Northern Peru: the Chacha circuit
The vast majority of visitors to the increasingly popular nation of Peru follow the southern tourist circuit, taking in the main sites of the Cusco area such as Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. They might extend their trip by heading to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, or to Arequipa, gateway to the Colca Canyon. None of these places should be missed; Peru has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world and its kind-hearted population will give you a warm welcome.
Since I first visited Peru back in 1995, tourist infrastructure and its reliability has improved, along with the food that makes the country one of South America’s most enticing culinary destinations. But the north remains overlooked, despite having ruins that easily rival those of the south in terms of interest but can be seen minus the crowds. Visiting Chachapoyas and its surrounding attractions doesn’t have to push the south out of your itinerary completely.
Here’s my lowdown on extending your visit; to take in all the places I mentioned you’ll need between five days and a week.
Chachapoyas has its own airport. It just doesn’t have any flights. There are plans to begin commercial flights (LAN looks like the most likely contender) but in the meantime, getting there involves flying either to Tarapoto on the edge of the Amazon or to the Inca city of Cajamarca. Both are well served by flights from Lima with airlines like LAN, Star Peru and LC Busre, but both routes entail a long bus ride on to Chachapoyas. I took a day bus from Tarapoto to Chachapoyas, which was about an eight-hour ride and an overnight bus from Chachapoyas on to Cajamarca, a bone shaking ten hours including a change of bus in the middle of the night.
Buses are rarely completely full on the Tarapoto to Chachapoyas route and it is usually possible to catch a bus without pre-booking. Usually, it’s necessary to take the bus as far as the town of Pedro Ruiz. Passengers heading for Chachapoyas are then escorted a few metres up the main street and take a colectivo (shared minibus) for the rest of the journey. These leave when full but you don’t normally have to wait long. Some days you can also catch a tourist shuttle direct to Chachapoyas but check locally to see if it is running. The Virgen Del Carmen overnight bus from Chachapoyas to Cajamarca runs from Calle Salamanca, a couple of blocks north of the Plaza de Armas and it is wise to book a day in advance. There is plenty of information online about this being a day bus but at the time I travelled only the overnight service was operational. Again check locally; schedules alter, and if you can get a day bus to Cajamarca the scenery will take your mind off the condition of the road.
Chacha, as it is commonly known by travellers, is a small and easily manageable town with an attractive main square. The town has a few minor attractions itself, including the pretty Huancas Gorge just outside of town just a little way past the airport turn off.
Any taxi driver will take you there and wait for a reasonable fare. There’s also a charming adobe church in the sleepy plaza.
The other unmissable site (for a foodie at least) is the marvellous Tierra Mia Cafe, adjacent to the Hostal Casa Vieja on Calle Chincha Alta, a block from the main square. The coffee is excellent and the food, especially their pastries and desserts, the best in town.
Get out of town
But the main draw of Chacha is not what’s in town, it’s what’s nearby. There are three unmissable attractions in the Chachapoyas area: Kuelap, Karajia and Gocta Falls. Surrounding the square are a whole host of tour operators selling day excursions to the region’s most popular sites. In season, there are just enough visitors to make such tours viable but you might need to be flexible with your schedule in order to visit all the places you wish.
One of the world’s highest waterfalls, Gocta is reached at the end of a strenuous hike which begins at the small village of Cocachimba, a short drive from Chacha.
The trek takes walkers up and over a densely forested hill on a path that is slippery and muddy even in dry season. The incline is so great that even locals puff, but fortunately horses can be rented for the worst part of the trail.
Along the way, the scenery is lush and from time to time, glimpses of Gocta Falls can be caught across the valley encouraging hikers to keep going. The Falls are situated in such a secluded location that they remained unknown outside the local area until 2005.
The ruined fortress of Kuelap
Kuelap is a ruined fortress dating, it’s thought, from around 600AD, its imposing stone walls punctuated by tumbledown staircases whose steps have been worn away over the centuries.
At the top, there are some interesting circular structures, one of which has been reconstructed with controversially more guesswork than historical knowledge, though with its photogenic thatched cone roof no one from the tourist board is really complaining.
Llamas still wander through the extensive site, which as a result of its hilltop location offers dramatic views over the surrounding valleys.
Peru’s tourism ministry is beginning to market Kuelap as the “new” Machu Picchu and a cable car is likely to open in 2016 making it quicker to reach.
The sarcophagi of Karajia
Imagine the Easter Island moai, but shrunk and plonked halfway up a remote cliff. You might be getting close to imagining what Karajia’s sarcophagi are like.
Around two feet tall and hollow inside, these clay figures housed mummies of the Chachapoyas tribe who lived in the area between 1000 and 1300AD but were only revealed to the outside world thirty years ago. Getting to Karajia is an adventure in itself; motorised transport can only get as far as the village of Cruzpata, from where it’s a steep climb down a gravel path to the cliffs where the sarcophagi are found.
Horses can be rented if you think your lungs won’t cope with the tough climb back to the village. Tours to Karajia are often combined with a visit to Quiocta Cavern.
Despite the relatively small number of foreign tourists, the area around Chachapoyas is definitely worth a visit and the proliferation of tour operators in the town means that getting to the outlying sites is straightforward and cost-effective. Visitor numbers are slowly but steadily rising, however, so if you want to explore without sharing your experience with coachloads of others, now is the time to go.