A gringo’s guide to Northern Peru, Part four: Moyobamba and the Mayo Valley

Feb 26, 2020

The streets of Moyobamba, Peru are decorated with gorgeous nature-themed murals.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a six-part series by Don Moore, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras who developed a fascination with northern Peru — and wrote a book about it. Don spent most of January in Cuenca. To see part one, click here. For part two, click here. For part three, click here.

By Don Moore

Here’s a good trivia question: Where do Panama Hats come from? If you’re reading CuencaHighLife, you should already know the answer. But there was a time when you would have been only half-right.

History tells us that the famous hats originated in the Pacific lowlands of Ecuador in the 1600s. The pliability of the bombonaje palm made it perfect for weaving hats and over the next century the plant and the skill of turning it into hats spread throughout northwestern South America. But Spain kept a tight lid on commerce with its colonies and the hats remained unknown elsewhere until the early 1800s after the South American colonies gained their independence. Then Europeans and Americans traveling across the isthmus of Panama took hats home with them creating an international demand for “Panama Hats” by the 1830s. And the misnamed hats didn’t only come from Ecuador.

The Mayo Valley
On the other side of the mountains, northeast of Chachapoyas, the Mayo River flows through a broad valley for over a hundred miles until it empties into the Huallaga. The Spanish arrived in 1540, founded the town of Moyobamba on the site of an Inca outpost, and then forgot about it. Moyobamba was even more out of the way than Chachapoyas, which was at least on the trail to Moyobamba. Beyond Moyobamba there was nothing but jungle and a network of small Catholic missions. Yes, the Huallaga flowed into the Amazon and on to the Atlantic Ocean. But those lands belonged to Portuguese Brazil and Spain had decreed that all trade pass through its own Pacific ports where it could be properly taxed.

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One of the last Panama hat weavers of the Mayo Valley.

By 1825, the Spanish crown had been pushed out of South America and replaced by a handful of young republics, each trying to become a nation. The government of Peru saw one of its biggest priorities as establishing trade ties with the rest of the world. For three centuries, the only connections to Europe had been by either sailing north to travel overland through Panama to the Caribbean or else go south and sail around Cape Horn. But what if there were a route east, over the Andes, connecting Peru’s Pacific Coast with the Amazon? However, information was scanty and coastal elites who ran the new government knew nothing of the distant interior of their own country.

In 1827, the government in Lima and the British Royal Navy talked about organizing a joint expedition to find a practical connection between the coast and the Amazon but the plans went nowhere. Then Henry Lister Maw, a young lieutenant on a Royal Navy ship stationed off Lima, stepped forward and said he would like to try to find a route on his own. It was a brash idea. For one thing, Maw spoke no Spanish. But giving the man a handful of official letters of introduction and a bag of trade goods would be easy enough and a British merchant who knew Spanish volunteered to join the lieutenant.

Traveling by mule, the two Englishmen left the northern city of Trujillo in early December. Their route into the interior took them through Cajamarca and Chachapoyas until they arrived in Moyobamba over a month later. There they learned that the next part of the trail went through mountains covered with thick rain-forest and was only passable on two feet, not four. The mules were replaced with native porters and on they went. Five days later they arrived at the village of Balsapuerto and hired canoes to take them down the Paranapura River to Yurimaguas, on the Huallaga River. From there it was all downstream to the Atlantic Ocean. Henry Lister Maw became the first Englishman to descend the Amazon.

Maw didn’t discover anything new. He simply traveled a series of local trails that had existed for centuries. But once he arrived back in London he wrote a book about his journey and the rest of the world learned how to travel between Peru’s Pacific coast and the Amazon. Maw’s network of mule trails and footpaths would become known as the Moyobamba Route and become a major trade route. And the region’s first big export would be Panama Hats.

Weaving hats was only a niche industry when Maw arrived in Moyobamba. The region’s main product was hand-woven cotton cloth. But within five years of his visit, European traders came traveling up the Amazon looking for goods at the same time that those new hats from Panama had become popular. Just how Moyobamba’s international hat trade got started has been lost to history, but by 1843 weaving Panama hats for shipment down the Amazon was the region’s primary industry. For the next three decades visiting travelers reported that everyone – men, women, and children – were somehow engaged in the production of hats. The Moyobamba region was exporting at least one-hundred thousand Panama hats a year down the Amazon. But styles are fickle and Panama hats fell out of fashion in the 1870s. Although hat-making never disappeared in the region, moyobambinos moved on to other ways of making a living and the region no longer had a share in the market when construction of the Panama Canal brought the hats back into fashion in the early 1900s.

Another Moyobamba street mural.

Visiting Moyobamba
Nineteenth century adventurers traveling from Chachapoyas to Moyobamba rode mules on remote mountain trails which at one point passed through an area so cold and desolate that the Incas had named it Piscahuanuma, or “Place Where the Birds Die”. The modern 5N highway takes a different route, winding through lower bird-friendly mountains to the north until emerging at the top end of the wide Mayo Valley at the little town of Naranjos. From Naranjos the road is a series of arrow-straight ribbons of concrete running from one town to the next until finally Moyobamba is reached.

Moyobamba had its glory days in the nineteenth century, went into a period of decline, and then rebounded again when finally connected to the coast by a real road half-a-century ago. Today, it’s a small city of 50,000 and the capital of the San Martin region, a vast area encompassing most of the Mayo and Huallaga river valleys and one of the most productive agricultural regions of Peru.

Motorized canoe rides on the Mayo are just ten soles.

Of all the towns and cities that I visited during four months of travel while researching my book on northern Peru, Moyobamba was my favorite. It was a very friendly, low-key, and pleasant place to be. Moyobamba’s perfect weather reminded me of August in the central Pennsylvania mountains where I grew up. Warm mornings are followed by a few hours of early afternoon heat which give way to perfectly comfortable evenings. There’s never a need for a sweater yet rarely a reason to complain about how hot it is.  And it’s August twelve months of the year in Moyobamba. In 1873, Joseph Beale Steere wrote, “It would likely be difficult to find a better climate in the world,” and I won’t disagree.

Of course, the weather alone wouldn’t be reason enough to visit Moyobamba. The region doesn’t have the kind of up-and-coming attractions that Chachapoyas has, but there is more than enough to keep the visitor busy for several days.

The Morro
The Mayo Valley around Moyobamba is almost uniformly flat except for one anomaly about six miles west of the city where a large round forested hill rises nearly two thousand feet above the valley floor. It’s called the Morro de Calzada after the village of Calzada at its base and it’s the most dominant feature of the landscape for miles in every direction. The hill’s steep slopes are still covered in virgin forest and several years ago it was made into a park to keep it that way. The entrance to the park is about two miles from the center of the village and is best reached by taking a combi from Moyobamba to Calzada and then a moto-taxi to the base. It may also be possible to arrange round-trip transportation from Moyobamba with one of the tour agencies there.

The Morro de Calzada rises two thousand feet above the valley floor.

A long and well-worn trail winds around the slopes to the top where there are views of the lush Mayo valley in every direction. The climb is gradual and not at all steep except for a few short stretches where the hiker has to climb over rocks. Even those locations aren’t particularly difficult as thousands of visitors have worn steps into the soft rock. Anyone in average condition should be able to make the climb. On my way down I passed a Peruvian couple carrying their preschool-age children on their backs. One thing I would not recommend, however, is climbing solo as I did. The trail isn’t difficult but accidents can happen anywhere, as I realized when I slipped on some rocks on the way up. Still I could have called for help at any time as I had excellent cell phone and data coverage for my entire time on the mountain. The Ministry of Tourism is continuing to develop the Morro de Calzada as a tourist attraction and since I visited in 2017 they’ve opened a new visitors’ center, built additional viewing platforms at the top, and added new birding trails along the base and sides.

Waqanki
Climbing a small mountain isn’t the only way to connect with nature in Moyobamba. A less strenuous option is three kilometers south of town at the Waqanki Orchid Preserve. The one-hundred hectare private nature park has a large botanical garden, a lodge, and a hummingbird viewing tower. The orchids were out of season when I was there but the hummingbird tower was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited. It’s three stories high and has several dozen feeding stations mounted on the railings and in nearby trees. I spent over two hours there sitting right next to feeding stations as the birds flew all around, often coming within inches of me.

A hostal sign welcomes visitors to Waqanki.

The Waqanki website mostly pushes the eco-lodge, which has full-board rooms available for around one hundred dollars a night. Otherwise, guided tours are available for ten soles a person. The guide was busy with a small Japanese tour group when I visited so they let me wander around on my own, but I’m not sure how common that is. Waqanki is easily reached by moto-taxi from downtown Moyobamba, but your driver may not have heard of it (mine hadn’t). Tell him that it’s just before the baños termales and then watch for the only sign that marks the entrance (or monitor your location on your phone). From the main road it’s about three hundred meters on a dirt lane to the entrance. Be sure to bring water and insect repellent.

Wandering Around Town
Moyobamba lacks the orderliness of Chachapoyas but has a youthful brashness that makes it a joy to visit. The town may have a long history but everything about it feels new. Nothing built in the early days was solid enough to last centuries in this climate and many twentieth century buildings were flattened in the 1990 earthquake. Most of the town was reconstructed using reinforced cement giving Moyobamba a permanent look that is lacking in the new boom-towns like Nueva Cajamarca further up the valley. And Moyobamba is full of young people. They’re everywhere, including riding the motorbikes and moto-taxis that make up about ninety percent of the vehicles here. It’s fun watching them get bunched up at traffic signals. When the light changes to green everyone takes off at once so it looks as if they travel in packs.

The large central plaza is the perfect place to sit and people watch as evening falls. When the high school across the street lets out, uniformed teenagers gather to talk in small groups before heading home. On another side of the square, the restaurant on the upper terrace of the movie theater plays Argentine pop music. In the center is a fountain with statues of scantily-dressed maidens pouring water from pitchers. It’s surrounded by a chain with signs saying to keep off the fountain but the police look the other way as parents lift their children over the top to play in the water.

The place to be in Moyobamba on a sunny weekend afternoon is in the Tahuishco neighborhood, about ten blocks north of the plaza. The town was built on a high bluff above the Mayo River and an observation tower in Tahuishco has spectacular views of the river and the broad Mayo Valley to the north. The area around the tower is filled with little restaurants and shops, including a chocolate museum/store. Street vendors and moyobambinos of all ages fill the streets on the weekend. If you come by moto-taxi, you’ll be lucky to get within two blocks of the tower. A long staircase next to the tower winds down the bluff to a little port by the river where thirty-minute motorized canoe rides on the Mayo cost just ten soles. I did the canoe ride just before dusk when the trees lining the river were filled with thousands of white crane-like birds.

But the best part of wandering around Moyobamba is turning a corner to discover yet another work of art. Ecologically-themed colorful surrealistic murals decorate walls all over town. I’ve never been anywhere with such beautiful street art.

Nearby Attractions
From the window of a combi speeding down the highway from Naranjos to Moyobamba, it looks as if the entire region has been turned into rice paddies, orchards, and cattle pastures. But away from the road, along the river and near the base of the mountains that line the valley, there are miles and miles of virgin forests and wetlands. This, too, might have become farmland if the highway and the population boom that followed had arrived just a generation earlier. But today, there’s an increasing awareness of the need to protect the area’s natural heritage and ecological-based tourism is an expanding industry.

One of the most visited sites in the Mayo Valley is the Reserva Ecológica Tingana, located about twenty kilometers northwest of Moyobamba. The reserve is run by an association of seven indigenous families that have lived in the swamp-filled forest for generations. Tour agencies on the plaza in Moyobamba arrange full-day and overnight tours that include canoe tours. The reserve is especially popular with birders and over two hundred and forty species have been spotted there. Most of the tourism here comes from Peruvians, but English tours are available, especially if you make advance arrangements. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to visit Tingana as I was in Moyobamba during the off-season and the cost of taking the tour as a solo traveler was more than I wanted to spend.

Moyobamba has a few little museums, including the little Museo Departamental San Martín downtown and an archaeological museum at the university, but the valley’s best museum is the Museo Toé in the town of Rioja, a half-hour colectivo ride up the highway. The museum’s three floors are filled with items illustrating life in the valley a century ago, numerous old photographs, and masks from Rioja’s annual carnival celebration. Everything here is from the private collection of the owner of Licores Toé and there’s a bar in the back of the museum where you can buy his jungle-fruit-based beverages. The museum is well worth the trip from Moyobamba and while in Rioja stop by the Mi Tata restaurant for lunch. The owner used to run a gourmet restaurant in Lima before deciding to move back to his hometown. Rioja is also the best place in the valley to find locally made hats and bombonaje handicrafts.

Carnival masks of Rioja at the Museo Toe.

Tarapoto and the Huallaga Valley
A few kilometers east of Moyobamba the Río Mayo enters a rugged and sparsely populated mountainous area until sixty kilometers later it emerges into the even broader Huallaga River valley. The big town here is Tarapoto. And while Moyobamba may be the political capital of the San Martin region, Tarapoto replaced it as the commercial center over a century ago. At less than half the elevation of Moyobamba, this sprawling jungle city of over one hundred thousand is hot, humid, and noisy. But it’s role as the business hub means it also has the regional airport and several daily connections by jet to Lima. Every year thousands of Peruvian families fly in from the coast to vacation in the jungle. A few actually do stay in jungle lodges but most stay in hotels in the city and take a series of day tours.

Although Tarapoto is filled with hotels and restaurants of all types, there isn’t much to do in the city itself. And I got to know it very well because I came down with a severe case of pink-eye and had to stay there ten days while my eye healed. But several agencies offer short tours into the jungle and to locations such as the Laguna de Sauce, Moyobamba, and the Tingana Reserve. One place that is easy to visit without a tour is the medieval castle in the nearby town of Lamas. Okay, the castle is less than twenty years old, but it looks medieval. It was built in 2006 by an Italian resident of Tarapoto as the fulfillment of a life-long dream. Lamas is about an hour away by colectivo or combi.

For anyone who has the time and likes a little adventure, I recommend traveling south from Tarapoto on the Carretera Marginal de la Selva. This paved highway follows the Huallaga River for much of its route and while there isn’t anything of interest in the towns along the way, the views of the river and lush countryside make the trip worthwhile. It’s possible to make the ten-hour trip from Tarapoto to Tingo Maria in one day, but an easier option is to break the trip up by spending a night in either Juanjui or Tocache. Colectivos from Pizana Express and Tocache Express link all the main towns along the Huallaga. Turismo Selva also has combis running as far south as Tochache. From Tingo Maria, a good road climbs westward into the mountains to Huánuco, an old colonial city in a warm valley. The town has several historical sites and is a good place to stop for a few days. From Huánuco, several companies have overnight luxury buses to Lima.

Planning the Trip – Moyobamba

Like Chachapoyas, the Mayo Valley is reached by taking the Loja-to-Jaen route and then getting a colectivo to the nearby transportation hub of Bagua Grande for a connection to Moyobamba. Combis and colectivos from Bagua Grande to Moyobamba are plentiful, but expect the trip to take around eight hours. It could be broken up by spending the night in the crossroads town of Pedro Ruiz, but the best plan would be to spend time in Chachapoyas and then continue on to Moyobamba. The trip from Chachapoyas to Moyobamba is about five hours and Tarapoto is another three hours beyond Moyobamba. Turismo Selva, my recommended combi agency, runs all these routes and more in the Mayo and Huallaga Valleys. I also had good experiences using the colectivos of Pizana Express, but Moyobamba is the westernmost point that they serve. If coming from the coast, Movil Tours has overnight bus service from Piura to Moyobamba (11 hours) and Tarapoto (13 hours) and from Chiclayo to Moyobamba (12 hours) and Tarapoto (14 hours).

Tourism is not a major industry in Moyobamba, so restaurants mostly serve the jungle cuisine that the local population expects. The Olla de Barro is a good mid-priced option for well-prepared regional dishes and unusual fruit drinks (ask the waiter to show you the fruits). The restaurant is very popular with office workers at lunch. It also has a refrigerator full of green coconuts and if you get one about 11 a.m., after they’ve been chilling all night, the ice-cold coconut water is absolutely delicious. The Cafe Bet-El, next to the hostel of the same name, is very popular with the hip educated younger crowd. This is a good place for breakfast, sandwiches, regional dishes and local fruit drinks served by half-liter and liter pitchers. Next door is El Avispa Juane, a workingman’s dining spot with low-priced regional specialties.

Hotels in Moyobamba mostly serve business travelers and vacationing Peruvian families. Options are either modern multi-story buildings in the center or more picturesque places surrounding a central courtyard a little further out. I stayed at one of the latter, the Hospedaje Moyobamba. Current rates are forty soles single and eighty double. It was clean, friendly, and spacious and overall much better than those prices would have you believe. At the higher end of the price scale is the Casa Hospedaje El Porton with it’s huge hammock-filled porticoes.

Tarapoto’s place as a major business center and as a hub of domestic tourism means that it has numerous good restaurants for both regional cuisine and Peruvian food in general. But my first recommendation has to be the Zygo Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant and coffee shop run by a young French couple. They have amazing breakfasts and lunches and it’s the best place to run into members of Tarapoto’s small foreign community. For Peruvian food, the Tinpu 77 has very good fixed-price lunches and Moyobamba’s Olla de Barro has a second restaurant next door. Also nearby, and a bit pricier, is the Restaurante Doña Zully. But the real culinary highlight of Tarapoto is at Heladeria Fruta y Cafe, about a block and a half from the plaza. This little shop makes homemade ice cream using locally-sourced organic jungle fruits. It’s a bit expensive by Peruvian standards (I recall five soles a scoop), but it’s very good ice cream. I went practically everyday for the ten days that I was in Tarapoto.

As with restaurants, Tarapoto has a wide variety of hotels at all price ranges. I spent my first two nights at the Hospedaje Rosa Victoria, a short walk from the Turismo Selva terminal. The room was cheap, small, and without hot water but it was clean and the lady who ran the hotel was very friendly. It’s a good place for serious budget travelers. After that I switched to the Mitu Wasi, a picturesque compound of cottages about a mile from the downtown. It was a very peaceful place to recover from pink-eye, but most visitors would be better off with a downtown hotel.

Next: Trujillo, Chiclayo, and Pacasmayo

Moyobamba Links

Full Travel Guide: https://www.howtoperu.com/moyobamba-travel-guide/

Moyobamba Attractions: https://www.thingstodopost.com/what-to-do-and-see-in-moyobamba-peru-the-best-places-and-tips-119294

Morro de Calzada: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Morro-De-Calzada-Moyobamba-San-Mart%C3%ADn-Peru/2217118325186131

Waqanki Lodge: http://waqankilodge.pe/

Waqanki Orchid Center: http://www.waqanki.com/waqanki.htm

La Tingana Nature Refuge: https://tingana.org/

La Tingana Tours: https://sacharunadventure.com/tingana-and-wakanqui-nature-tour/   This agency offers three-day/two-night tours originating in Tarapoto, but it’s possible to join the tour in Moyobamba  (and get more sleep on the first day).

Museo Toé: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Museo-To%C3%A9/350926271616469

Licores Toé: https://www.facebook.com/museotoe1/

Olla de Barro Restaurant: https://www.facebook.com/LaOlladeBarroMoyobamba/

El Avispa Juane Restaurant: https://www.facebook.com/elavispajuane/

Cafe Bet-El https://www.facebook.com/cafebetelmoyobamba/

Mi Tata in Rioja: https://www.facebook.com/pg/MiTataRioja/about/

Hospedaje Moyobamba: https://moyobambahospedaje.wixsite.com/hospedajemoyobamba

Hotel Rio Mayo: http://hotelriomayo.com/

Alta Vista Casa Hotel: https://www.altavistacasahotel.com/

Hotel Arenas del Mayo: https://hotelarenasdelmayo.com-peru.info/en/

Tarapoto Links 

Tarapoto Life: http://tarapotolife.com/

Area Attractions: https://www.phimavoyages.com/en/san-martin-region-20-things-to-do/

Lamas Castle: https://www.phimavoyages.com/en/lamas-castle/

Zygo Cafe: https://www.facebook.com/zygocafe/

Heladeria Fruta y Cafe: https://www.facebook.com/heladeriafrutacafe

Hospedaje Rosa Victoria: https://www.facebook.com/hospedaje.rosavictoria

Hospedaje Mitu Wasi: https://www.mituwasiecohospedaje.com/

Hospedaje Flor del Valle: https://www.facebook.com/HospedajeFlordelValletarapoto/

Lamas Hospedaje: https://lamas-hospedaje.negocio.site/

Residencial Marina House: https://residencialmarinahouse.pe/

Hotel Cielo: http://hotelcielo.net/

Rio Cumbaza Hotel: https://riocumbazahotel.com/

Don Moore is the author of Following Ghosts in Northern Peru: In the Footsteps of 19th Century Travelers on the old Moyobamba Route. In 2017-2018, he spent several months retracing the old trade route that linked Peru’s Pacific coast with the Amazon. His book mixes stories from historical travelers in the region, Peruvian history, and his own experiences on the back roads of northern Peru. The book is available in both Kindle and soft-cover versions. More information and photos to accompany the book can be found at his website: http://www.DonMooreDXer.com/books/

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