I scoured the web for verdicts on this city in northern Peru. I searched for recommendations, things to do, and even the location tags on Instagram. The top results for Cajamarca were mostly pictures of their volleyball team. Cajamarca at first seemed like it wouldn’t be deserving of a stop on my backpacking trip but after the surprises of Chachapoyas, I felt like I had to give it a shot. The night bus could either take me to Cajamarca or Chiclayo, and I wasn’t quite ready to head for the coast just yet. “Is Cajamarca worth visiting?” would be a question that I had to answer for myself.
And that answer quickly turned out to be a resounding yes. For the thirteenth largest city in Peru, Cajamarca sure feels like a small local town. It definitely helped that I was staying at the nearby village of Baños del Inca, only about a fifteen minute ride from the center of the city. As far as big cities go, Cajamarca still exuded tradition and culture. The Quechua people with their large hats and traditional garb make up a sizable portion of the population. The events that took place in Cajamarca makes it arguably Peru’s most historically significant city, rivaling even Cusco.
Cajamarca is absolutely worth visiting. Travelers entering through northern Peru will quickly find that Peru is a massive country and that these vast distances will require overnight buses or even multi-day journeys. Cajamarca is an oasis between Peru’s Amazonas region and the coast. I initially booked for just two nights as I was hoping to just use it as a relaxing stopping point before continuing throughout Peru. I extended my stay twice and ended up falling in love with the city. So why is Cajamarca worth visiting? Where do I even begin?
Okay, for starters, the history that took place in Cajamarca. Although my blog name might not make me seem like it, but I was a massive history nerd growing up. I loved ancient civilizations, from the Romans and Egyptians to the Babylonians and Aztecs. I played a lot of Age of Empires as a kid… but I was never really familiar with the Incas. Reading about what took place in Cajamarca piqued my interest, and my history teacher friend that I met in Ecuador was also planning to visit Cajamarca so I figured why not? I don’t regret my decision to visit Cajamarca at all.
Visit Cajamarca for the History
So I keep talking about all of the history that took place in Cajamarca. What actually happened? Well, do you want to know why the widespread and dominant Incan Empire is no longer around today? A little Spanish douche by the name of Francisco Pizarro made his way to Peru and met with Atahualpa, the leader of the Incas. He held him for ransom, then when the ransom was nearly fulfilled, Pizarro killed Atahualpa anyway.
Thus began the Spanish conquest and the eventual downfall of the Incan Empire. In Cajamarca, you can walk the streets and relive the history that took place in this city. The room where Atahualpa was held ransom is still preserved today, and one can even see the line for which Atahualpa promised to fill the room with gold up to. The Inca Seat overlooking the valley of Cajamarca is also still present on Cerro Santa Apolonia.
Beyond Cajamarca itself, there are ruins and archaeological sites within an hour or two of the city. The Ventanillas de Otzuco, the Ventanillas de Combayo, Cumbemayo, Kuntur Wasi, and more can all be accessed from Cajamarca. Many of these are over a thousand years old. Cumbemayo’s hieroglyphs and aqueducts have been dated anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 years old.
Because of all of these significant archaeological finds, Cajamarca’s museums are among the most interesting you will find in Peru. They tell stories of bygone civilizations, many of which we still know very little about due to their lack of written records. The most historians and archaeologists can do is assume, leaving so much to one’s vivid imagination.
Of course, as the first significant stop in the Spanish conquest of Peru, the colonial history in Cajamarca is also very fascinating. The churches, plazas, and colonial architecture still present in Cajamarca today are beautiful attractions.
Visit Cajamarca for its Culture
Three years ago on my first visit to Peru, I thought taking selfies with the Quechua women in Peru parading their alpacas around qualified as partaking in the local culture. When I found myself among the only foreigners in all of Cajamarca, I couldn’t help but laugh looking back at how annoying I was. The cultures of Cajamarca are rich and varied, but the most prominent would be the Quechua.
Cajamarca had such a unique vibe about it. It felt chaotic at times but in a way that you never felt uncomfortable with the chaos. The jam-packed combis zooming through the narrow streets, the bustling market streets lined with everything you could imagine… As a foreigner traveling through, the excitement sparks both your passion for adventure and your gratitude for a nice quiet spot in the Plaza de Armas amidst all of the chaos.
For as modern and progressive of a city as Cajamarca is, the culture and tradition is still as vibrant as ever. A large school procession complete with music, floats, and a long parade made its rounds through the city center, including looping around the Plaza de Armas. Imagine if everything in Times Square was stopped for an hour just so an elementary school could do a parade there. Wouldn’t ever happen. Cajamarca feels like a place that holds both strong ties to its past whilst looking forward to the future.
The Best Things To Do in Cajamarca, Peru
Cajamarca was a great city for me because I never felt too pressured to do too much exploring. There is a lot to do but it is also a city where you can be content doing very little. A trip to the market, spending an hour or two at the museums, and then watching life go by in the Plaza de Armas can be as good a travel day as any. However, for the more adventurous, Cajamarca also offers a lot of activities.
The rock forests of Cumbemayo are an incredible sight to see. The unique formations jutting up all over the landscape can feel otherworldly at times. Aside from the rock forest, you can also see petroglyphs and ruins dated at several thousands of years old. A kilometer-long ancient aqueduct can also be found running through the site. You can also experience some local Quechua culture when you venture this deep in the secluded mountains of the Cajamarca region.
See the Ventanillas de Otuzco and Ventanillas de Combayo
These funerary complexes and mausoleums almost feel alien in nature. Their unique style and ancient roots give it an eerie, otherworldly feeling. Little is actually known about these mausoleums but one can only imagine just how different the civilizations back then were.
Visit Kuntur Wasi Ruins (The House of the Condor)
One of the largest archaeological sites that you can visit near Cajamarca, Kuntur Wasi is as overlooked as it gets. Peru is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of Incan and Pre-Incan archaeological sites but Kuntur Wasi hardly gets any attention for how impressive it is. Dated at 700-1000 BC, it is among the oldest intact archaeological sites you can visit in Peru. A tour from Cajamarca will run you about 100 soles ($30 USD), but if you can figure out how to get there yourself, entrance is only about 8 soles.
Relax at Baños Del Inca
My hostel in Baños del Inca had a thermal bath in it. Coming home every day from a long day of exploring and jumping into a giant hot tub was an unbelievable feeling. At Baños del Inca, you can treat yourself to all natural thermal baths, hot springs, saunas, and even cheap massages. It is definitely a perfect way to spend a few hours.
Hike up Cerro Santa Apolonia
For the best view of Cajamarca, you can hike up to Cerro Santa Apolonia and take a stroll through the botanical gardens. Here, you can also see the Inca Seat, where the Inca leaders would often hold meetings from.
Eat Cuy At The Local Mercados
One of my favorite parts of visiting Cajamarca were the endless and highly affordable options for food everywhere. After paying $25 between 3 people to split a cuy, finding cuy meals for as low as 6 soles was a pleasant change. The markets are full of unique options for whatever your taste.
El Cuarto De Rescate and the Museums and Churches of Cajamarca
The Cuarto de Rescate is where Atahualpa was held ransom. The Inca promised to fill the room with gold and silver, but Atahualpa was killed when the room was about 2/3rds full. The room itself is not much to see but the history behind it is massively significant. It cots 5 soles ($1.50) to get in but since it will only take about 5-10 minutes to see the whole thing, it also includes entrance to a number of other attractions. The archaeological museum and Iglesia Belen are two other highlights included in the ticket.
See The Cataratas in Llacanora
A day trip to the smaller town of Llacanora to see the Cataratas Plan Manzanas is a popular option for the more outdoorsy travelers in Cajamarca.
Visit Hacienda La Collpa
For a serene getaway from Cajamarca, visiting a hacienda can be a good option. Hacienda La Collpa is one of the more popular places to visit for travelers in Cajamarca.
Nightlife in Cajamarca
As a big city, Cajamarca also offers a bustling nightlife scene. The parties often last until 6 AM or later if the pisco is flowing and the reggaeton is bumping.
The street that I found myself partying on was on Junin, just one road over from the Plaza de Armas. It is home to Cajamarca’s busiest nightlife district and gets wild during the weekends. There are a number of bars and nightclubs lining the street, which is usually filled with hundreds of partygoers once the night starts pumping. The best discotecas in Cajamarca can be found here, with DeLorean being one of the most popular. There are a few other, quieter bars in the area to start the night off. Arlekin is a good choice with its colorful decor and spacious layout.
The nightlife in Cajamarca isn’t limited to just one district, meaning you have quite a few options if you want to party in this exciting Peruvian city. We passed discotecas all over the city, although for a one-size-fits-all kind of night, it is hard to go wrong on Junin.
The Final Verdict on Cajamarca
Cajamarca gets a big yes from me. My initial concern with Cajamarca was that there would not be enough to do to warrant a trip here. That ended up being a silly concern. I met two Peruvian girls who were planning to work remotely in Cajamarca for a week just for a change of environment. Needless to say, they hardly got any work done because of just how much there is to do in and around Cajamarca.
I loved everything about Cajamarca for the short time I was there. I loved the combis that could take you anywhere in the city for 1 sol ($.30). I loved roaming around in the markets and on the streets with so much activity. I loved being among the only foreigners in the city, basking in all of the attention I got from the Quechua in Baños del Inca. I’ll admit, I took advantage of my naïvete by getting a ton of free samples whenever I didn’t know what something was. I loved their big floppy hats, most of all.
I loved the nightlife scene, capped off with an iconic late night superhamburguesa. I loved coming home to a freakin’ giant hot tub in my hostel. Everything in Cajamarca was much more affordable than other tourist cities in Peru. Seriously, Cajamarca is a criminally overlooked and underrated destination.