Waterfalls and tombs near Chachapoyas.

Waterfalls and tombs near Chachapoyas.

This trip further explores the interesting area around Chachapoyas, in the North of Perú and due East of Cajamarca. The trail that focuses on orchids runs from the humid forests around Moyabamba to Chachapoyas, and on across the Maranon valley towards Cajamarca.

A general map of North-Eastern Peru

The name of the town is derived from the Chachapoyas civilisation, which was felled by the Incas only a few decades beforte they, too, met their fate at the hands of the Spanish. The greatest attraction is the huge walled settlement of Kuelap, which is described in detail in the guide. This trip, however, focuses on some of the less-known points of interest in the area. The journey was made by a Trek!Perú associate, Angel Antezana.

An Andean dawn over Chachapoyas and the surrounding hills

The tranquil town of Chachapoyas has its attractions, but visitors are usually drawn by the fine countryside around it, the extraordinary wild life and by the substantial number of largely unexplored archaeological sites in the area. Chachapoyas is the capital of Amazonas province. It is primarily and agricultural centre and its tourist industry is in its infancy. It has a number of adequate hotels, however, and well-developed if basic communications. It is perched at 2300m on the watershed above the source of the important Rio Utcubamba.

The plaza de armas in Chachapoyas, with inflatable toys

Chachapoyas is set on a ridge, one side of which is relatively arid, whilst the other swoops down into the deep humid jungle. The local Andes are not particularly high, but there are nevertheless substantial ranges which further complicate the terrain. All of this is cut with deep ravines, between which the climate is extremely variable. As a result, the area is both wild and extremely diverse: one can go from temperate trout streams to dry cactus desert in a few kilometres.

The town was founded in 1536 and has grown slowly to its present 16,000 or so inhabitants. Many of the houses from the colonial era still survive in streets leading down to the Plaza de Armas, some of which can be visited by arrangement. This also houses the museum, in which items from the Chachapoyas culture are preserved.

The Gojta waterfall near Chachapoyas in Peru

A series of remarkable waterfalls can be reached from Chachapoyas. Those at Gojta fall 771m, which make them the third highest in the world, after the Venezuelan Angel falls and the Tugela in South Africa. The falls are found in a valley filled with cloud forest, close to the Cocachimba estate and settlement.

Approaching the foot of the Gojta waterfall, in dense Andean mist forest

The 22 separate waterfalls can be reached only on foot, via a complex of paths that follow the river, plunge into the forest and emerge again in open ground. There are no signs whatever, and a local guide is essential. Their services will cost around US$10 for a modest sized group. One can travel by mule, which takes about 40 minutes to reach the falls, or by foot, which is likely to take at least twice as long. It is wise to leave three hours for a return walk.

The Wanglik waterfall and the associated Inca ruins

The region is very rich in waterfalls. The village of Luya has the Wanglik falls, which are shown above. There are ruins attributed to the Inca, built from adobe and situated in cliff niches. One example is shown above, and another of much the same construction is shown below. The curved walls certainly had thatched roofs, as this is a design which local people still use for minor structures. This settlement was probably used by pastoralists during the wet season.

A panorama of the Wanglic ruins, near Luya in Chachapoyas province, Peru

The little settlement of San Carlos (km 13 on the San Ruiz road) is the start of the three hour walk through interesting and much wetter countryside that leads to the to the Shinata falls. The image (below) shows these are the depths of the dry season, but they are said to be extraordinary after the main rains. One can see the extent of the fall from the areas of rock swept clean of vegetation.

The Shinata falls in Northern Peru, Chachapoyas district

Much of the local landscape is carved from thousand metre-thick deposits of limestone. These cliffs are riddled with undocumented and unexplored cave systems. One such system that is easily accessible is at Lamud, and is called La Caverna de Quiocta. This is entered through a five-metre opening and extends at least half a kilometre into the hillside. It has exceptional limestone formations, and the picture shows the stalactites and other forms that can be seen in it. There are also Inca tombs. The image, below, shows a montage of examples of these formations.

Limestone formations in the Quiocta cave in Northern Peru

Lamud is 37 km from Chachapoyas, North of the town. (See the map, above.) It can be reached by public transport in around 2 hours. The caves can be reached by walking for about 90 minutes from Lamud, or by taking a local taxi for the twenty minute trip and then walking for a brief spell to the cave entrance.

South from Chachapoyas.

The landscape becomes more mountainous as one heads South from Chachapoyas, towards Leymebamba and, ultimately, West to Cajamarca. (The map shows Leymebamba but not Cajamarca.) Rainfall increases, and the road contours up to a series of high passes after Leymebamba. The settlement can be reached from Chachapoyas by relatively frequent public transport, on a road that follows the Utcabamba river, in which there are excellent trout. The fortress of Kuelap lies on a high bluff, about 10 km or a 3-5 hour climb from the road. The detour takes about 30 minutes by road, and is described in detail in the guide.

Wild, forested landscape close to Lamud and Leymebamba

The settlement of Leymebamba itself has a number of little-known attractions. It is interesting for its cave paintings. These caves contains tombs, which date to the Inca period. Whilst the paintings have not been studied formally, it is generally believed that they are much earlier.

One of many scattered ruins at Cochabamba in Northern Peru

Other interesting features are somewhat further from Chachapoyas. Cochabamba is another ancient settlement, remodelled under the Inca Túpac Yupanqui in around 1475. It is found on the road that leads from Chachapoyas towards Cajamarca. The stepping off point is Pusac, 224 km from Chachapoyas.

Horses graze around the Inca ruins at Cochabamba

There are two possible routes, one taking four and the other 7-8 hours to complete on foot. The trip requires a guide, some planning and, if the longer route is to be taken, camping equipment suitable to the attitude. It is sensible to hire a mule. The scenery is very fine, rich in butterflies and orchids. The local people see few outsiders, and - as is typical of Northern of Perú - they are generally open and welcoming.

Impressive and deserted Inca ruins at Cochabamba, some hours from Pusac in Peru

The ruin is very typical of provincial Inca construction. The large well-faced blocks are joined in irregular but precise seams. Doors taper upward to a flat and massive lintel. Nothing is known about this site, which has never been excavated or properly dated. It may well have been a way station on one of the many roads which wove the Inca empire together.

Those who are interested in archaeology should note that the major Peruvian universities are extremely willing to work with sponsors in order to undertake such investigations. We can facilitate or organise such a collaboration if this is of interest to you.

The tombs of Karija, near Leymebamba, Northern Peru

The same region contains the region dotted with extraordinary tombs of Karajía, which were only discovered in the last decade. They date to the Chachapoyas culture, which lasted from 1100 to 1300AD. The dead were placed in - or more properly, built into - vertical, 3m tall clay-and-bamboo coffins that are set into niches, shallow caves or ledges that overlook the Utcubamba river, lakes and other sights of natural beauty in the region. Such burials occur in in groups of four to eight, perhaps reflecting families. The coffins have a characteristic almost African appearance, and were decorated in white lime, red ochre and charcoal. They are known locally as Purunmachos, from the Quechua for old and the Spanish for man.

Chachapoyas tombs contain mummified bodies dating to the period around 1200BC

A private museum at Leymebamba reflects what is known of this culture. This has eccentric opening hours and it is as well to establish whether they will be open at the Chachapoyas tourist information office before making the trip.

Purunmachos tombs peer down from the cliffside in Northern Peru