After a quick change from slippers to actual shoes, I hiked up the steep stairs in a desolate corner of town. My back was still stiff from sleeping sitting up, but as I turned around, the fresh air and sunrise erased my discomfort.
The new-day sun peeked out from behind the foliage-covered mountains, turning the sky brilliant shades of blue and red. My first moments in the Amazonas capital set the tone for the rest of my trip: sleepy-eyed and stunned by the magnificent landscape.
By 8 a.m., I was headed to Kuelap, the most famous historical site of the Chachapoya “warriors of the clouds.”
Kuelap has preserved beauty and history that has hardly been affected by the tourist trade, and is respectfully preserved in a way that is not true of other great archaeological sites in Peru.
After spending a few days in Chachapoyas, it’s easy to see that Peru’s tourist trade has made a great oversight by not including this magnificent northern region on its “tourist trail,” but I’m selfishly glad they have.
While the lack of organized tourism makes some places more difficult to get to, with unpaved roads leading the way to the area’s historical and nature sites, it’s worth the extra hikes and soles to get there.
While I prefer to travel without organized tours, Kuelap is a difficult site to reach solo. Most days, public transportation isn’t available, which makes the 35 soles day-tour of the site worth it. An entrance fee to the site, 15 soles for adults, and lunch weren’t included.
The next day, I hiked a 7-kilometer circuit to Gocta waterfalls — a site I had been waiting nine months to see. My travel companions for the day and I were the only tourists on the trail.
After a two-hour hike, we arrived at a beautiful waterfall with water misting down onto shining rocks from the cliff above. I was amazed by how tall the fall was.
After a short reprieve, we continued walking down the mountain, getting views of the entire waterfall. The site I had considered to be remarkably tall was confirmed to be the first drop of the fall with another much higher drop below.
Gocta Waterfall is rumored to be the third tallest in the world, and staring up at the misting water falling for thousands of feet, it’s easy to believe. Instead of falling in a steady stream, the water seems to mist into the air before hitting rocks and a large pool of water below. Sitting 100 meters from the falls is still close enough to be soaked with water.
The full-day hike was exhausting, but with only three full days in Chachapoyas, I couldn’t let anytime go to waste and rose at 6 a.m. the next day.
The Karajia sarcophagi are difficult to study from a distance, but are worth a stop. Like the Gocta waterfalls, it’s a site easily reached with a combination of collectivo, taxi and hiking.
After visiting the beautiful cliff-side site, I was planning on using the same means of transport back to Chachapoyas and spending the afternoon shopping for souvenirs when I was asked to join a group of university students from Piura in their touring of the area.
After hearing the word “free,” I ditched the taxi-driver I had earlier asked to wait for me and boarded their tour bus. While I became a sight of their tour, posing for pictures with at least half the group including their tour guide, being the “gringa” paid off. I spent the rest of the day with the students and their professor, and was given free lunch and tour of nearby caverns. Being an endearing foreigner with neon-sign-level blond hair and blue eyes has its perks.
While my trip to Chachapoyas was brief — cut short by the start of final exams — it quickly became one of my favorite sites in Peru and was an economical choice. With a strict budget, I spent less than $200 during my five-day trip, while local tourist agencies list similar trips for about $2,000. Granted, those do not include 15-sole-a-night lodging at Chachapoyas Backpackers.
The variety of ruins and natural beauties could easily stand against many other Peruvian favorites, perhaps even the Sacred Valley, and the tranquility of the area makes up for any lack of formal organization.
Kay Kemmet is an international student at Pontifica Universidad Catolica del Peru studying Spanish, Latin American history and journalism. She’s from Bismarck, North Dakota and studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
With its breathtaking ruins, wonderful natural attractions, cheap prices and lack of crowds, Chachapoyas makes for a great get-away.
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