The small town of Chachapoyas in Peru’s Amazonas region might not seem like much but it is the gateway to adventure in northern Peru. With ruins that rival Machu Picchu and waterfalls among the tallest in the world, there is no shortage of incredible sights to see in and around Chachapoyas. I hadn’t researched the city much before I arrived. In fact, it wasn’t even in my original plans.
While I was in Vilcabamba, Ecuador, I met a guy driving a converted Army vehicle heading down to Peru through Chachapoyas, and not being one to turn down an adventure, I hitched a ride. I quickly realized that I would need quite a bit of time to do all of things I wanted to do in Chachapoyas. Most people don’t have the time do just stay in one place for weeks to do everything, so I’ve narrowed it down to what I think are the best things to do in Chachapoyas.
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Gocta Falls (Cataratas de Gocta)
I would totally start here. When they were discovered, the Cataratas de Gocta were the 3rd tallest waterfalls in the world. They’ve since dipped to 15th but that doesn’t make them any less impressive. From Chachapoyas, you’ll have to get to Cocachimba to the trailhead for Gocta Falls. You can see them from the city center but if you want to get up close and personal, you’ll have to hike about 11 kilometers round-trip. The hike isn’t too bad if you take your time but it is a lot of uphill and downhill. Seriously, there are very few flat stretches. You are either going downhill or uphill.
The views are ever-changing, giving you a new angle on the waterfalls as you get closer and closer until you finally find yourself at the base of the lower waterfalls. At 771 meters tall (2,529 feet), these waterfalls are a behemoth. It’s hard to grasp the size and scope of these waterfalls until you actually find yourself gazing in awe at the seemingly endless stream of water. The valley surrounding the waterfall is as lush as it gets.
Can You Visit Gocta Waterfalls Without A Guide?
Yes, it is possible to visit the waterfalls by yourself. This gives you a bit more freedom to explore on your own time and veer off the main trail if you want to. Although tour agencies will typically charge 50-60 soles for transportation, lunch, and the guided trek, you can usually haggle it down to as low as 40-45 soles.
If that still seems a bit steep, you can take a bus or drive yourself down to Cocachimba. Walk past the main plaza and follow the signs until you reach the trailhead. There is only one main trail so it is hard to get lost. However, there are a few side trails. You can meander along these trails to get different viewpoints and see more of the area. You can even drop down to the river and cross to the other side.
The Ruins of Kuelap Archaeological Site
Built in the 6th Century by the Chachapoya civilization, Kuelap is an impressive historical site that is a must-visit. It is undeniably one of northern Peru’s top attractions. Kuelap is nestled on a mountain at about 3,000 meters above sea level, giving you incredible views of the surrounding area. Within the walls of the ruins itself, you’ll get a glimpse into a civilization long-gone. The remains of houses, temples, towers, and more litter this large archaeological complex.
Can You Visit Kuelap Without A Guide?
It is possible but I recommend getting a guide. Walking around Kuelap without knowing anything about it is quite a different experience than if you had a knowledgeable guide explaining and distinguishing each seemingly similar pile of stones from the next.
If you are dead set on doing this on your own, make sure to bring at least 50 soles for the entrance the cable car. The cable car costs 20.4 soles and the entrance to the site itself is 30 soles. A tour from Chachapoyas town will cost you about 80-90 soles, potentially less if you are traveling with a big group. This covers entrance and the cable car, so throwing in an extra 30 soles for transportation, lunch, and the guide is a pretty fair price in my opinion. I usually prefer to do things on my own but for the simplicity of it, a tour served just fine.
The tours usually leave Chachapoyas around 9 AM and get you back around 5:30 PM. It takes about an an hour and a half to drive there and an hour and a half back, followed by a bit over an hour for lunch and down time in Nuevo Tingo. This gives you over three hours at the archaeological complex which I felt was definitely enough time. If you wander around aimlessly, you might only need an hour to see the whole complex, which is where a guide comes in handy because it gives context to every building that you see.
Where to stay in Chachapoyas, Peru
Sarcofagos de Karajia
Nestled on a cliff about 50 kilometers away from Chachapoyas are the Karajia sarcophagi, often referred to as the “wise old men” by the locals. Its difficult-to-reach location along the cliffs have kept them safe from looters and grave robbers, making them among the last remnants of the Chachapoya civilization. The hike from town takes about 30 minutes downhill and a bit longer to go back up. It is pretty interesting to see and the scenery is nice, but I can understand why some people would skip it if they aren’t particularly interested in olden cultures or history.
Most tours that take you to Karajia will package the trip with the Quiocta Caves as they are both pretty close to village of Lamud where you will stop for lunch.
Caverna de Quiocta
I wanted to see the Karajia Sarcophagi but I couldn’t find anywhere that offered the tour without packaging it with the Caverna de Quiocta. I’ve seen my fair share of caves in my lifetime so I was not expecting much. What I also was not expecting was to walk through a mausoleum with human remains out in the open pretty might right as you enter the cave. Skulls and bones and decomposing goo litter the mausoleum area before you enter the rest of the cave. That was an experience, for sure.
It is very muddy inside the cave but the guides provide you with sexy knee-high rubber boots so you should be okay. The hike is about a half a kilometer into the cave and half a kilometer back, with a few stops to look at any points of interest. The stalactite and stalagmite formations are pretty cool, but if you’ve been in some other caves before, it’s not anything particularly mind-blowing. If you’ve got a free day, packaging the Karajia Sarcophagi and Quiocta Caves is probably your best option.
Despite being lesser-known and lesser-visited than Gocta Falls, Yumbilla Falls are actually significantly taller than Gocta. Standing at 895 meters (2,938 feet) tall, they rank as the 5th highest waterfalls in the world. From Chachapoyas it is about an hour and a half each way to take a bus and a moto taxi to Pedro Ruiz and then to Cuispes, respectively.
The 6 kilometer hike to Yumbilla Falls should take no more than an hour and a half. If you get there early, that means you’ve got time to explore a few of the other incredible waterfalls along the trail. Pabellon Falls (400 meters tall) and Chinata Falls (580 meters tall) are both within a 4 kilometer walk away from Yumbilla.
Mausoleo de Revash and Museo de Leymebamba
One of the most unique mausoleums in the world can be found in Revash. Built into a cliff, the Mausoleo de Revash consists of about thirty little houses each storing 10-15 mummified bodies. This is a bit further out from Chachapoyas which makes for a longer drive, but if you are willing to make a lengthy day trip out of it, it can also be packaged with the museum in Leymebamba. It houses 200 mummies recovered from Laguna de los Condores, an area where you can find many more mausoleums and mummies.
Laguna de Los Condores (Laguna de los Momias)
If you are looking for a multi-day trek, the journey from Leymebamba to Laguna de los Condores might be for you. You’ll have to get from Chachapoyas to Leymebamba which takes about two or three hours. From there, the three-day journey will cover about 45 kilometers and take you to the stunning archaeological site of Laguna de Los Condores.
Mirador de Luya Urco
As far as things to do in Chachapoyas town itself, there is not too much. However, for sunrise or sunset, you can’t beat the brisk mountain air up at the Mirador de Luya Urco. It takes about 15-20 minutes to walk to from the center of town. It isn’t a particularly challenging hike but it is uphill all the day. The view of the city and its surrounding mountains is absolutely gorgeous, though.
Pozo de Yanayacu
From the Mirador de Luya Urco, backtrack a few blocks until you see the sign for el Pozo de Yanayacu. We didn’t know what it was but the cobbled path lined with cute street lamps caught our eye. El Pozo de Yanayacu is basically just an old well and not really much to look at.
However, the legend behind it states that if one drinks water from the well, then they will be enchanted by a Chachapoya woman and stay in the city forever. I decided not to drink, because well, I have places to be. It’s a cool story, though.
Plaza de Armas
Like every Latin American city, the Plaza de Armas is the place to be. Unlike your typical Latin American city, Chachapoyas is very, very white. By that, I mean all of the buildings are painted white. The church, restaurants, tour agencies, and everything else is white. The Plaza de Armas is your go-to for everything you need, whether it be a supermarket or a SIM card. It’s also a nice place to sit and watch life go by in this quaint Peruvian town. Just make sure you don’t sit on the fountain if the security guard is around. They will yell at you. 🙁
Right off of Plaza de Armas is a long road blocked off to everything but foot traffic. Amazonas is a beautiful road lined with pristine white buildings, their wooden balconies overflowing with flowers. Most of these are stores, boutiques, restaurants, and the like. You’ll definitely find yourself strolling up and down this street over and over again.
Like I said, when I arrived in Peru, I had no idea what there was to do in Chachapoyas. I assumed maybe three nights in Chachapoyas would be more than enough. Once I started doing a bit of research, I realized that there was so much more that I wanted to do. Being in Chachapoyas made me feel like Indiana Jones. I was exploring jungles, visiting ruins, seeing ancient artifacts, and strolling through old mausoleums. It is one of the best destinations in all of Peru.
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