Escape mass tourism and experience local culture in Peru
March 15, 2019
by Sarah Landry
While most tourists head to the South of Peru, the Amazonas region, located in the Northen Peruvian Andes, is still under the radar. I visited Chachapoyas last September and was amazed by the raw beauty of the landscapes and the surprising culture.
Why you should visit Chachapoyas and the “Cloud people”
Chachapoyas is home to the ancient nation of the “Cloud People”. This name comes from the mist constantly present in the mountains, due to the fact that the city culminates at an elevation of 2335m. You can learn about their ancient rites, see well-preserved ruins and artifacts from before the conquest of the Incas and even learn to speak a few Quechua words. I found that the best way to discover the region is by exchanging with the local artisans, who are still practicing old traditions from another era.
The cloud forest hides some of the highest waterfalls in the world and more than 800 birds species. The region is also known for its responsible tourism initiatives. For example, part of the entrance fee of some trails is distributed into the communities to develop better schools system.
Things to do in Chachapoyas and the surrounding area
Visit the village
The town is charming with its colonial architecture. I started in the Plaza de Armas and From there, walked on Jiron Amazonas, a pedestrian street with local shops and artists. Unlike Cusco, there won’t be anyone selling tours or massage at every corner! You might even encounter a farmer with his sheep or some turkeys cackling in the streets (the pace of life here is a little bit slower than the rest of the world!). Make a stop at the local market to sample some exotic fruits and wonderful pastries.
For an overview of the area, you can walk to the Lura Urco Viewpoint. I went right before sunset, and a beautiful golden light was reflecting on the roof tiles and the surrounding mountains. It’s a 30 min walk from the square but the path isn’t very well indicated and I got lost a few times along the way!
Taste typical food and fair-trade coffee
If you’re a fan of coffee, this is for you! I stumbled across this coffee shop and restaurant called Cafe Fusiones. Not only they serve fair-trade coffee grown locally in Mendoza, but they can also arrange a visit of the plantation upon request. I suggest to contact them before your trip if this is something you’re interested in. I wish I knew about them before I got there! The owner Philippe is very friendly and the place has good vibes. They also have hand-carved wood souvenirs made by a local artisan.
Most restaurants propose a typical Peruvian Highland menu, consisting either of fish, alpaca, or guinea pig with rice, potatoes, plantain, and corn. I also tasted home-made Tamales, one of the local specialty. The owner of the homestay I was in cooked some amazing ones for breakfast!
Vegan should be warned: it’s going to be quite a challenge for you guys! On the other hand, almost everything is grown locally and every animal lives a full life in freedom!
Hike to Sonche canyon
Sonche Canyon is a 20 min ride from Chachapoyas. You can get there with a “Collectivo”. You will most likely make the journey with other locals and you can hop off in Huancas for 3 soles. Once you’re there, it’s only a few minutes walk to the canyon, which is about 900m deep and stretches for 11km. The view is spectacular, to say the least. I spent almost half a day walking along the trail, which was non-existent at some point! Be careful not to get distracted because there is nothing preventing you from falling at the bottom! If you’re not feeling adventurous, you can admire the view from the Mirador without actually hiking, but you would be missing all the fun! I was lucky enough to see horses and some impressive condors on the way. After, I stopped in Hunacas to look at the potteries made by the women of this village.
Visit Kuelap Fortress
One of the famous things to do is visiting the ruins of Kuelap. You might experience altitude sickness because it’s located at an elevation of 3000m. I previously made some hiking around Cusco before going up North, so I had the chance to acclimate to the altitude. The Fortress is well preserved but they are still in the process of digging up the ruins since it was only discovered in 1843. I decided to take a guided tour with Turismo Explorer to have the full explanation about this fascinating archeological site and avoid dealing with transportation since it’s more than 2 hours away. The local guide surprisingly spoke Spanish, English, a little French and German and was very entertaining. For those who don’t like hiking so much, there is a brand new solar-powered cable-car that is included in the tour. Otherwise, it’s a 4hours hike, and from the cable car, I could say the trail wasn’t for beginners!
Kuelap is often compared to Machu Picchu but I found that they were quite different! The view from the fortress wasn’t as jaw-dropping as MP, but there was no line of people waiting to take selfies at the same spot either! Also, the architectural aspects and the organization of the fortress are complete opposites, which was very interesting.
In the archeology theme, there are many other sites like Karajia Sarcophagus, Quiocta cavern, Revash Mausoleum or Leymebamba museum.
Go to Gocta waterfall and stay in Cocachimba
Gocta Waterfall was the highlight of my trip. You can book a day trip with any travel agency in the main square, but if you have a little bit more time, I definitely suggest that you go by yourself and stay in Cocachimba for at least 1 or 2 nights. It’s a 1-hour drive from Chachapoyas.
I stayed at Albergue Sachapuyo, which has an exclusive view on the Gocta falls. Rafael, the owner, was very welcoming and even cooked for me and the other guest. We shared meals and drank homemade alcohol on the patio overlooking the jungle, and after a good night sleep and a copious breakfast, I was ready to start. The entrance fee is 20 soles and hiking shoes are a must. There are plenty of ups & downs and almost no flat sections. The 6 km path is starting right behind the lodge and will get you to the bottom of the 771m waterfall. Plan your clothes in layers because it can get chilly and windy down there! You can bring a picnic, but make sure not to leave any garbage behind you. Also, get the locals to tell you about the legend of the siren in the lake…
If you have more time, you can arrange a bird sighting activity from Cocachimba to admire the parrots and the 800 other colorful species or hike to Yumbilla waterfall.
How to get there
There are multiple ways to get to Chachapoyas from Lima but I would recommend flying, simply because otherwise, you’re looking at a very, very long bus ride! There are two airlines (LC Peru and Atsa) deserving Chachapoyas airport (CCH). Round trip is around 120$. From the airport, you can catch a Collectivo to Chachapoyas for 5 -10 soles. If you’re going directly to Cocachimba, you will most likely pay 80-100 soles for the 1,5-hour drive.
Language & Networks
If like me, Spanish isn’t one of your skills, you might encounter some communication difficulties! Due to the facts that it’s a remote area and that there isn’t a lot of English speaking tourists, locals mostly speak in Spanish. Download the Google Translate app on your phone before you go because Wifi and network connection are rare when you are this far up in the mountains. While we’re at it, it might be a good idea to load the map of the area as well.
To sum up, Chachapoyas definitely is the right place to go if you want a break of the modern technologies and to immerse yourself in the luxuriant jungle and ancient traditions