A gringo’s guide to northern Peru, Part three: Destination Chachapoyas

Feb 19, 2020 | 1 comment

The walls of Kuelap rise up to sixty feet high.

Editor’s note: This is the third 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.

By Don Moore

“There is little of interest for the tourist [in Chachapoyas].”
The South American Handbook

For decades that sentence was how the venerable South American Handbook described Chachapoyas. In reality, the region was filled with world-class places to visit, but they were either inaccessible or still undiscovered. Times have changed and today this little city in the northern sierra is on its way to becoming one of the hottest tourist destinations in South America. But the big-time hasn’t arrived yet and for now Chachapoyas may be the best place to experience what Peru has to offer without being surrounded by hordes of tourists checking off another item on their must-visit list.

Chachapoyas is the capital of Amazonas department, but with a population of only about 35,000 it is by far the smallest regional capital in Peru. Nevertheless, the city has the services and feel of a much larger place. The elevation is about 2,400 meters / 7,600 feet and the climate is similar to Loja. Chachapoyas was founded in 1545 as one of the first Spanish towns in northern Peru but for its first three centuries it was just an isolated outpost on the fringes of an empire. The surrounding countryside was fertile and the nearby mountains held large iron ore deposits, but the town was too far from the coast for trade to be practical.

A new cable-car line makes visiting Kuelap easy.

Chachapoyas’ fate changed after independence with the opening of the Moyobamba Route, the main trade route that connected Peru’s Pacific coast with the Amazon during the nineteenth century. As one of three major towns along the trail, the town experienced a constant flow of foreign travelers, most of whom were impressed to find someplace so organized and refined in the middle of nowhere. In 1872, American professor James Orton described Chachapoyas as “the best built and cleanest city west of Manaos.” And that was a year before the town hired a Swiss engineer to regrade the streets and make other civic improvements. By the early 1900s, Chachapoyas had the first electric power plant and first electric street lights in the region. In 1987, English author Stephen Minta wrote “I’ve never been anywhere quite so respectable as Chachapoyas.”

Chachapoyas is, without a doubt, the most-organized and best-run place of any size that I have visited in Peru. Aside from the big cities on the coast, it’s the only place in northern Peru that has totally banned moto-taxis in favor of automobile taxis. While that does make fares a bit more expensive, the streets are safer and more pleasant without herds of the noisy metallic beasts roaming around. And, unlike every other city or sizable town in northern Peru, Chachapoyas has a central bus terminal. Numerous old mansions turned into picturesque hotels, restaurants, and little shopping complexes border the city streets. At the heart of it all downtown is a six-block pedestrian mall filled with people from early morning until late at night.

But, what about those inaccessible or undiscovered sites mentioned in the beginning?

The Mountain Top
The town of Chachapoyas is named after the Chachapoyas Indian culture which ruled this region from around 900 A.D. until they were conquered by the Incas in the late 1400s. Not much is known about their civilization, but it’s believed that rather than being a unified empire the culture consisted of several allied but independent city-states that were often at war with the Wari civilization to the south. For that reason, the Chachapoyas built their cities as mountaintop fortresses and were called the Cloud Warriors. The Incas appear to have incorporated the Chachapoyas into their empire without truly conquering them and when the Spanish arrived the Chachapoyas eagerly rose up and helped the newcomers overthrow the Incas. But the Spanish turned out to be worse masters than the Incas. The Chachapoyas lost whatever autonomy they had and were forced to abandon their network of mountaintop citadels.

Until recently, Kuélap had relatively few visitors due to its inaccessibility.

Centuries passed and the old fortresses became vine-covered and forgotten to everyone except for the peasants who farmed the nearby slopes. Then in 1843 Juan Crisóstomo Nieto, a judge from Chachapoyas, was surveying land boundaries in the mountains south of town and found himself at the foot of a massive complex of walls towering into the sky. He had found the abandoned fortress of Kuélap, the largest pre-Hispanic stone structure in the Western Hemisphere. Enclosing an area of roughly six hundred by one hundred ten meters, Kuélap was built to be an impregnable fortress. Not only are the walls up to twenty meters high, but there are only three entrances and each is only wide enough for one person to pass through at a time.

News spread slowly in those days, but over the next few years Nieto’s discovery was reported nearly as widely as the discovery of Machu Picchu would be seven decades later. Searches of electronic archives of newspapers from the era bring back dozens of hits about the ruins. But the field of archaeology was still in its infancy and there was no great rush of scholars to Chachapoyas. Although a handful of archaeologists visited the site in the intervening decades, the first official dig wasn’t until 1997. And while occasional travelers did visit the ruins, such Swiss Count Henri de Büren in 1853 and American Joseph Beale Steere in 1873, Kuélap remained well off the radar of tourists until just a few years ago. The problem, as Stephen Minta wrote, was that the ruins of Kuélap were “as inconsiderately placed as any of Peru’s great monuments.” The only way to get there was by a steep two-hour climb up the mountain.

The three entrances to Kuelap were built so only one person could enter at a time.

The future of Kuélap and Chachapoyas changed in March 2017 when the inaccessible became accessible with the opening of a cable car. In place of a grueling two-hour climb, visitors now have a twenty-minute ride skimming over mountain ridges amidst breath-taking views. Even without the ruins, the cable car journey alone is worth the trip. While it’s easy to visit the ruins independently using local buses from Chachapoyas, it’s only slightly more expensive to join a tour (in English or Spanish) offered by one of the little agencies that line the central plaza. The tours include guide, transportation, all fees, and a late afternoon lunch for around $25 per person.

The Mummies
Much of what archaeologists have deduced about the Chachapoyas culture has come from studying burial sites. The Chachapoyas interred their dead by placing the body in a crouching position inside a wooden sarcophagus and then wrapping the sarcophagus in cloth. The region is filled with tombs, mostly dug into the walls of high mountainside cliffs. Each tomb may contain anywhere from a handful to dozens or more sarcophagi and more are being discovered each year. But the research hasn’t been as easy as that description makes it sound. The first problem is that not much survives a thousand years in this region’s humid climate without decaying significantly. The second problem is who finds those tombs. Too often it’s looters who carry off anything that hasn’t deteriorated to the point of being worthless.

The mummies of Leymebamba.

But in 1996 a pair of archaeologists working nearby heard that a large tomb had been discovered overlooking the Laguna de los Condores in the mountains twenty kilometers south of the town of Leymebamba. They rushed to the scene … scratch that … they traveled slowly by horseback on remote mountain trails for two days. Nevertheless, they arrived at the site before any serious damage or looting could be done and what they found made history. Due to a combination of how the tomb was positioned in the rock face and the location of the nearby lake everything had been naturally ventilated over the centuries. Not only were the sarcophagi almost perfectly preserved, but there were over two hundred of them.

The mummies, up close and personal.

A cliff-side on a remote mountainside is not the place to store priceless artifacts and a find like this only comes once a generation. With funding from The Discovery Channel in exchange for filming rights, a project was quickly organized to carefully excavate and transport everything back to Leymebamba to a new research and museum complex. The center was funded by international donations and built using local materials and donated labor from the townspeople. Once construction was completed, ownership of the museum was transferred to the municipality of Leymebamba, which continues to operate it. Proceeds from visitors are used to fund community projects. The museum’s five rooms tell the story of the mummies, explain the Chachapoyas culture, and tell about the life of the region’s present day inhabitants. The mummies are stored in a darkened temperature-controlled storage room and can be viewed through the windows. There’s also an excellent collection of quipus (Incan knotted rope records) and beautiful adjoining gardens lined with hummingbird feeders.

The old town of Leymebamba as seen from above.

Leymebamba is about one hundred kilometers south of Chachapoyas along a paved road. It’s one of the main destinations for the tour companies, but the town is easy to visit on your own by local buses that make the two-hour trip from the Chachapoyas terminal to Leymebamba’s little central plaza. The museum is located along the main road four kilometers south of town. Take a moto-taxi to get there as it’s all uphill. The walk back down is very scenic, although pick up a few small stones in case you run into an unfriendly dog.

While in the plaza, stop in the little tourist office and ask them to show you the inside of the town’s church. It was hand-built in the early 1900s by local peasants using rough stones collected on the mountainside. The interior is gorgeous. (If you’re on a tour, insist that your guide take you.) For the really adventurous, the tourist office can arrange a multi-day horseback trip to the Laguna de Condores to see the empty tomb.

The two tiers of Gocta.

The Waterfall
For Stefan Ziemendorf in 2002, it was just another day off from his work on a wastewater project. As he often did, he pulled on his hiking boots and trekked into the mountains north of town. Ever since he had arrived here he had dreamed of finding an undiscovered tomb in the thick forest but, once again, his efforts came up empty-handed. Still, there was that high waterfall he had spotted at the back of a blind ravine. It was strange that it wasn’t marked on his map. Stefan continued to spend his free time searching for lost tombs without success but sometimes his thoughts drifted back to the waterfall. It didn’t appear on any maps or in the official surveys. In 2006 he persuaded a government engineer to go out with him and do a survey. A few days later he called a press conference to announce that he had discovered the third-highest waterfall in the world.

Stefan Ziemendorf discovered the waterfall the same way that Judge Nieto discovered Kuélap. He found something that the people who lived nearby already knew about and then reported it to the rest of the world. The peasants who lived in the little village of Cocachimba at the entrance to the blind canyon even had a name for the waterfall. They called it Gocta. They just didn’t think high waterfalls were anything special. There are two somewhat shorter ones even closer to the village. And, aside from the people who lived here, no one else ever came to Cocachimba. The first dirt road to the village wasn’t built until 2007, a year after Ziemendorf informed the world about Gocta. There’s a story that the villagers never visited or spoke of Gocta because they believed that a mermaid who lived at the base of the falls would enchant anyone who came too near. The tale was actually created by a Lima newspaper reporter but the villagers have since picked it up and retell it to impress tourists.

The base of the falls.

There is some controversy about just where Gocta ranks in the list of world waterfalls. Later surveys measured the total height at 771 meters or 2,530 feet, which makes it the fifth highest in the world. Complicating matters is that Gocta has two tiers. The upper cataract drops 700 feet into a narrow basin which then overflows to form the lower fall, 1,770 feet high. So some rankings count Gocta as two falls, but that still makes the lower one the sixteenth highest in the world.

Travelers have several options of how to see the falls, but the most popular and easiest way is to go to Cocachimba and then hike the five kilometers to the base. The village had about two hundred residents when fame landed on its doorstep and it isn’t much different now except that some of the residents now operate simple restaurants and souvenir shops. There’s also a few backpacker hostels and an expensive lodge built by an outsider, but most visitors come on day-trips from Chachapoyas. Access to the falls is managed by a village association that maintains the trail and charges admission, using the proceeds to improve village services.

The trail to the falls is one of the most memorable hikes I’ve ever taken. The vegetation along the sides is all that is visible most of the time as the trail winds its way up and down through the heavily-forested canyon. But every so often a full view of Gocta pops into view at the top of a little rise or around a bend. Gradually the hillsides begin drawing together to form a narrow steep-sided canyon until finally the trail arrives at the huge natural amphitheater at Gocta’s base. As the roaring water drops down from high overhead into a pool surrounded by moss-covered boulders, the displaced air creates a wind that is first felt as a light breeze about a hundred meters away but makes it difficult to stand upright next to the pool.

Visitors gather at the bottom of the falls.

As public transportation between Chachapoyas and Cocachimba is very limited, the only practical options for getting there are to either hire a car or sign-up for a tour. Calling them tours is an overstatement as everyone walks to the base and back at their own pace. The agencies just provide round-trip transportation and have lunch waiting as their weary clients straggle back in mid-afternoon.

The hike isn’t easy, but anyone in average condition should be able to make it. I took two hours in each direction, including rest breaks. Dress with the expectation of getting dirty and soaked. The wind created by the falling water carries the mist up the canyon so that the trail is always muddy and it often feels as if a light rain is falling. Eat a good breakfast and bring plenty of snacks and water. (Food and beverages are also available at a few houses along the first part of the trail.) If you’re so inclined, some people bring their bathing suits and go swimming at the bottom of the falls.

As you walk the trail, look for apachitas – and, no, I don’t mean the beer from Latitud Cero. Apachitas are stacks of small stones that indigenous people make as offerings to the natural spirits. Sometimes they also pile on handfuls of herbs or cigarettes or even pour on a little aguardiente. I spotted several apachitas and added a stone to each one. There’s no point in taking a chance of angering the spirit of something as large as Gocta.

Planning the Trip
Kuélap, the museum in Leymebamba, and Gocta are the highlights of the Chachapoyas region. Check out the links below for more about other archaeological sites, places to hike, and, yes, even another world class waterfall.

To get to Chachapoyas from Cuenca, start by taking the Loja-to-Jaen route described earlier in this series. From Jaen the 5N highway heads east, crosses a bridge over the Marañón River (also known as the Amazon), and continues to the crossroads town of Pedro Ruiz where a branch road runs south to Chachapoyas. The 180 kilometers between Jaen and Chachapoyas is all good paved road, although some stretches through the mountains are very curvy.

The simplest and most common way to make the trip is get a colectivo or combi from Jaen to the transportation hub of Bagua Grande, about an hour to the east. In Bagua Grande there are about half-a-dozen agencies all bunched together on the main drag that go to Chachapoyas. From Bagua Grande, I recommend taking a combi with Turismo Selva as I had good service on several trips with them in the region. If you ask around in Jaen, it may be possible to find direct colectivos to Chachapoyas but they’re said to be rare. Otherwise a company named Destinos Peru (link below) runs luxury vans from the airport in Jaen to Chachapoyas three times a day. They may also do pickups in town. And if overland travel isn’t your thing, LATAM and Viva airlines have three daily flights from Lima to Jaen, connecting to the Destinos Peru vans, and two regional airlines, LC Peru and ATSA, use small propeller craft on five weekly flights direct from Lima to Chachapoyas.

As to where to stay, Chachapoyas has dozens of options ranging from backpacker hostels to boutique hotels in restored colonial homes. I’ve listed a sampling at different price points below but many more options can be found on AirBnB, Booking.com, HostelWorld.com, etc.

Finally, Peru has arguably the best cuisine in South America and Chachapoyas has a wide selection of restaurants serving quality Peruvian food. I had memorable meals at Restaurante El Tejado (my favorite), La Tushpa, and Mistura Urco. For cheaper eats, the Cafe Fusiones on the plaza is a classic gringo hangout and coffee shop. It’s a good place for breakfast, desserts, burgers, and cheap lunches. The San Jose Restaurant (upstairs from the bakery) also has good breakfasts.

Next: Moyobamba and the Mayo Valley

Useful Links

General Guide: https://www.phimavoyages.com/en/visit-chachapoyas-northern-peru/

General Guide: https://www.boundlessroads.com/reasons-why-you-should-visit-chachapoyas-peru/

General Guide: http://www.newperuvian.com/chachapoyas-travel-guide/

Museo Leymebamba: http://www.museoleymebamba.org/ley_index_en.htm

Museo Leymebamba: http://www.centromallqui.pe/english/amazonas/leymebambamuseum.html

Hiking Gocta: https://www.wingingtheworld.com/hiking-gocta-falls-peru-guide/

Turismo Selva: http://www.turismoselva.com/

Destinos North Airport Vans: https://www.facebook.com/pg/destinosnorth/posts/

Cafe Fusiones: https://www.cafefusiones.com/

Restaurante El Tejado:  http://eltejado.pe/

Chachapoyas Backpackers: http://www.chachapoyasbackpackers.com/

Hotel Ñuñurco Travellers: http://www.nunurcotravellers.com/

The Hotel Monte Peruvian: https://hotel-monte-peruvian.business.site/

The Casa Kuelap: https://www.casakuelap.com/

Posada del Arrierro: https://www.posadadelarriero.net/

Villa de Paris http://www.hotelvilladeparis.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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