Tarapoto, Peru – Welcome to Paradise!

This, the legend says, was how Tarapoto was formed. The city was founded August 20, 1782 by Bishop Baltazar Jaime Martínez de Compagnón y Bujanda. There are two versions explaining why the city was given its name. One claims the Spanish explorers gave the name Tarapotus to the Huacrapona, a palm tree once common in the area, but of which few remain today.

Port of Chazuta, Peru

enlargeThe port of Chazuta which looks out over the winding River

A second explanation claims that Tarapoto comes from the word “tara”, meaning the content of some product, whether fish, corn or some other foodstuff, or the name of a plant, and “poto”, a cup made from the dried Huingo gourd.

Today, the City of Palms does little honor to its nickname. There are barely a handful left of the pot-bellied palms that gave the city is name and fame, and today, other fronds lend shade to the traveler. But the city has preserved its enchantment over the years.

The construction of major new roads has made it easier to get to the area’s attractions, although there is still much to be done. Work on the area’s infrastructure has consolidated Tarapoto’s status as one of the country’s most fascinating tourist circuits.

The laughing waters

The Streets of Tarapoto

enlargeThe streets of Tarapoto are lined with several different varieties of palm trees. When it gets hot, nearly always, rivers like the Cumbaza are the favorite destination of the town’s inhabitants.

Tarapoto is just a 55-minute plane ride away from the Peruvian capital. Travelers will find a modern airport (recently revamped by state airport authority Corpac) and step out into the balmy air of summer in the jungle which runs year-round. Temperatures can soar to 34°C, but visitors can refresh themselves with a few sips of coconut water, until darkness heralds the city’s bustling night-life.

Once visitors have stored their luggage at their hotel (Tarapoto features many first-rate places to stay), the first stop on the tour is the Ahuashiyaku waterfall, “the Laughing Waters”. Just 15 km from Tarapoto, near the road to the city of Yurimaguas, Ahuashiyaku is actually made up of three falls, each of them cascading down more than 50 meters before plunging into a vast, clear pool where swimmers can float, watching the sun dip into the surrounding jungle foliage. This is paradise.

Ahuashiyaku waterfalls

Ahuashiyaku waterfalls, 15 km off the road to Tarapoto

After rinsing off and lunching on cecina con tacacho (pork with fried plantain), it is time to visit the town of Lamas, just 22 km from Tarapoto. Dubbed the folk art capital of San Martín and the Peruvian Amazon in general, Lamas has been divided into two sectors since its foundation in 1656: the native quarter or Wayku in the lower reaches, and the mestizo quarter, higher up.

The town’s patron saint festival coincides with Tarapoto’s Tourism Week, which runs from July 10-16, when the locals render homage to the “Triunfo de la Santa Cruz de los Motilones”.

The native festival, which has Quechua-speaking Andean origins, is the most striking aspect of the week, however. This is the Festival of Santa Rosa, the patron saint of Lamas, when thousands of dancers in troupes called pandillas dress up in colorful costumes, their faces painted with ochre. The dancers weave through the streets to the strains of local musical instruments. The spectacle is impressive throughout the festival.

Headed for the Huallaga

After leaving Lamas, visitors should prepare their hearts and minds, because the next destination is Chazuta, where launches set out along the choppy Huallaga River to Pongo de Aguirre. Chazuta is a tiny district located a little more than 40 km from Tarapoto, and is reached by a rough road which becomes even bumpier when it rains, in other words, when one least expects it.

Kids swimming in Lake Sauce, Peru

enlargeLake Sauce, 52 km from Tarapoto
Chazuta pottery

enlargeChazuta is famous for its pottery, which is unmatched in the area

Pongo de Aguirre is a narrow pass where the Huallaga River leaves the cloud forest and flows down into the meandering Amazon plain. A spectacular sight, it is often overlooked by tour operators. Its name comes from Spanish explorer Lope de Aguirre, whose search for El Dorado left a trail of death and destruction which is still told by the locals. (*)

Chazuta is also the home of artisans who produce some of the finest crafts in the province of San Martín, and which is exhibited in the Wasichay Cultural Center.

Others will want to take a dip in the Tunun Tunumba waterfalls, an hour’s drive away, and in the hot springs of Chazutayacu and Achinamiza, in Pongo de Aguirre itself. Rafting down the rapids of Vaquero, Estero and Chumía, however, should only be tackled by experts.

Bewitching jungle lakes

Typical home in Lamas

enlargeTypical home in Lamas

Nights in Tarapoto are balmy and as fragrant as a good bowl of inchicapi, a superb chicken soup filled with peanuts and manioc root. Visitors will want to ramble through Morales, the district which features more discos and bars than anywhere else in the province, and take to the dance floor to the strains of the latest hits.

A definite must, however, is a visit to the town of Sauce and the lake of Laguna Azul. This tranquil town of just 6,000 inhabitants is to be found 52 km from the city after crossing the Huallaga River at Puerto López on a peculiar flatbed ferry made of three launches linked with planks. The remains of a once-exclusive lakeside beach resort are a testimony to an era of splendor cut short by drug trafficking and terrorism in the 1980s.

At midday, with the thermometer hitting 35°C, when every living being appears to be asleep, there is no reason not to take a dip in the mirror-bright waters of the Laguna Azul. One can water-ski, or simply putter around in a motorboat. Then it is time for lunch, which could consist of cebiche de doncella (raw fish marinated in lemon juice), sudado de tilapia (steamed fish) or the local juane (chicken and rice pastry), the best of jungle cuisine.

Sunset in the Lower Huallaga River Valley

enlargeSunset in the Lower Huallaga River Valley


Tarapoto is a unique destination. It is not the capital of the Region of San Martín, but it has become the busiest commercial town in the area, with major communication channels with nearby cities and one of the cities featuring the greatest potential for growth in the jungle region. The urgent need to improve the roads that link Tarapoto to the rest of the region will doubtless turn the City of Palms into one of the pillars of eco-tourism in Peru.

The road to El Dorado

The province of San Martín lies in the northeastern corner of the department of San Martín itself, in the heart of the cloud forest, at an altitude of over 350 meters. The capital of the department, Tarapoto, a bustling commercial, agricultural and tourism emporium, is one of the largest cities in the Peruvian Amazon jungle.

– Climate –

The region enjoys a tropical climate, with hot sunshine and frequent downpours. Temperatures range from 25°C to 34°C on average. The rain season runs from December to April, although rain showers are common throughout the year.

– How to get there –

Local airlines Aerocontinente runs every day, one-hour flights to Tarapoto. Airfare ranges from $59 to $129 (Telf.242-4242).
The overland route takes at least 10 hours and requires several changes, but the scenery along the way makes the trip worthwhile. Travelers can take the Expreso Cruz del Sur bus service from Lima to Chiclayo and there take another bus to Tarapoto. The trip can take as much as 30 hours, which is why travelers are advised to take a car service called autocolectivo to Rioja, Bagua Grande or Nuevo Cajamarca, and then take another from there to Tarapoto.

– Where to stay –

-Puerto Palmeras Tarapoto Resort, at Kilometer 3 along the South Marginal Highway (Carretera Marginal Sur). Tel: 52-3978.
-Hotel Río Schilcayo, Pasaje San Martín 224. Tel: 52-2225.
-Puerto Patos Sauce Lodge, Huallaga and Dos de Mayo, Sauce. Telf. 523978.
-Hotel Monte Azul, Jirón Camila Morey 156. Tel: 52-2443.
-Hotel Lily, Jirón Jiménez Pimentel 407. Tel: 52-3154.
-Hotel Nilas, Jirón Moyobamba 173. Tel: 52-7331.
-Hostal La Posada Inn, Jirón San Martín 146. Tel: 52-2234.
-Hostal Cerro Verde, en el Jirón Augusto B. Leguía 596. Tel: 52-2288.

– Where to eat –

-La Patarashca, Jirón Lamas 255. Tel: 52-3899.
-Chifa Tai Pai, Jirón Rioja 252. Tel: 52-4393.

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