Below us, the Cañón del Sonche spread out green and deep. My wife and I counted the waterfalls that dangled from the canyon walls like loose white threads. There were no other visitors with us that day at the Mirador de Huancas, a few minutes north of Chachapoyas; just a dog and the guard.
That kind of solitude was constant during our four-day exploration of the area around Chachapoyas. There were, at most, 20 people picking their way through the trees to explore the ruins of Kuélap. Eight people joined us to see the sarcophagi of Karajia, erected eight-hundred years in the niche of a sheer cliff face. At Gocta Falls, the world’s third-tallest (or fifth, or sixteenth, depending on who you ask; it turns out that measuring waterfalls is a lot like ranking colleges), fifteen people hiked through the cloud forest to reach the base of the upper falls.
At any given moment, there were fewer tourists in Chachapoyas than in a single mid-sized Cusco restaurant. That is despite the fact that Chachapoyas’ attractions are, perhaps, the most compelling anywhere in Peru. The difficult access to Chachapoyas keeps tourist away, which is why you should visit now.
Llamas atop the ruins at Kuélap
What to see
The region’s most famous site is Kuélap, a fortified town built by the Chachapoyas culture starting in sixth century and abandoned in the sixteenth. Tourism officials have tried to brand it the “Machu Picchu of the North”, as both sprawl atop mountains. However, that claim is both too grand and not grand enough. Kuélap lacks the architectural and engineering precision of Machu Picchu. Where Kuélap easily bests its rival, however, is in atmosphere. Kuélap feels like someone discovered it about three weeks ago. Trees and bromeliads rise up between ruined buildings. Animals, including skunks, sitter around. Peek between the stones of one of the walls and you will see human bones, placed there nearly a millenium ago. The fact that you’ll have to share this place with so few people makes it all the more special.
Original and reconstructed buildings at Kuelap
Karajia is an amazing site. It’s as if someone took the moai from Easter Island and put them half-way up a cliff. The wooden figures, erected in the fifteenth century, were used to house the mummies of important Chachapoyas leaders. I’d say there’s nothing else like them in the world, but that wouldn’t be quite true; the Chachapoyas built a number of such sites on nearby cliffs.
The sarcophagi of Karajía
Gocta is another must-see. The waterfall was “discovered” less than a decade ago. Of course, the residents of the villages located just seven kilometers away knew about the place, but beliefs that the area was haunted and the dense vegetation kept them from exploring it. Today, a path winds from the village of San Pablo de Valera through coffee fields, river valleys and cloud forest before reaching the base of the upper fall. I was proud that I was able to will my out-of-shape, city slicker body along the six-kilometer trail, until I saw that small children had also managed it. If you don’t feel that you could handle the five-hour round-trip, there are horses for rent.
Hostal Casa Vieja comes with excellent reviews. The upscale chain Casa Andina also has a hotel in Chachapoyas, but it is located 25 minutes from town in the river valley.
Where to eat
If you drew a Venn diagram of all of the places in the world that serve first-class frappuccinos and all of the places in the world that serve top-notch cecina, the down-home bacon typical of Peruvian jungle cuisine, the intersection might have just one name in it: Terra Mia Café (Chincha Alta 557). Terra Mia is not the only great café in town, however. It is joined by Café Fusiones (Chincha Alta 445), which features dishes, salads, sandwiches, juices and coffees made with local, fair-trade ingredients. For something heartier, you can try El Tejado (Santo Domingo 424), which serves gargantuan portions of comida criolla.
How to get there
Here’s the rub. Chachapoyas is hard to get to. There is an airport north of town, but there are currently no commercial flights. The easiest access points are Chiclayo and Tarapoto. From the former, there are night buses which go directly to Chachapoyas and take about nine hours. Movil Tours is the most highly recommended company. From Tarapoto, Turismo Selva runs direct combis during the day. Otherwise, you can take a bus from Tarapoto to Pedro Ruiz (GH Bus is probably the best of the bunch), and then switch to a combi for the final one-hour ride to Chachapoyas. The trip from Tarapoto takes about eight hours. There is also a spectacular route from Cajamarca, but the trip is reputed to last twelve back-breaking hours.
How to get around
It takes some time to get to all of Chachapoyas’ attractions. Only Huancas is really close-by; collective taxis leave throughout the day from a station near the Chachapoyas market and take about 20 minutes. For everything else, you are best off taking an organized day tour, which include transportation and a guide. Kuélap should cost about S/. 40, Karajía and the overrated Quiocta Cavern about S/. 55, and Gocta S/. 35. Admission to Kuélap costs an extra S/. 15, Karajía S/. 5 and Gocta S/. 10.
One note: the rocks near Chachapoyas are unstable, and when it rains, they often become displaces and block the roads. Therefore, the best time to visit is during the dry season, from June to August.
Chachapoyas is a world-class destination, but it’s still not on the tourist trail. That makes it a great destination to visit.
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