Easily one of my favourite places to visit in Peru is Chachapoyas. Located in Northern Peru, Chachapoyas is usually skipped by many travellers visiting the country. I get it, it’s not really on the Lima, Cusco, Arequipa travel trail. Instead, it’s up north by Ecuador. But for those who put in the effort and venture to this northern town, the rewards are spectacular.
Dubbed the “new Cusco”, the country started investing in Chachapoyas in recent years, making it more tourist-friendly by increasing tour agencies and transportation options. The town is still very small and far from the tourist giant that is Cusco. But all of that just adds to the charm and mystery of this town.
Luya Urco Viewpoint
Here’s what to do around the town:
Built high on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in the 6th century AD, the Keulap Fortress is a massive stone complex. The ingenuity and architecture of the ruins, dating even older than Macchu Picchu, demonstrates just how sophisticated this culture really was. Protected by high fortifying stone walls, thousands of people had once called this fortress home.
How to get there
Unlike Macchu Picchu, where there are dozens of options to visit the site, with Keulap, there are really only two ways in. You either hike up the mountain or take the relatively new cable car (opened in 2017).
Visiting Keulap is not hard at all and can easily be managed without assistance of a tour agency. I decided to go with a tour agency though. With all things calculated in, it ended up being very similar in pricing and I wanted to meet other visitors.
I found an agency offering the tour located around the Plaza del Armas. Since Chachapoyas is still a very small town, there are only a handful of tour agencies to choose from, most offering the same things, with similar pricing. Expect to pay around s/70 – s/100 for a day trip to Kuelap depending on the season you’re visiting in.
I found the day tours very reasonable, as it included transportation to the site, the cable car ticket, the entrance ticket, a guide and a full lunch after the site visitation.
With a nickname like Fortress in the Clouds, it should give you an indication of the type of weather to expect. Even though it can start out sunny and warm when you leave the Chachapoyas, it will most definitely change throughout the day. Up in the mountains by the archeological site will most likely be windy and grey. And if the clouds do decide to open up, you’ll feel the heat from the Amazon jungle.
There are small stands to buy food and water around the site along the way. There’s also a cafe at the bottom of the archaeological site, but once you’re in the site, there are no refreshment stands or bathroom facilities.
Recently becoming world-known and making its splash as one of the tallest free-leaping waterfall in the world, Gocta measures at over 700 metres tall, with two major drops. I’m not surprised this spectacular wonder has stayed hidden from the world for so long though. It’s tucked deep inside the jungle. Reaching the waterfall requires transportation and kilometres of hilly walking (or on horseback). There is a small town that is fortunate enough to view the waterfall in plain site, but aside from that, the next nearest town is kilometres of winding roads away.
How to get in:
There are two main ways to enjoy the Gocta Waterfall. And one of them heavily depends on your commitment and physical level, as it can be fairly rigorous.
The easiest way to experience the waterfall is booking a one day tour with a tour agency. Tours start at around s/60, but would increase if visitors want to horseback the difficult parts of the hike into the waterfall.
Tours generally includes round trip transportation and entrance ticket.
However, it should be noted that the tour agencies only visit the bottom tier of the waterfall. Reaching the bottom tier of the waterfall is a relatively easy hike. There are uphill and downhill bits, but generally it’s very manageable.
Visiting the waterfall on your own is really very easy as well. And this way, you can decide which tier of the waterfall you want to visit.
Make your way to Chachapoyas’ bus station, which is about a 15 minutes walk from the Plaza del Armas. There are numerous of buses heading towards San Pablo or Cocachimba for s/5.
Cocachimba is the town you’d get off at if you want to visit the bottom tier of the waterfall. After getting off the collectivo, it’s a direct path through the town towards the waterfall. But if you’re interested in visiting the middle tier or both tiers of the waterfall, I’d highly suggest starting the journey off at San Pablo.
It would be easiest if you told your driver you’re planning on visiting the Gocta waterfalls by San Pablo. As the get off point is not labelled at all. It’s basically off the side of the road after a bridge, beside a sign. Not very distinguishable at all. From this drop off point, you’ll have two options. Motor taxi or walk to the town. I’d highly recommend taking the motor taxi, since the journey is a fairly strenuous climb up a mountain. With the motor taxi, it’s only about 10 minutes and the view is incredible.
Usually, if you tell your driver where you’re heading, they’d notify a motor taxi waiting for you. Even if you didn’t, it shouldn’t be much difficulties hailing one on the spot. Rides are about s/10.
Ask to be dropped off in front of the tourism centre where you will need to buy an entrance ticket. From there, it’s a relatively direct path through the town towards the waterfalls trail.
For a more detailed experience of hiking both tier of the Gocta Waterfall, see my post here.
Bring enough water and snacks for the entire journey. There’s nothing on the trails and the towns you start and finish in are very basic. If you’re starting off in the morning, chances are they’re still closed.
Like most destinations in Peru, micro climates is very common. The start of the trek is usually crisp and comfortable, but as you head deeper into the jungle, it’ll get humid and muggy. Insects, especially mosquitos will follow your every step. And as you get closer to the waterfall, the temperature will drop. Bring layers and rain jackets are key for this excursion. I wouldn’t say special hiking shoes are necessary for this trip, as the ground was predominately dry aside for the areas in close proximity with the falls. The path for the bottom tier of the waterfall did have an added obstacle of having to deal with horse droppings though.
Since Huaraz is surrounded by mountain ranges whichever way you look, trekking is available in almost every way you decide to head towards. Of all of them, the Santa Cruz trek is one of the most popular route travellers opt for. The combination of spectacular sceneries and a relatively shorter route (compared to others) makes it a top recommended trek.
What you should Know
The trek is about 50 km long and is a 3 or 4 day circuit trek through the Cordillera Blanca mountains. The only really difficult part of this hike is making it through the Punta Union Pass on the second day. Otherwise, it’s an absolutely stunning route that takes you through mountains, beside lagunas, valleys, and lots and lots of waterfalls.
Getting lost on this trail is pretty difficult, which is why a lot of people opt to venture on their own. I decided to make it simple on myself and joined a tour. This way, they carried my camping gear and daily necessities, and all I had to do was enjoy myself. You can find tours for around s/400.
Since this trek is a circuit, there are two possible starting points. Most tours will start in Vaqueria (3,700 m) and finish in Cashapampa (2,900 m). The advantage of starting at Vaqueria is that you start off high and is more of a down hill trek than up. It’s also less total elevation gain during the trek than starting at Cashapampa.
Also, if you’re thinking of doing the trek on your own, it’s much easier to catch a ride back to Huaraz from Cashapampa. It’s actually a town, whereas Vaqueria is more of a station off the side of the road.
I started off at Vaqueria with my tour. The first day began bright and early, before the sun even popped up behind the horizon. We got collected in our van and began a four hour drive towards Vaqueria. We stopped for breakfast, of course. I’m starting to realize Peruvians do not like to skip their meals! We didn’t get to Vaqueria until 1pm, where we were handed a packed lunch, while the team packed up all our gears onto the mules.
The first day is an easy and relaxing hike with some of the best views on the entire trek. About 5 hours of hiking, this section is relatively levelled, so you can spend all your time enjoying the scenery instead of watching your footing.
On Day 2, you get to the pass. You’ll also get the earliest call time today. We left our campsite just as the sun started glowing behind the mountains. While today is the shortest in distance to cover, it’s the most strenuous of all the days.
It’s a steady uphill climb until you see the Punto Union Pass, and from there it’ll only get steeper until you reach the top. The altitude doesn’t help either. At 4750 m, this was the only time I really felt the altitude affecting me. Processing thoughts and getting my limbs to act as they were told became difficult. I was short on breath, and even though my body wasn’t aching from the hike, I was fatigued.
I took a couple caffeine pills to get my body processing quicker and powered through. Making it to the top was an incredible feeling! I have to say, the air smells particularly sweet at the top of the mountain!
Beyond the pass is a rocky switchback path down to the campsite. As the weather can be a bit unpredictable, most tours aim to have all trekkers at camp by the noon time.
Here you can laze around and enjoy the rest of the afternoon or if you’re up for it, take a hike to a lookout point to see the “Paramount Studios” mountain peak, Artesonraju. The hike is a couple hours long and is a steady incline up the mountainside, but is completely achievable.
Still riding the high of climbing over the mountain pass, today is a considerably easier day. Even though I had signed up for a 4 day, 3 nights tour, some trekkers in my group wanted to return to Huaraz sooner. So our guide gave us the option of walking the rest of the way on the third day.
If we stuck to the original plan, we would’ve hiked 3-4 hours each day, arriving at camp around midday.
Our group decided to start out earlier in the day and hike the last 20ish km within one day. This way we got to camp closer to the town where it was warmer. The extended distance wasn’t actually very difficult, as we were predominately going down hill.
The last night was spent in Cashapampa, relaxing around the fire and enjoying the company of my fellow trekkers over beers. The perfect way to end an amazing multi-day hike through the mountains!
For a guide to what else to do in Huaraz, click here
Equivalent to taking a step into Middle Earth and directly being transported into the stunning mountainscapes of the Lord of the Rings, Huaraz is a breathtaking gem located in the Andean Valley.
Sitting pretty at over 3,000 metres above sea level, Huaraz is surrounded by the Cordillera Blanca (snow-capped mountains) to the east and the Cordillera Negra (mountains without snowy tops) to the west. These spectacular mountain ranges are not just beautiful backdrops for the area though. Amongst them are actually some of the highest peaks in Peru and even the Western Hemisphere.
Acclimatize to the altitude
I arrived on an overnight bus from Lima, ready to breath in the fresh air and explore Peru’s very own outdoor playground. Arriving early in the morning, I spent my first day jumping from tour agency to tour agency looking for the best group to join. I was also using this time to let my body acclimatize to the altitude.
Stay in a high-altitude town long enough and you’ll hear plenty of stories of how it affects each traveller differently. There are the ones that get slight headaches and shortness of breath. But then there are those that claim of intense chest pains, chest restrictions that prevented air flow and even vigorous vomiting.
I wasn’t particularly affected by the altitude of the town, but I still didn’t want to chance it. Being completely unaware of how my body would react to it, I took precautionary altitude pills the day before to help keep the potential sickness at bay.
Huaraz, as a town, doesn’t really have a lot of attractions. Visitors can find the standard food market, main city square and church. However, what really motivates travellers to visit are the copious amount of attractions just outside of the town.
Nicknamed the outdoor playground of Peru, Huaraz is an absolute hiker’s paradise. There are day hikes to prestine glacial lagunas, month-long and multi-day treks through the mountain ranges. There are alpine trekking on mountains over 5,000 metres, archeological ruins and even hot springs.
Even though I had planned to stay in Huaraz for almost two weeks, I still had difficulty narrowing down what I wanted to do. Eventually, I decided on two highly rated activities that promised me a staggering experience. I’m usually skeptical when claims are this grand. But when everyone I encountered said the same thing, I had to experience it first hand.
Laguna 69 is the perfect one-day hike to get you into gear. Nearly every tour agency offers a tour to Laguna 69, but it’s also completely doable independently. In the end I decided to join a tour, as it would’ve cost me around the same amount either way.
Tours start early in the morning, before the sun is even up. You’ll more than likely be picked up at your accommodation at around 5 a.m. From Huaraz, it’s about a 2 hour drive to the starting point of Laguna 69. Most tours would also make a quickie pit stop for breakfast and give trekkers one last opportunity to stock up on last minute snacks and drinks.
It’s good to note that none of the tours provide lunch on this trek, so this stop is also a great time to get a pack away lunch for later on.
At approximately 12 kilometers long, the hike
usually takes visitors around 3 hours to ascend and 2 hours to descend. The opening stages are relatively easy and flat. A great way to get into the groove and acclimatize to the altitude, because you start hiking well above 3,500 meters, which for most people is when altitude sickness starts hitting.
The hike progressively climbs to almost over 4,000 meters, and it’s not until the last several kilometers that it really gets tough. The last section is a steady and steep climb, full of switchbacks. The reward at the end is priceless. With the sky opening wide and the turquoise blue laguna sparkling so brightly in front of you.
This multi-day hike is one of the more popular ones in the area, possibly because it offers amazingly diverse views and is less challenging than some of the other hikes in the area.
Similar to Laguna 69, pretty much every tour agency will offer this trek. It’s possible to conqueror the journey completely on your own too, though I didn’t want to carry my own gear so I opted to join a tour.
At about 50km long, there’s only one really difficult bit; when you climb through the Punta Union Pass on the second day. Otherwise, it’s picture perfect every step of the way!
For a more detailed account of my experience trekking Santa Cruz, check out my post here.
Celebrations for Semana Santa or Holy Week takes place all across Peru. But no other city captures the spotlight quite like the small and generally sleepy hillside town of Ayacucho.
Ayacucho holds prominence within the history of Peru, being the location where the gruesome Battle of Ayacucho was held. At the event, pro-independence troops defeated the Spanish army and helped lead the country to independence. Despite the significance of this bit of Peruvian history, this little town still sits quietly on the sidelines until this major celebration every year.
But when this 10-day festival does arrive, it brings in the biiiggg crowds! Ayacucho does make the perfect backdrop for the celebrations though. The town has an overwhelming abundance of churches, 33 to be exact – one for each of Jesus’ lives. Mix that in with descriptive colonial architecture, and it’s the perfect formula for a charming landscape.
While celebrations start days before, the real fun begins on the Good Friday. That’s when the holiday turns from solemn and mournful to a more celebratory atmosphere. Visitors, predominately local tourists, swell the narrow and hilly cobblestone streets. Vendors selling everything from perfectly dipped candy apples to multi-coloured steaming refreshments transform this sleepy town into circus-level excitement.
There really aren’t any town-wide activities scheduled for this day. Many guests just wander the avenues, taking in all the spectacles. Gearing up for the big events lined up later in the weekend.
While the atmosphere remains predominantly calm and family-friendly on Good Friday, the party turns up several notches on Holy Saturday. By 10am, the beers are joyously flowing and the main square is fully vibrating from the parades and various marching bands. Crowds swarm into the main square and the dancing will continue non-stop until the evening.
One of the main events on Holy Saturday is the running of the bulls, known locally as jalatoro. Similar to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, bulls are let out to run through the town streets, led loosely by Moricuchos (local cowboys). Rumours have it this year is actually the last year they will be practicing this tradition though. A combination of safety (because every year people are sent to the hospital after incurring injuries from this event) and pressure from animal rights organizations are making officials rethink this part of the festival.
As the afternoon sun rises and descends, people flow to and from the main square. Younger festival-goers will attempt to build the tallest human ladder, while others simply lounge around and soak in the atmosphere around the square.
Don’t be surprised to see trucks arriving in the square with food and refreshments for festival-goers. Or the fire fighting team cooling the crowd down by spraying them with gallons of water! It’s a town-wide celebration and everyone is happy to play their part to ensure the festival progresses joyously.
The party does slow down by night time on Holy Saturday, but it never really ends. The town stays half-awake until the religious rites begin at 5am on Easter Sunday. The climax of the entire festival. As dawn creeps into the town, the resurrected Christ is carried out of the main cathedral on a giant white pyramid float, adorned with candles. People parade the pyramid float around the town. Singing, chanting and ringing bells, all while fireworks ignite in the background. A fitting end to a highly atmospheric festival.
Especially for Semana Santa, almost all the bus companies will provide service to Ayacucho. Book your transports early though, especially when planning on arriving the Thursday or Friday before Semana Santa.
If possible, the most economical way I found is to join a tour group. I found a tour group offering a 4 day, 3 nights package. It included transportation, accommodation and activities to nearby sites. The entire package ended up costing me less than a round-trip bus ticket!