Southern Peru is one of the most popular destinations in the world, boasting wonders world-renowned. However, northern Peru is full of incredible treasures as well. The gateway to adventures in northern Peru can be found in the idyllic, unassuming town of Chachapoyas. Despite the town’s small size and relative lack of things to do, many travelers and backpackers flock to Chachapoyas for the multitude of otherworldly adventures in the surrounding area.
Located in the Amazonas region of Peru, Chachapoyas is a small oasis of civilization amongst the dense jungles, impassable mountains, and otherwise inhospitable conditions in this part of the country where relatively few humans have dared to roam or call home. For now, Chachapoyas is relatively unknown internationally. It won’t be for long, though.
Is Chachapoyas Worth Visiting?
As we finished the grueling drive from Vilcabamba, Ecuador down to Chachapoyas, I felt a little disappointed. The town didn’t seem all too special and the streets were relatively desolate. Our hostel wasn’t where it said it was and finding parking for Dave’s converted army vehicle was near impossible on these narrow streets.
However, once everything got sorted out and we were given a little time to relax and settle in after two grueling days of travel, we started warming up to Chachapoyas. I usually go blindly into destinations, trusting the word of other travelers on whether a place is worth going or not. So I came to Chachapoyas knowing only about Gocta Falls and the ruins of Kuelap. We walked into a tour agency just to get an idea of what else there was to do and I was immediately overwhelmed with how I was going to squeeze everything in that I wanted to do.
The region around Chachapoyas was home to unique civilizations that most people have never even heard of. The archaeological sites and cultural artifacts were unlike anything else I had ever seen around the world. Chachapoyas town itself turned out to be a good mix of local culture while also being accommodating for travelers.
So long story short, is Chachapoyas worth visiting? Yes.
How To Get To Chachapoyas
Being one of the top travel destinations in northern Peru, Chachapoyas is relatively easy to get to. Buses run to and from Chachapoyas to pretty much anywhere else in northern Peru, including Lima, although that will be a grueling 24-hour bus ride.
From Ecuador, you can cross the border over at La Balsa and continue down through San Ignacio, Jaen, Bagua Grande, and eventually Chachapoyas. If you are coming by car or motorcycle, it might be a good idea to stop at one of those towns for the night. We slept at Jaen and wrapped up the last 4-5 hours of the journey the following day.
If you are taking a bus, you can get one from Cajamarca, Chiclayo, or Jaen. Those are the closest bigger cities but you can also knock out one hell of a journey from Lima or other places further out.
The Best Things To Do in Chachapoyas
Most of the things to see or do in Chachapoyas aren’t actually in Chachapoyas themselves. However, since Chachapoyas is a pretty established town, it serves as the gateway for most of these adventures. There are plenty of tour agencies in town to sort you out for anything you could need. I don’t usually do tours but for a place like Chachapoyas, especially when you are a clueless wandered like me, I felt like I could use a little structure. For every tour I did, I went with Chachapoyas Trip Adventures.
When these waterfalls were discovered, they were the 3rd-highest waterfalls in the known world. They’ve dipped to 15th since then but that doesn’t take away any of the marvel of these incredible cataratas. The dense jungle, monstrous mountains, and lush greenery makes it seem like something straight out of Tarzan or Jurassic Park. At 771 meters (2,549 feet) tall, these waterfalls are something to behold.
How To See Gocta Waterfalls Without A Tour
Although you can get a tour for as low as 40 soles from Chachapoyas town, it is possible to visit the waterfalls by yourself. You can take a bus or drive yourself down to Cocachimba and walk through the town until you reach the trailhead for the waterfalls. It is about 11 kilometers round trip, although the hike can feel tougher than that as it is a constant cycle of going uphill and downhill. The grueling hike is absolutely worth it once you find yourself at the base of the waterfall and can finally feel just how immense these waterfalls are.
The Ruins of Kuelap
Situated at about 3,000 meters above sea level in the mountains near Nuevo Tingo, the ruins of Kuelap are among the most impressive you will see in the world. They have nowhere near the popularity of Machu Picchu which means that it can often feel like you have the ruins to yourself. Nuevo Tingo is about an hour from Chachapoyas and from there, you can take the cable car up to Kuelap for 20 soles and then pay 30 soles to enter the archaeological complex. Although the architectural style is similar to the Incan civilization, Kuelap is actually the ruins of the Chachapoya civilization. This is a must-do while in Chachapoyas.
Can You Visit Kuelap Without A Guide?
Yes, but I don’t recommend it. A tour from Chachapoyas town will cost you about 80-90 soles, or less if you are traveling with a big group. This covers entrance and the cable car, which alone will run you 50 soles. Throw in the cost for the guides, lunch, and roundtrip transportation and I actually wonder how these tour agencies make any money. Sure, you can save a few dollars if you try to sort everything out on your own but for the convenience, it might not be worth it. The tours usually leave Chachapoyas around 9 AM and get you back around 5:30 PM, giving you over three hours at the archaeological complex which I felt was definitely enough time.
The Karajia Sarcophagi
These unique coffins are among the last remnants of the Chachapoya Empire. They are located 48 kilometers from Chachapoyas and many tour companies offer combo tours packaged with the Quiocta Caves. Once you get to the trailhead, you hike for about half an hour to see the Karajia Sarcophagi themselves. Their location on the cliff means that you can’t get close, which is both a blessing and a curse since the only reason they are still around is because looters haven’t been able to get to them in their 500+ years of existence.
If you are interested in history and seeing some cool artifacts, this is worth the trip. The scenery is also nice in the area and it’s a popular third option for travelers who have a spare day after Gocta and Kuelap.
Strap on your mud boots and get ready to go spelunking. This cave system was one of the more intriguing caves I’ve seen. It started off by walking through a mausoleum from a civilization past. However, the skulls and bones of humans past were still very much present. If you’ve seen some cool caves before, then the stalagmites and stalactite formations aren’t anything to truly marvel at but it is still a cool excursion. One thing that I was amazed by was the weird, flat, circular formations on the ceilings of the caves. It’s something I hadn’t really seen before.
Most tour operators throw this in with a trip to see the Sarcofagos de Karajia so you might not have a choice of whether you go or not. It isn’t something that I’d say go out of your way to see but since it’s already lumped in with Karajia, you might as well try and enjoy it.
Hike Up To The Mirador de Luya Urco
For a quick thing that you can do within the city itself, hiking up to Luya Urco can make for a great sunrise or sunset mission. It is beautiful during the day as well but seeing the pastel colors over the mountains is a stunning sight. You can see the entire city of Chachapoyas situated in the valley between the towering mountains. It is a short but very steep hike that should take only about 15 or 20 minutes from the center of town.
On the way down, you can walk two blocks over and follow the streetlamp-lit pathway down passing by el Pozo de Yanayacu. It isn’t much to see but it is an intriguing bit of history with a fun legend behind it. Rumor has it that if you drink from the well, it will enchant you into falling in love with a Chachapoya woman and never leaving. I thought about drinking but then decided that I would very much like to leave at some point.
The Mausoleo de Revash
Located further south past Kuelap and closer to Leymebamba is the Mausoleo de Revash. I hadn’t heard of this place until I was actually in Chachapoyas browsing the tour agencies for ideas for things to do. It instantly became at the top of my list of things to do, although it was a bit further out and more expensive to tackle. Unfortunately, I ended up not being able to do it as I fell a bit ill towards the end of my time in Chachapoyas and had to take a couple of back to back rest days.
Museo of Leymebamba
Also in Leymebamba is a unique museum that was quickly built to house some incredible artifacts found nearby.
Overall, Chachapoyas is an incredible place to visit for all sorts of travelers. From the hiking to the culture to the rich history that has happened here, there is so much to see and so much to experience. It feels like you can travel back in time with some of the activities that you can do here.
Although lesser-visited than Gocta Falls, Yumbilla Falls are actually the 5th tallest waterfalls in the world. Standing at an impressive 895 meters tall (2,938 feet), these falls are as impressive as they come. To get to Yumbilla Falls, you’ll need to take a bus to Pedro Ruiz and then a mototaxi to Cuispes. The journey takes about 75 minutes each way. From Cuispes, it takes about an hour or more to reach Yumbilla Falls along the trail.
If you’ve got even more time to kill, there are a few other majestic waterfalls within a 4 kilometer radius. Pabellon Falls stands at 400 meters tall and Chinata Falls stand at 580 meters tall. If you are looking for something even more off the beaten path, then Yumbilla Falls might be your best bet.
Where To Stay in Chachapoyas For Backpackers
There are quite a few hostels in Chachapoyas although most of them don’t show up on Hostelworld or anywhere else online. We stayed at Hostel El Angel where the three of us paid 60 soles ($18 USD) a night total for a private room. That worked out to 20 soles each which seemed to be the standard rate for hostels in the area.
A friend of mine told me that the cheapest hostel in Peru could also be found in Chachapoyas for less than $2 a night. If you’re bold, you can go and see for yourself why it is the cheapest hostel in Peru. However, I took his word for it that it was a pretty nasty place and opted for the luxury of a $6 a night room.
Hostel El Angel lacked any social vibe which was fine since we were in a group and adventuring for most of the day and too tired to do any outside socializing anyway. Chachapoyas Backpackers and Chacha International are two hostels that we were recommended before choosing Hostel El Angel. The Wi-Fi at El Angel was shockingly fast and had a good home-y feel where we could cook our own meals and do our own laundry.
Where To Go After Chachapoyas
The city of Cajamarca is one of the larger ones in northern Peru. It is like a much bigger Chachapoyas that is also home to a lot of incredible cultural activities. The history behind Cajamarca also makes it one of the most important in Peruvian history. It is where the downfall of the Incan empire began when Francisco Pizarro and Atahualpa first met. Shortly after, the outnumbered Spanish troops began their successful conquest of Peru.
If you want to head to the coast as soon as possible, Chiclayo is about a 10 hour bus ride from Chachapoyas. Chiclayo is one of the largest cities on Peru’s coast but not particularly popular among backpackers. The city of Trujillo about 4 hours south is the more popular spot for backpackers but you’ll likely have to pass through Chiclayo on your journey there.
Heading north towards Ecuador? Vilcabamba or Loja should be the destination. It is a long journey from Chachapoyas but you can split it up with a stop in San Ignacio or in Jaen. You’ll cross the border at the extremely desolate border crossing of La Balsa before wrapping up the final four hours through the mountains and into the small village of Vilcabamba. Here’s everything you need to know about this relatively overlooked backpacker paradise.
If you are looking to go deeper into the jungle, Tarapoto is a lesser-visited spot. The popular attraction there is Laguna Azul. It is a bit out of the way for most travelers but if you’ve got no time limit, it might be worth your time to stop by.
A lot of the things to do near Leymebamba can also be done from Chachapoyas. However, if you are looking for something more off the beaten path, Leymebamba can be a nice place to stay. The Mauseleo de Revash and Leymebamba’s museum are two must-see attractions in the Amazonas region. However, they are a bit further from Chachapoyas so using Leymebamba as a home base for a night or two to see them might be a good alternative.