Guide to Chachapoyas
Nestled in the cloud forest between 800 and 3,000 metres (2,624 and 9,800 feet), Chachapoyas is scattered with ruins attributed to the pre-Inca Chachapoya culture – also known as “The Cloud People”– who populated this area around the 10th century A.D.
Known as “La Ceja”, or eyebrow of the jungle, the cloud forest here is particularly rich in bromeliads, ferns and other epiphytes, making it a rewarding area for botanists and natural history enthusiasts, as well as for all those wanting a quality experience in a pristine and little-trodden area.
Things to do in Chachapoyas
Kuelap Fortress: ‘Machu Picchu of the North’
The most important archaeological complex near Chachapoyas is Kuelap: a magnificent Pre-Inca fortress. Many consider it to be the second most impressive ruin complex in Peru after Machu Picchu, with a parallel drawn between the stunning settings of the two archaeological sites.
Kuelap is the largest ancient stone structure in South America. Its most noteworthy feature is the sheer size of its granite walls, rising in places up to 18 metres (60 feet) in height. With narrow entrances, ceremonial buildings, high walls and rock reliefs, these are made even more impressive for their setting, perched on a high mountain ridge in the cloud forest. Located at an altitude of 3,000 metres (9,500 feet), the fortress enclosure is nowadays covered in dense forest. Vegetation here is abundant and lush, boasting a large variety of orchids, many of them indigenous to the area.
Kuelap is about 2 hours from the town of Chachapoyas, and is reached by driving to Tingo, where you can then drive most of the way to the ruins and then walk approximately thirty minutes to reach the towering walls. Alternatively arrive by cable car (due to open 2017). To take the cable car ride, there is a shuttle service of 4km to the cable car station, followed by a 25 minute ride up to the ticket entrance at Kuelap, and then a thirty minute walk to the ruins. A guided visit to Kuelap with transportation can be arranged as part of any visit to Chachapoyas and tailormade trip Peru with Aracari.
In the area around Kuelap, close to the Utcubamba River (a tributory of the Amazon River), there are dozens more archaeological sites. Some of these are still covered in undergrowth.
Although Gocta Waterfall has been known about for many years, it was only established as one of the highest in the world in 2006. Gocta Waterfall is easily visited as a one day hike from the best lodges in Gocta. The trek goes along the side of a valley through sugar cane fields and into forest that is home to the yellow-tailed woolly monkey, mountain sloth and the magnificent cock-of-the-rock. With glimpses of the waterfall along the way you will arrive at the base of the towering falls after 2 hours. It is also possible to arrange horses that allow you to ride two-thirds of the distance hiked to the falls. Accommodation options include Gocta Natura and Gocta Andes Lodge.
For another day of hiking through the beautiful cloud forest of Chacapoyas, Yumbilla offers a quiet route that few visitors venture along. Although not as well known as its neighbour Gocta, the main Yumbilla waterfall is claimed by some to be taller. With two smaller waterfalls along the way, the chance to walk behind a waterfall, cross a stream on a tree branch, it’s an interesting and varied hike. There are several view points along the way where you can look down at the waterfall as well as out at the cloud forest and valleys below.
Sarcophagi of Karajia
One of the most impressive and remote archaeological sites in the country, the Sarcophagi at Karajia consist of seven ornate figures that have been standing on a ledge gazing out across the valley for over 750 years. Little is known about the civilisation that left them – the figures guard the secrets and the legacy of the ancient Chachapoyas people. Enjoy expert guiding in Peru on a private tour for a close-up view of their red petroglyphs and see how their shape mirrors those of Easter Island statues.
Mausoleums of Revash
Blending into the cliff face are the Mausoleums of Revash, built to house important members of society after they died, these mausoleums are cream-colored with painted red designs that archaeologists are still working to decipher. After a thirty minute walk from the nearby village, you will come upon the mausoleums which will leave you pondering how they were built at such heights. Located on the way to the town of Leymebamba, a visit to Revash pairs well with a visit to Leymebamba Museum where some of the contents of the mausoleums are now being preserved.
Visit the Leymebamba Museum, which is just across the road from Kentitambo Lodge. The museum was built to house 219 mummies and many other artifacts found in a cliff tomb site at a nearby lake, Laguna de los Cóndores, in 1997. As part of Aracari’s exclusive access visits in Peru, we can arrange for you to be guided by Adriana von Hagen, the Museum’s co-director, daughter of American explorer, archaeological historian and anthropologist Victor Wolfgang von Hagen, and Aracari guests are offered exclusive access to the specially climate controlled mummy depository, not usually open to the public.
How to get to Chachapoyas
Chachapoyas is in a remote area with various gateways served by direct flights from Lima: to Chachapoyas (in the drier season May to November), Jaen, Cajamarca, Tarapoto and Chiclayo.
During rainy season (December to April) access is quickest through Jaen, which is approximately three hours drive from the best lodges in Cocachimba (Gocta), which can be used as a base to explore the nearby Gocta waterfall, Yumbilla waterfall and Kuelap ruins during a four day excursion. This can be extended in a tailormade trip Peru to include a stay at Kentitambo Lodge with a visit to Museo Leymebamba and the Mausoleums of Revash, where the return flight to Lima can then be taken from Cajamarca. It is a full day’s drive from Kentitambo to Cajamarca.
Alternatively, you can fly into or out of Tarapoto or Chiclayo to reach Chachapoyas. On Peru’s northern coastline, Chiclayo boasts impressive archaeological sites which are highly recommended as part of longer exploration of the highlights of Northern Peru.
In Chachapoyas the terrain is rugged, with curvy unpaved, bumpy roads. The pay-off is the opportunity for Peru adventure travel to somewhere of outstanding natural beauty and remarkable cultural interest, where few others venture.
When to go
During the drier seasons, from May to October is ideal. Travel from December to April may see heavy downpours where travel could be disrupted.