and a half by bus from Chachapoyas to San Bartolo. The entrance fee is paid in the town and costs S/10 ($3) and a further S/25 ($6.5) if you’re not on a tour and would like a guide.
From the town of San Bartolo, you walk one and a half kilometres along a stone path until you reach the cliff face. There are paths on the cliff to allow closer looks but are only recommended for people with good balance and strong fitness levels.
Leymembamba’s Museo de Momias
Leymembamba is a small town a few hours’ drive away from Chachapoyas, and while it has a quite lovely centre, the museum is its main attraction and is well worth the trip out of your way.
If you are planning on visiting the Mausoleums of Revash or the Sarcophagi of Karajia, definitely include the Museo de Leymebamba in your plans to gain a deeper understanding of the region and the sites.
Most of the treasures in the museum come from the excavation of Laguna de los Cóndores burial site where a variety of daily and funerary objects were uncovered. Most artefacts are from the Chachapoya era (eleventh to fifteenth century), but some were dated after the Inca conquest of Kuelap in 1570.
The most impressive collection on display is the 200 mummies found in the Chachapoya region. They are kept in a dark, temperature-controlled room and many are in incredible condition after six centuries. It really is quite a sight to behold.
How to get to the Museo de Leymebamba
Tours from Chachapoyas to the museum are usually combined with visiting Mausoleums of Revash to make the long drive more worthwhile. If you don’t take a tour, there are collectivos to Leymembamba, but you will probably need to spend the night as it is a long trip and most of the collectivos leave later in the day.
A recommended place to stay in Leymebamba is La Casona de Leymebamba (double bedroom S/230 ($70 USD)) is cosy, if a little basic and set in an old colonial-style house with a pretty patio and gardens. The owners speak very little English and can help to organise the trek to the Laguna de los Cóndores burial site, Revash and other nearby hikes.
The entrance fee is S/15 ($4.5) and is paid to at the entrance of the museum.
How to get to Chachapoyas
Chachapoyas is certainly not one of Peru’s easiest towns to reach, but transport here is all part of the adventure.
From Lima, it’s possible to fly directly to the Aeropuerto de Chachapoyas, five kilometers from town, with ATSA Airlines, who fly three times weekly.
You can also fly from Lima to the Aeropuerto de Jaen, a four-hour bus journey from Chachpoyas daily with LATAM.
Overnight buses from Lima (22 hours), Trujillo (12 hours) and Chiclayo (nine hours) are also possible; Movil Tours are the most recommended for the quality of the service and their safety record.
The final option is by minibus from Cajamarca, but this is only recommended during the day; the route covers high-altitude passes and mostly one-lane-only roads, making it spectacular but certainly not for the fainthearted, particularly as drivers are known to take them at breakneck speeds (literally). Virgen del Carmen depart at 5am and 5pm from Cajamarca but the day-time journey is the only one I’d recommend as I’ve heard stories of drunk drivers for the overnight trip.
Where to eat, drink and stay in Chachapoyas
The best restaurants in Chachapoyas
- Cafe Fusiones (Ayacucho 952) is easily the best restaurant in the town and it specialises in organic, nutritious food (something you may well be craving after a few weeks in Peru!) and really fresh, and delicious, fruit juices. They also sell fair trade, local coffee, which is grown by a coffee collective in nearby Rodriguez de Mendoza.
- El Batán de Tayta (La Merced 604) is also worth a visit if you’re on a bigger budget. It’s all a bit bonkers (the corridor as you walk in is daubed with messages from previous customers) and the food is Peruvian cuisine as you’ve never seen it before – with really innovative dishes and great pisco sours.
Where to drink in Chachapoyas
- Although you’ll likely be after an early night if you plan on visiting any of the sights, Licores La Reina (Ayacucho 544) is a wonderfully Peruvian experience. It’s basically a huge bar, with an outdoor courtyard, blaring music and potent macerado (cane sugar aguardiente infused with fruit) that they make somewhere in the back. They sell the drink in shot glasses for a reason!
Where to stay in Chachapoyas
Budget accommodation in Chachapoyas
- The best budget option in town is Chachapoyas International (dorm S/18 ($5.5 USD) and double (S/40 ($12 USD)), which has well-sized rooms and a decent kitchen if you’re looking to self-cater. The staff are very friendly and know the area well.
Mid-range accommodation in Chachapoyas
- Set in a quiet colonial mansion just one block from the Plaza de Armas, La Casona de Chachapoyas (double S/190 ($58 USD)) has large rooms set around a flower-studded central courtyard with comfy beds and a good breakfast.
High-end accommodation in Chachapoyas
- The most luxurious lodgings in Chachapoyas are La Xalca Hotel (S/330 ($100 USD)), another colonial mansion with large, antique-furniture decorated bedrooms, some of which have pretty balconies overlooking the central courtyard and an extensive breakfast buffet. If you’re visiting in winter, ask for a room with carpet, not tiles.
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