Internationally, Cajamarca isn’t well-known and lies a bit off of the typical tourist trail. When I visited Cajamarca, I was among maybe a dozen foreigners that I was in my entire time there. Three of those foreigners were other travel friends that I managed to convince to come down. However, Cajamarca appeared to be very popular among Peruvian tourists. That’s how you know you’ve made it to a good spot. The locals always know something that the tourists don’t.
I couldn’t find much about Cajamarca online, and was unsure whether to go at all. Although I was absolutely fascinated by the history that took place there, I wasn’t sure that there would be much else to fill my time if I did spend a few days there. Boy, was I wrong. Cajamarca was a treasure trove of off the beaten path activities and internationally unheard of attractions. I could barely scratch the surface in my short time there.
For a person quickly traveling through, here are among the best attractions and things to do in Cajamarca. This beautiful city nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains ended up being one of my favorite destinations in Peru. It was very local, very affordable, and had a tranquil, small-town vibe while also having everything you could ask for in a modern city.
About an hour away from Cajamarca’s city center, Cumbemayo is a perfect way to spend a couple of hours. The rock forests are a breathtaking sight to see. The formations of the rocks jutting up from the fields of gold make for a jaw-dropping landscape.
Among the rock forests, you can find ancient petroglyphs and ruins dating back to over 3,000 years ago. A kilometer-long ancient aqueduct is one of the highlights, with petroglyphs etched periodically as you walk along the site. While these terrains and conditions are seemingly inhospitable, you can also experience a lot of local Quechua culture here. The Quechua in their traditional garb are among the only people living up here, providing you a much more authentic immersion into their lives than you would find in somewhere like Cusco.
Ventanillas de Otuzco
The Ventanillas de Otuzco are a funerary complex that can feel eerily otherworldly in nature. These mausoleums carved into a large rock look like little windows, hence the name ventanillas. The unique style of these tombs come from a different time altogether, giving you a glimpse into a civilization that no one truly knows anything about. The air of mystery here is palpable, and even with a guide, you can truly only make assumptions on the cultures and histories of these people.
Ventanillas de Combayo
Similar to the Ventanillas de Otuzco but a bit harder to get to, the Ventanillas de Combayo are a larger and better-preserved archaeological site. Their difficulty to get to makes them a popular destination if you are looking for something even more off-the-beaten-path.
Hike Up Cerro Santa Apolonia
One of the best things you can do in Cajamarca town itself, the hike up to Cerro Santa Apolonia only takes about 15 minutes. Just look for the small, white church at the top of a staircase. You can see it from the Plaza de Armas. From there, you can continue your hike up through some botanical gardens before getting an incredible view of the city. Up here, you can also see the Inca Seat, two contoured rocks that were believed to be where the Inca held meetings back in the day.
El Cuarto del Rescate
Perhaps the most significant remaining piece of history in Cajamarca, El Cuarto del Rescate (or the Ransom Room) is where Atahualpa was held prisoner. He promised to fill up the room with gold and silver. Unfortunately for the Inca, once that room was almost full, Atahualpa was killed anyway. This effectively marked the end of the Inca Empire as Pizarro began his full-fledged conquest of Peru.
Cajamarca as a whole is overflowing with history, although most of the remains today are just colonial architecture and artifacts.
Museo de Arqueologico
For a glimpse into cultures before the Spanish colonized Peru, the Museo de Arqueologico is a great way to spend an hour or two. With your ticket to the Ransom Room, you can also enter a few other sites throughout the city. The Archaeological Museum holds artifacts not just from the Inca civilization, but from many Pre-Inca civilizations dating thousands of years before the Inca even came to power. This was an eye-opening experience because I was unfamiliar with just how many civilizations had lived in this part of the world.
There was an exhibit that was a timeline of Peru’s ancient civilizations comparing it to where the rest of the world was at the time. Long before the Egyptians, Romans, and Babylonians were starting their much more well-known empires, Peru’s own early humans were starting civilizations of their own. Not much is known about these tribes anymore because of the conquests of the Inca, the Spanish, and other warring civilizations, but the remnants of them can still be seen throughout the country and within archaeological museums.
Also included in your ticket to the Ransom Room is Iglesia Belen. On the outside, it is intricately designed, with patterns and reliefs carved all over its facade. On the inside, it is just as beautiful, although you aren’t allowed to take photos while you are in here. You can enter through the entrance a door to the right from the church into a little plaza.
Plaza de Armas
The Plaza de Armas in Cajamarca is the most beautiful square in the city. Flanked by two intricately-designed churches and colorful buildings on every side, it is a beautiful place to watch life go by. The center is lush, green, and covered with a variety of flowers and gardens.
One of Peru’s oldest and best-preserved archaeological sites is Kuntur Wasi, or House of the Condor. It is a bit harder to get to from Cajamarca but you can take a tour from the city for about 100 soles. However, if you can manage to find your own way to it, entrance is only around 8 soles. Here, you can see temples and a well-preserved monolith with 3,000 year old carvings etched into it. It is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in Peru, although significantly less-known than Peru’s more famous sites.
Baños del Inca
The small town of Baños del Inca is just about a 15-minute ride from the center of Cajamarca. Here, you can treat yourself to a day of relaxation. This city is known for its hot springs and thermal baths. Seriously, it’s everywhere. My hostel, Tetem Backpackers, even had a swimming pool-swized thermal bath which was amazing to come home to every night. Right on the Plaza de Armas, you can visit the hot baths tourist complex where you’ve got everything from gardens to saunas to hot tubs to massages. Treat yo’self.
Cajamarca proved to be a pleasant surprise and I ended up extending my stay there twice. It was a perfect mix of relaxation and adventure. I was so intrigued by the history that occurred here that I spent my entire hangover day watching YouTube documentaries over Pizarro, Atahualpa, and the downfall of the Incan Empire. And in Cajamarca, you can actually walk those same streets and see those same views as they did centuries and centuries ago.