As one of Peru’s best kept secrets, Chachapoyas is a place shrouded in mystery and home to the impressive Kuélap, Revash and Sarcofagos de Karajia, pre-Incan archaeological sites that rival that of Machu Picchu. Set inland and away from the usual coastal path, Chachapoyas is the capital of the Amazonas region, located in the depths of a tropical cloud forest lining the eastern side of the Andes mountain range in Northern Peru. The name ‘Chachapoyas” in Quechua (the local dialect) literally translates as “Cloud Forest”. The biggest draw for visitors to this region are the archaeological sites, the incredible Gocta waterfall and Caverna de Quiocta. As the Chachapoyan's did not have a written language and suffered a fierce overthrow from the Incas, much of their existence is unknown, making this place even more captivating.
Whilst Chachapoyas is certainly off the beaten track, it is well connected to major cities within Peru.
If you are coming from Chiclayo, head to Av. Francisco Bolognesi, Chiclayo, and take a CIVA ‘Excluciva’ night bus. The journey takes around 10-12 hours, so it is best to do it in the evening to save your days for exploring. The CIVA ‘Excluciva’ buses are comfortable and very well maintained, it is like traveling first class on a flight. Included in the price: a host/attendant, dinner and breakfast (let them know if you are vegetarian), toilet and Wifi. The seats fully recline to 180° and you are given a pillow and blanket, so it is nice and comfortable, perfect for a good night’s sleep. If you are looking for a cheaper alternative, try Movil Tours. This journey should cost no more than S/.50 (€13 / $15).
If you are coming from Trujillo the journey will take around 13 hours, again I advise doing it as a night bus to save on a night’s accommodation and save your days for exploring. Buses services operating this route include: CIVA, Movil, Cruz del Sur, Oltursa, all of which are very comfortable and take good safety precautions (not stopping to pick people up from the side of the road, tagging your bags, filming who boards the bus at the terminal).
You can also reach Chachapoyas from Cajamarca, which is halfway between Chiclayo and Chachapoyas. You would then need to take a bus or a minivan from Cajamarca to Chachapoyas, which leave frequently from the main square in Cajamarca.
You can fly with SAETA from Tarapoto to Chachapoyas which takes less than 30 minutes, or if you are coming from Lima take a LATAM flight to Jaen and then take a bus / colectivo / private car to Chachapoyas which will take between 3-4 hours. There are direct flights to and from Lima with ATSA Airlines, but they can be expensive.
Walking / Taxi:
Everywhere within the town is walkable, although there are plenty of taxis driving around. Make sure you negotiate a price before you get in. For excursions going outside of the town, most are done with a tour operator and transport is included.
However, if you wanted to explore some of the sights on your own (such as the Sonche canyon, see below section), there are colectivos available. Head to the tourist office on the Plaza de Armas (main square) to ask for where the colectivos are departing from for where you want to go. Leave plenty of time as the drivers will wait until the car is completely full of passengers before they set of.
Whilst most people visit Chachapoyas for the archaeological sites, the city itself is fascinating and incredibly photogenic. With its cobbled streets, colonial style buildings and wooden balconies floating above, plentiful restaurants, buzzing central market and lively Plaza De Armas, there is lots to keep you occupied. I would suggest spending a day getting to know the city and wandering the streets.
Sonche Canyon: Easily accessible from Chachapoyas via a colectivo, this mind-blowing canyon is a must do. At 2km wide and stretching 11km in length, with the Sonche river flowing at the bottom, it is a sight that will remain with you forever. There is a lookout tower for extra height and it is usually quiet, meaning you will most likely have the place and the view all to yourself. You can grab a colectivo from the same place you are dropped off for your return journey, or enjoy a beautiful two hour hike back to Chachapoyas city centre through stunning green forests. If you arrive in the early hours of the morning on a night bus, this is a great way to fill your first day. It is easy to get to and doesn’t take much time, but it is beautiful. Cost S/.2 (€0.50 / $0.60)
There are also lots more activities that you can do outside of Chachapoyas city centre and aside from the archaeological sites, such as: white-water rafting, horse riding and biking. Your hostel will have all the information you need or head to the tour operators on the main square.
The Revash Mausoleum is another impressive burial site, located south of Chachapoyas in the middle of nowhere. Revesh is a Chachapoyan funerary complex consisting of small house like structures carved into the side of a cliff face. You cannot get close to these, but it is an impressive sight and worth a visit.
Tours can be organised from the centre of Chachapoyas, inclusive of the Leymebamba museum which is incredibly informative and transport.
Costs: S/.125 (€32 / $38). You do spend a lot of time in a minivan, but I think it is worth it, especially given Chachapoyas remote location from the rest of Peru – you’ve come this far, what’s another 6 hour round trip?
Kuélap is an ancient fortress like city perched on top of a mountain, enveloped in clouds with an eerie yet magical feel to it. Dating back to 500AD, Kuélap is 3 times older than the site of Machu Picchu and incredibly well preserved, offering important insights into the lives and culture of the Chachapoyan people, known as the 'Warriors of the clouds'. It is impressive and often labelled as ‘The Machu Picchu of the North”.
Make sure you get a guide for Kuélap to really understand what happened here, the stories are gory and yet mesmerising all at the same time. Book with a tour agency in town; they are all based around the Plaza de Armas or book through your hostel.
Cost for Kuélap inclusive of transport and the cable car ride up to the ruins: S/.100 (€26 / $30). Tours leave early at 8am and return by 6pm. The tour involves a short 20 minute walk to the ruins as you get the cable car most of the way.
The Sarcofagos de Karajia were discovered only 30 years ago in the Utcubamba valley, northeast of Chachapoyas. As funarery stones, they measure in at an impressive 2.5 meters in height perched on a cliffside. These 8 Chachapoyan mummies are often referred to by the locals as the 'ancient wise men'. Whilst you cannot get close to them, from a distance you can really appreciate the importance of such a sight to the Chachapoyan history and culture. Cost includes a trip to the Caverna de Quiocta (see below): S/.95 (€24 / $29) inclusive of all transport.
Caverna de Quiocta: An impressive cave system which was once a cemetery, 1.5 hours from Chachapoyas. This can only be explored with an experienced guide and often the tour includes Sarcofagos de Karajia as outlined above. You explore the caves on foot, knee deep in mud, lit only by torch light. You will see wall paintings, sculptures and in some cases, bones. I would advise bringing your own torch as the provided headlamps aren’t great, and perhaps ask about splitting the tour across two days as it is very long, and a lot of time spent on the road. In total doing the caves and visiting he Sarcofagos will take you 10 hours. There will be an additional charge for wellies/boots.
Photo credit: @2bacalhaus
Gocta Waterfall was discovered in 2002 by the German explorer, Stefan Ziemendorff. Gocta, also known as “La Chorrera,” stands at an impressive 771 meters high and depending on how you measure it, it has been labelled as either the 3rd or 15th highest waterfall in the world. You can go and see it as an organised tour, but you will pay S/.40 Sol (€10.40 / $12) and it is rushed with limited time spent at the actual waterfall. I suggest doing it yourself and at your own pace, it is super easy.
You will need to head to Cocachimba and start the 2-3 hour hike from there. You can take a colectivo / combis (mini-van) from the main bus station, Terminal Terrestre, located at the end of town (Triunfo cuadra 2). As soon as you walk into the station there will be lots of touts shouting out for Gocta customers, all go the same route so just go for the best price, haggle! The drive takes around 1 hour. The combis will drop you off on the road side by Cocachimba, cost is around S/.5 (€1.30 / $1.50) for a one way ticket. The best thing to do here is to save your legs and take a little tuk tuk for 20 minutes up the hill (to your left) to start the hike, or you could walk it, but its along a road and not overly scenic. Tuk tuks will speed past fairly frequently, so just stick your hand out and wave one down. Once you are on the forest trail it takes anywhere between 4-7 hours to complete it, depending on how fast you want go. The nature and surrounding scenery is absolutely GORGEOUS. Along the trail there are 22 smaller waterfalls and beautiful fresh flowing rivers snaking through the extensive forest. When you finish and exit the forest you will start to see civilisation again and be able to catch a passing bus. No entrance fees.
TOP TIP: Take some snacks and plenty of water. Or pack a lunch and pick a spot in view of the main attraction, Gocta will blow your mind. Head out early to try and avoid the rain, but pack waterproofs just in case and lots of bug spray!
Discover Laguna de los Condores
Laguna de los Condores, which is also known as the “Lagoon of the Condors”, is a stunning lake hidden in the depths of the Andes and one of the most important archaeological sites of the region. In the 1990s archaeologists uncovered hundreds of mummies relating to the Incan period from the cliff faces surrounding the lake, which are now displayed in the Leymebamba Museum.
Despite its impressiveness, only a handful of people trek to this hidden jewel every year. The Laguna de los Condores is a 3 day trek. On your first day, you will hike for 10 hours from the village of Leymebamba, meandering through valleys and dense jungle, cradled by the clouds and surrounded by stunning waterfalls flowing down into the lagoon below. After reaching the lagoon, you spend a night in a neighbouring farmhouse. The next day you will cross the lagoon in a little boat before exploring local burial sites and mausoleums of the Chachapoyas, later conquered by the Incas. The hike and surrounding nature with a dark and enigmatic history, is fascinating and if you are looking for something different, I urge you to do it. Prices vary. Head to Plaza de Armas in the centre of Chachapoyas and ask around at the tour operators, make sure you compare the prices of 2/3 operators.
I had a really good experience with Chachapoya Backpackers. It is family run, very close to the central market and Plaza de Armas, spacious rooms with not a bunk bed in sight (yey), a good kitchen and a big living room with a TV and super comfy armchairs. However, the Wifi is shocking (but that is common in Chachapoyas) and their payment system means checking your name off when you have paid – and if they forget to check it off, it can become quite difficult. That aside, it was really sociable, and the tours are really reasonably priced. Expect to pay between S/.30-60 (€8-16 / $9-18) depending on your room choice.
There are plenty of other hostels and hotels in Chachapoyas, so if you haven’t got a place lined up, do not worry. Just wonder the streets for a little bit and you will come across somewhere. Most hostels are super chilled and there is definitely not a party vibe here, but then again, it depends on who you meet!
Eggs anyone?? You will see this everywhere in Chachapoyas. Lots of small blue eggs and quinoa drinks made in a thick broth. But there is also lots of delicious fruit and veg in the main central market if that's more to your taste!
- If you are a meat eater, you will want to check out La Tushpa (Ortiz Arrieta 753) which serves steak and a variety of other meats.
- Café Fusiones is located on the main square and offers several veggie options but it is expensive in comparison to other places. Restaurante Vegetariano El Eden is the absolute must place to go – based right on the main Plaza de Armas, this unassuming place offers a S/.6 (€1.50/$2) set menu that can be made vegan and is utterly delicious. GO HERE. IT IS AMAZING. There is also a small health food store inside with coconut vegan cookies that will blow your mind.