Cajamarca, Peru: Andean charm without the crowds


If you want to get away from the strictly-for- tourist places and experience the essence of the Peruvian Andes, head to Cajamarca. But you should go soon. Globalization is catching up with the city and the population has doubled to over 188,000 in the past ten years. Recently, I spent six days there and it was a trip I will always remember.

The city is in the northern Andes and is a little over an hour from Lima by plane. It is 8,920 feet above sea level. The temperature was temperate and the air was fresh from the rain that fell frequently, but with short duration. Cajamarca is much less commercialized than Cuzco and, in my opinion, its people, architecture, and history are even more interesting. There are many artisans– the weaving, sculpture, and art here are unique, often beautiful, and usually not too expensive.

Because of the importance of the prehispanic and colonial monuments, Cajamarca has been declared an American Heritage Site by UNESCO. Most of the prehispanic architecture within the city Itself has been replaced with colonial Spanish architecture. There are two grand churches from the colonial period facing the Plaza de Armas. The most grand, the Church of San Francisco, was built for the indigenous people, and the other, the Cathedral, was built for the Spaniards. Both churches have two towers, and were designed with beautiful baroque architecture and constructed with volcanic rock. They each have facades with intricate carvings and are beautifully illuminated at night.

Cajamarca is a growing city, largely due to the mining interests nearby. There are large copper and gold mines, which have brought both wealth and contamination to the city. There was a sign on a building in the city Agua ContaMINAcion, and indeed, mining has contaminated the water with arsenic, lead, cadmium and copper. In addition to mining, agriculture and cattle contribute to the growing economy.

Scattered around the Plaza de Armas were several indigenous women of indeterminate age, with white sombreros with very high crowns. Most of them were begging. I engaged in a short conversation with one of them, and she tickled me as a tactic for getting a tip. Maybe someone might have been offended at her touch, but not I. I found it quite endearing. I felt a real connection with her. I asked her how old she was and she told me she did not know. I believed her. I couldn’t help but wonder why it was only old women begging. What would I be doing if I were born here?

I decided to take the city walking tour for 20 soles, and it was well worth it. The guide, Joaquin, was extremely knowledgeable and since I was the only one on the tour he had time to be patient with my Spanish.

The first stop was the Plaza de Armas. It is the typical central square of the Spanish colonial city, and the locals gather here to relax and enjoy the garden. But this park has special historical significance. It is the location where the Inca Atahualpa was captured by Francisco Pizarro and conquest of the Incas began. It served as the setting for cockfights and bullfights, and later hosted a market.

Today there are parades and rallies. While I was there, one evening there was a lantern parade Paseo de Antorchas where the children from different schools in the area marched with elaborately designed lanterns .

We visited the Cuarto de Rescate, where Atahualpa’s subjects filled the room once with gold and twice with silver in an attempt to save his life. In the end, the Spaniards did not spare him, but because he had converted to Christianity, they did not burn him, but rather strangled him. No one knows where his body was taken by his followers after his death. This site is the last Incan structure remaining in the city.

We visited the Iglesia de Belen, which was built by a Bethlemites, a religious order that created hospitals for the poor. The construction took almost 50 years, and the church is beautiful. Inside the church, a series of rotund angels appear to be holding up the dome. The carved wooden pulpit is a masterpiece, as is the church as a whole. The façade of the church is baroque with beautiful, embedded sculptures.

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The tour ended with a steep climb up the city streets to the Colonia de Santa Apolonia, where there was a splendid view of the entire city. Some say before his conquest, Atapualpa sat up here reviewing his troops. You could see the entire city as well as the surrounding lush green valley.

I returned to my hotel truly feeling exhilarated. The architecture and the history of this city are captivating and the people delightful. It is a place not to miss if you want to capture the flavor of the Andes and its people.

Want the charm of an Andean city like Cusco, without all the crowds? Try visiting Cajamarca.