Chachapoyas is capital of the Department of Amazonas, with a population of around 50,000. 'Chacha', as it is called locally, is a quiet, pleasant town with an attractive historical centre, a number of interesting churches, and balconied 19th-century buildings.
Although founded in 1538, none of the early Colonial buildings remain. The Plaza de Armas is home to a small museum and is a great place to people-watch, as the locals enjoy an evening paseo (stroll) around the plaza near sunset, followed by a coffee.
A 10-minute walk from the square, along Calle Salamanca, takes you to Guayamil Viewpoint, with good views over the town.
The market is a block north of the plaza, and the streets nearby swarm with trucks and buses going to many of the nearby villages.
The main attraction of the city, however, is as a base to explore the spectacular natural, archaeological and cultural highlights in the surrounding area.
This once was the land of the pre-Inca Chachapoya, the 'cloud forest people', still shrouded in many mysteries, with hundreds of lost cities and cliff tombs with recently-discovered mummified warriors, in huge and largely uninhabited cloud forests and Andean highlands.
This is a real explorer's paradise, visited by few, and only beginning to offer up its secrets.
First of all there is a must-see for anyone going to the North: Kuelap, a fortified city on top of a mountain, with walls up to 20 m (66 ft) high and some 420 circular buildings inside.
Kuelap is thought to have been an important Chachapoya ceremonial centre with some 3,000 inhabitants dedicated to rituals and solar observations which enabled them to establish an agricultural calendar.
You also should not miss another Chachapoya specialty: tombs for their mummified ancestors miraculously built on huge vertical cliffs.
Many hundreds of those funerary places have been discovered and are well worth a visit. But to access their remote locations always entails a hike of some sort. The sarcophagi at Karajia, adorned with trophy heads, are a 45-minute walk from the village of Cruz Pata; to visit the miniature houses of Revash necessitates following a path uphill for 1.5km (1 mile); Pueblo de los Muertos (Village of the Dead) is found at the end of an 18 km (11 mile) trail.
More strenuous still is the trek to Lake of the Condors, which takes a minimum of three days, taking in fabulous cloud forest scenery and fascinating archeology.
But if you are not a hiker, then don't worry: the excellent Leymebamba Museum contains a unique collection of some 220 mummified Chachapoya and many exotic objects, found in tombs at the aforementioned Lake of the Condors, which help to reconstruct the intricate world of this lost civilization ... without the need to break sweat!
Still, Chachapoya land is a genuine paradise for hikers and nature lovers. The trip to the 771m (2,531ft) high Gocta Falls, leading through lush forests full of birdlife, is the best day hike to be made here. Your ideal start is Gocta Lodge, which also serves as a luxury base camp for many other explorations in this area.
There are multiple hiking and birding options from Leymebamba ... and you are unlikely to encounter other enthusiasts on any of the many day trips or multi-day treks you can make from here.
Spot the Marvelous Spatuletail, one of the world's most spectacular hummingbirds, and rare mountain toucans, quetzals and condors flying over cloud forests in the Atuen valley.
Venture further and stumble on tracks left by Spectacled Bears or Pumas, as you explore some of the dozens of overgrown Chachapoya sites in the Leymebamba area, such as La Congona, Monte Viudo and La Joya, all with views of stunning mountain scenery; and the largest complex of Chachapoya funerary houses at La Petaca and Diablo Huasi.
A warm welcome is guaranteed in the many traditional villages in the area, where tourism is still a novelty. Here you can find beautiful, rural churches, such as the one in La Jalca, watch traditional weaving ... and, if you are lucky, take part in a colourful local fiesta, that usually lasts an entire week!
How to Visit: the Chachapoyas region is a focal point of the majority of Peru North overland itineraries:
- Tarapoto & Gocta 5D / 6D / 7D
- Chiclayo - Cajamarca 6D / 7D / 8D
- Chiclayo - Tarapoto 6D
- Tarapoto - Chiclayo 6D
- Trujillo - Tarapoto 9D
- Tarapoto - Trujillo 9D
Our group birding tours also include several nights here, enjoying the chance to spot a wide variety of species, including the Cock of the Rock and the Marvellous Spatuletail Hummingbird: