After traipsing through the south of Peru twice before even scraping the surface of the north, I knew I had to dedicate some time to this often overlooked region of one of my favorite countries in the world. With incredible environments like the Andes, the Amazon, and the Pacific Coast, the north of Peru might be one of the most diverse and rich regions of the world. My first stop in northern Peru was in the Amazonas. A week later, I was in the mountains of Cajamarca, then surfing on the Pacific Coast before finding myself 5,000 meters up in the breathtaking Cordillera Huayhuash.
Northern Peru might be my favorite region that I have ever backpacked through. It is affordable, stunning, and compared to the south of Peru, practically overlooked by foreign travelers.
15. Sarcofagos de Karajia
Cost: 40 soles (tour)
This is a really cool day trip you can take from Chachapoyas, and it is often combined with a tour of the Quiocta Caves if you opt to go with a guided tour. One of the best things about northern Peru is just how many diverse civilizations there were that pre-dated the Incas. These sarcophagi are mysterious remnants of one of those civilizations. The difficult to reach location of these sarcophagi means that they are the only ones that remain standing. The others have fallen victim to either natural causes or grave robbers, making these artifacts among the last remnants of a long-gone civilization.
14. Surfing in Huanchaco
Cost: 35 soles for board and wetsuit rental
Huanchaco is often considered to be the birthplace of surf. Pictured above is the caballito de totora, a reed boat used by fishermen of old to ride the waves back to shore. This makes it one of the oldest known surf vessels. In short, surf is life in Huanchaco. The waves here are plentiful and the laid-back vibes of the town make it a perfect surfer’s paradise.
13. Ventanillas de Otuzco
Location: Otuzco (Cajamarca)
Cost: 40 soles (guided tour)
These were some of the most unique and impressive things that I saw in northern Peru. Although relatively small for an archaeological site, I had never seen anything like them before. These were believed to be mausoleums, although little else is known about them or the civilization that created them.
12. Laguna Paron
Location: Huascaran National Park
Cost: 30 soles (guided tour) + 10 soles entry fee
Laguna Paron is one of the best day trips you can take from Huaraz. The blue glacial lake is the longest in Huascaran National Park, stretching out over a distance of 3 kilometers. With snow-capped peaks surrounding the almost surreal blue waters, this makes it one of the most breathtaking views in northern Peru.
Location: Cumbemayo (Cajamarca)
Cost: 30 soles (guided tour)
This archaeological site and rock forest is another unique attraction in northern Peru. The rock formations are incredible to wander through. It is also home to some of the oldest archaeological remains in Peru, with several-thousand-year-old rock carvings and a lengthy aqueduct being the highlight of this site.
10. Chan Chan Ruins
Cost: 11 soles (entrance) and 50 soles for a guide (shared between group)
These ruins are of the Chimu civilization. They were a coastal civilization that existed near modern-day Trujillo before the Inca destroyed them. However, Chan Chan was a masterclass in functional architecture back in the day and they were able to withstand the Inca siege thanks to their advanced systems of water storage, irrigation, and more. The ruins of Chan Chan are very impressive and some of the most unique that you will find in Peru.
9. Huaca de la Luna y del Sol
Cost: 10 soles (entry)
Huaca de la Luna was an eye-opening experience. It seriously changed my view on ancient architecture. You know how pyramids like Chichen Itza or Teotihuacan are just… grey? Well, they weren’t. One side of Huaca de la Luna managed to maintain some semblance of its color over the centuries, revealing that those dull grey stones once used to be vibrant reds and blues and yellows and more. Just like how the stone statues of old were one painted in marvelous colors, so too were ancient pyramids and buildings. Huaca de la Luna was an amazing archaeological site where I truly felt like Indiana Jones.
8. Chavin de Huantar
Cost: 30 soles (guided tour) and 14 soles (entrance)
The Inca, the Chachapoya, the Chimu… The list goes on. Let me introduce you to the Chavin, a civilization that existed 3,500 years ago. They predated the Romans, the Greeks, and many more that we credit for most of modern day sciences and practices. Chavin de Huantar is an archaeological complex about 3 hours away from Huaraz. While much of it has faded or disappeared entirely over the course of the millennia, some of it remains well-preserved. It is yet another testament to Peru’s impressive human and archaeological history.
7. Laguna Churup
Location: Huascaran National Park
Cost: 20 soles (colectivo round trip) and 30 soles (entrance fee)
Laguna Churup is one of my favorite hikes that I’ve done in Peru. It’s one you can do unguided and is only an hour from Huaraz, which makes it much more of a hike than the other hikes that require 6 hour round trips. The laguna has a mystical feel to it, with various colors in the laguna and the snow-capped peaks being shrouded by gloomy clouds. It is a good warm-up hike for Laguna 69 or one of the multi-day treks. There is a decent amount of incline but ends at about 4,450 meters above sea level, about 150 meters lower than Laguna 69 and 300 meters lower than the highest point of the Santa Cruz trek.
This is one of the must-do hikes in Huaraz, although it is hard to say which hikes in Huaraz aren’t “must-do”. Basically, they’re all great.
Cajamarca was a city that I was tentative about visiting. I could hardly find anything about it online from other travel bloggers. However, one of my Instagram followers insisted it was a city worth visiting. I figured, hey why not? If no other bloggers have covered this city, I might as well be the first.
I’m beyond glad I went. There are plenty of highlights to this city, and one of the biggest is definitely the city itself. To this day, I think Cajamarca is only second to Cusco as my favorite city in Peru. It was very local, affordable, easy to get around, and not too crowded. Most of all, it was beautiful and held many cultural and historic artifacts and masterpieces, from small archaeological finds to the buildings themselves.
Cajamarca is a bit off the beaten path but it is well worth visiting if you get the chance. I stayed at the quaint little village of Baños del Inca where my hostel came with a giant thermal swimming pool. I followed up every day of exploring with a session in this giant hot tub. I couldn’t have asked for a better week of traveling.
Location: Nuevo Tingo (Chachapoyas)
Cost: 80 soles (guided tour with lunch, entrance, and transport) or 55 soles just for entrance fee. Additional 20 soles for the round trip cable car ticket.
Deeemed the Machu Picchu of the north, Kuelap is a sight to behold. They do have a few similarities. The ruins are impressive and tucked away in the mountains. Before, you needed a challenging and lengthy trek to access them. However, these days, there’s a cable car to take you there. It is much more unknown than Machu Picchu, which makes it a good destination if you are looking for something a bit more off the beaten path.
The views are impressive and the ruins also have a much different style than Machu Picchu. Only about an hour and a half from Chachapoyas, it is one of the best day trips you can take from this gateway to adventure up in the Amazonas.
4. Laguna 69
Location: Huascaran National Park
Cost: 40 soles (guide and transportation) and 30 soles (entrance fee)
My head hurts just reliving this experience. This was, at the time, the toughest hike I had attempted in northern Peru. The altitude and steep incline delivered a killer one-two combo that had me in tears towards the end of the hike. I cried even harder once I caught my first glimpse of the laguna. Laguna 69 is without a doubt one of the most beautiful things you will see in Peru. It is a struggle every step of the way up but it is so worth it.
I felt awful the entire day afterwards but it also helped me prepare for much harder treks, including the Santa Cruz Trek and the 8 day Cordillera Huayhuash expedition. I basically ran up Nevado Pastoruri two days later despite it being at a much higher altitude of 5,050 meters. Laguna 69 is a must for any avid trekker.
3. Gocta Waterfalls
Location: Gocta (Chachapoyas)
Cost: 50 soles (guide, transport, and lunch) or 20 soles just for entrance
Once thought to be third tallest waterfalls in the world, Gocta Falls is about as impressive as it gets. Although it has since dropped to 15th due to the discovery of other waterfalls (including the neighboring Yumbilla Falls), that doesn’t stop the local guides from telling you that it is still the third tallest waterfall in the world. What’s that matter anyway? It’s as impressive as you could imagine.
As we hiked into the jungle, I was half-expecting to run into Tarzan along the way. Since Chachapoyas is located in the Amazonas region of Peru, the trek to Gocta Falls was one of the greenest, most lush treks I’ve ever done. Although you can always see Gocta Falls in the background as you hike through the jungle, you don’t really grasp the scale of this massive waterfall until you are at the base. I had never been anywhere as green or as alive as the basin at the bottom of Gocta Falls.
2. 4-Day Santa Cruz Trek
Location: Huascaran National Park
Cost: Varies, typically 300-450 soles for an all-inclusive trek
I came to Huaraz to trek, and trek I did. Although I had done a number of day trips before this, Santa Cruz was my first real foray into Huascaran National Park. Spending three days camping in the shadows of giants and beneath clear skies and endless galaxies was an indescribable experience. The views were impressive throughout, although days two and three were especially incredible. Snow-capped peaks, ice blue glacial lagunas, and a great trekking group made for some of the best four days of my journeys throughout Peru.
aaaand the number one thing I did in northern Peru is…
*drum roll please*
1. 8-Day Cordillera Huayhuash Trek
Location: Cordillera Huayhuash
Cost: Varies, typically 700 – 1200 soles for an all-inclusive trek, plus an additional 240 soles for entry fees.
Wow. Where do I even begin with the Cordillera Huayhuash? This trek had been on my radar since I left Peru for the first time nearly three years ago. I knew I would come back one day just to do it, and when the opportunity finally arose… I hesitated. For several weeks. I kept telling myself I wasn’t ready and kept pushing it off. After exhausting seemingly everything Huaraz had to offer, I finally said screw it and went for it.
Eight days camping and trekking through landscapes that rival the best mountain ranges in the world… It’s hard to come up with words. Over the course of 140 kilometers, the weather, altitude, and incline challenged me every step of the way. It was the most grueling trek I had ever put myself through. And it was worth every damn drop of sweat.
This is one of the best things I have done. Ever. Not just in northern Peru or South America. If you have the opportunity to take on the Cordillera Huayhuash, take it.