Ancient ruins, staggering valleys and cloud forests: Chachapoyas is emerging from the shadows and into the spotlight.
Chachapoyas – named after the civilisation of the same name, who thrived in the cloud forests of the Andes here at an altitude of 2,200m in northern Peru – is fast-becoming a must-see destination in South America. Peppered with ancient archaeological sites that date back further than Machu Picchu, as well as breathtaking natural scenery like dramatic gorges and waterfalls, Chachapoyas has so much to show off, yet remains blissfully off the beaten track.
Chachapoyas is the capital of Peru’s Amazonas region and can be reached by a direct flight (taking less than an hour and a half) from Lima, so getting here is rather straightforward. Once you do arrive, you’ll be greeted by a picturesque town that’s home to around 20,000 inhabitants, a cluster of colonial streets and leafy plazas, whitewashed walls and even a cathedral, St. John the Baptist, at its centre. While Chachapoyas is a pleasant destination in itself, it’s the raft of intriguing sights beyond town that make it so worthy of your time.
The most outstanding place of all is Kuelap, an archaeological site from circa 500AD which was built by the Chachapoya high up in the cloud forest, overlooking Utcubamba River Valley from its towering perch. There are more ancient gems to discover though: such as Karajia, eight mummies nicknamed ‘the ancient wise men’ by local people, standing high up in the cliffs; and the Revash Mausoleum, a burial site teetering at a height of 2,800m. Then, aside from historic marvels, Chachapoyas is a place laced with stunning natural scenery, such as the Gocta Waterfall, Quiocta Cave and Sonche Canyon. So, whether you are fascinated by South American cultures or love beautiful landscapes, Chachapoyas should certainly be on your Peruvian wishlist.
The Chachapoyas’ greatest masterpiece, Kuelap is set 3,000m up in the cloud forest and comprises hundreds of circular stone buildings that would’ve housed thousands of people in its heyday. The crumbling wall that circled this hilltop settlement is an impressive 600m-long and, in places, 17m high.
The beautiful Gocta Waterfall is one of the best-kept secrets of natural Peru, which was only revealed to the world when a German explorer, Stefan Ziemendorff, discovered it in 2002. It plunges for an incredible 771m over two tiers, against a backdrop of sheer cliffs enveloped by cloud forest around one hour north of Chachapoyas.
The Colca Canyon might be Peru’s most famous gorge, but Sonche in northern Peru is just as worthy a place to visit. The Sonche Canyon unfolds for 11km, with a width of 2km and depth of 1km, where it meets with the Sonche River that flows below. A day trip takes you to the best lookout points for sweeping panoramas of the gorge and skies above, with the chance to enjoy a hike in the region too.