Must see attractions in Northern Highlands

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kuélap


    Travelers have their heads literally in the clouds when visiting the walled jungle fortress Kuélap in the northern highlands of Peru – the gateway to the Amazonas region. Overlooking the lush Utcubamba Valley, situated at 3000m (9842ft) above sea level, this remote pre-Inca site is spread over 15 acres, making it one of the largest stone ruins in the Americas. Built by the indigenous Chachapoyas, Kuélap includes over 400 circular buildings (many well-preserved) that can be reached by foot or cable car. Dubbed the "Machu Picchu of the North," this lofty piece of history has yet to become a major tourism draw as the location is slightly off-the-beaten-path. The spectacular history and views of the cloud forest are reason enough however to take on the adventure of getting there. History of Kuélap A grandiose project, Kuélap was built by the Chachapoyas people (meaning “Cloud Warriors”) as early as the 7th century, a challenge that would continue on for at least another 400 years. The finished result is a near-mile-long stone complex divided into three sections, surrounded by walls (some reaching over 18m/60ft high) and with three narrow entrance points that would have forced intruders to slow down and enter in single file. Kuélap played witness to the flourishing Chachapoya culture and its purpose likely evolved with the years – fortress, refuge, strategic defense point and high-altitude city are among the site’s likely roles. The Chachapoyas enjoyed a few hundred years of peace and development until another culture in Peru began expanding across the Andes and along the coast of Peru. According to archaeological evidence and chroniclers of the time, the Incas chased the Chachapoyas out of their sky-high fortress towards the end of the 15th century and built a few of their own structures on the premises; a century later they too would suffer a loss when the Spanish violently colonized the pre-Columbian empire. Though the Incas were hoping to completely wipe out the Chachapoyas people, their legacy lives on in the genetic traces of indigenous communities that populate the modern Chachapoyas city. Ultimately abandoned, Kuélap was on the path to ruin as local fauna began to invade the area and thick cloud forest blanketed it from the common explorer. For better or worse, a local judge on a field visit to the area happened upon the stone complex in the 1840s, though no records show if damage, theft or otherwise was carried out. Not until 1979 did Peru’s Ministry of Culture take notice and implement plans to protect and conserve a piece of its history. Today the once-forgotten stronghold is on the Unesco World Heritage Site Tentative List and the recent (2017) implementation of on-site cable cars is just one effort to make Kuélap more appealing and accessible to tourists. Top things to see at Kuélap Only a third of Kuelap has actually been excavated and yet what is visible is quite striking and telling of the pre-Columbian Chachapoya culture. Shielded by a colossal stone wall, the center of Kuelap is scattered with hundreds of low circular walls – the remnants of dwellings that were once covered by soaring thatched roofs. The round shapes are enough to make the Chachapoya culture unique, considering most ancient Andean cultures used straight lines in their designs. Epiphytes and orchids lure hummingbirds, which in turn guide visitors along the nearly 610-meter (2000ft) long site, passing rhomboid friezes and zoomorphic reliefs along the way. Keeping a balance on the south and north ends, Kuélap is guarded by two towering structures. On the southwestern end of the site stands the Main Temple, also referred to as El Tintero (Inkpot). Fashioned in the shape of a large inverted cone, this enigmatic structure likely served religious or ceremonial purposes – archaeologists have found an underground chamber housing the remains of animal sacrifices, as well as graves and llama skeletons in the surrounding area. Meanwhile its height of 5.5m (18ft) has led others to speculate it was used as a solar observatory. On the northwest is the 7-meter (23ft) tall Torreón, a tower perhaps used as a watchtower or for defensive purposes due to findings of stone weapons. When to visit Located in northern Peru, where the Andes meet the Amazon, Kuelap is no stranger to sudden spouts of rain. The ideal time of year to visit Kuélap is between April and October, the so-called dry season (though rain in this region can be unpredictable any time of year). Temperatures will be slightly cooler, but the sun will likely be shining upon the high-altitude site. Unlike Machu Picchu, Kuélap can be visited all year round. The main disadvantage of visiting between November and March is the high probability of rainfall, making any length of the hike much more difficult and the numerous changes in transportation required all the more uncomfortable. Keep in mind that the site attracts a fair amount of local visitors on the weekends and holidays, so aim for a mid-week visit early in the morning. It is recommended to wear light layers as well as to bring a sun hat, rain jacket, sunscreen and bug repellant. How do I get there? Far from major urban hubs, Kuélap is relatively isolated compared to its younger and more famous cousin, Machu Picchu. The fastest way to get to Kuelap is by flying from Lima to the high jungle city Jaen, a 1.5-hour flight. There are typically two direct flights offered daily by Latam airlines, and it is recommended to take the early flight as, from Jaen, the city of Chachapoyas is a 4-hour drive by car or bus. Once in Chachapoyas take a taxi or colectivo (shared public transport) to Nuevo Tingo (about 1 hour away) to purchase lift tickets. Hop on a cable car for a scenic 20-minute ride that ascends towards Kuélap. After disembarking, travelers will have to walk 30 minutes to arrive at the site entrance. In total, it takes about 8 hours of hopping on and off transportation to arrive at Kuélap (depending on bus or taxi availability and road conditions), making the journey of getting there an adventure in itself. There are plenty of small inns and hostels in Chachapoyas should travelers forgo the rush and enjoy a bit of rest before jumping in the car again to head to Nuevo Tingo. Alternatively, those looking to stretch their legs can skip the cable cars and, from Tingo Viejo, embark on a 9km (5.6mi) hike through the cloud forest along the Camino Herradura. It takes about 3-4 hours to ascend the craggy mountainside and, though trails are well-marked, local guides can be hired in Chachapoyas city. Tickets and information Once a site well off the beaten path, Kuélap is inching its way to popularity thanks to the cable cars and direct flights to Jaen – neither of which were transportation options a decade ago. However, the low fees for arrival and entrance are an indication of how little tourism the impressive site continues to receive. Purchase of tickets for the cable car and site entrance is only available on site. Round-trip tickets for the cable car ride must be paid in cash (Peruvian soles only) and cost S/21.70 per person (regardless of age). The cable lift system operates Tuesday through Sunday, 8am-4:30pm. Keep in mind that while the cable cars do not operate on Mondays there are buses that can transport travelers from Nuevo Tingo towards the site entrance. Entrance to Kuélap costs S/30 for adults, S/15 for seniors and just S/2 for children 12 years or younger. Visitors should expect to spend at least 2 hours perusing the site. Hiring a local guide is strongly recommended to get the most out of the trip.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Northern Highlands

    Catarata de Gocta

    This 771m waterfall somehow escaped the notice of the Peruvian government, international explorers and prying satellite images until 2005, when German Stefan Ziemendorff and a group of locals put together an expedition to map the falls. Various claims ranging from the third-loftiest waterfall on earth to the 15th highest resulted in an international firestorm. Whatever its rank, Gocta is mighty impressive and, thanks to a web of well-signposted, forested trails, it's now pretty accessible, too.

  • Sights in Northern Highlands

    Gran Vilaya

    The name Gran Vilaya refers to the bountiful valleys that spread out west of Chachapoyas, reaching toward the rushing Río Marañón. Abutting the humid Amazon, this region sits in a unique microcosm of perennially moist high-altitude tropics and cloud forests – an ecological anomaly that gave rise to the moniker of the Chachapoyas culture, 'People of the Clouds.'

  • Sights in Northern Highlands

    Kuntur Wasi

    Perched on a mountaintop overlooking the small town of San Pablo, these seldom-visited pre-Inca ruins are well worth the trip from Cajamarca. The site is considered one of the cradles of Andean culture; four distinct cultures used the area for their ceremonies, with the first constructions taking place around 1100 BC. The main structure is a large U-shaped temple consisting of three elevated platforms around which are located numerous tombs.

  • Sights in Northern Highlands


    This spectacular collection of rugged ruins sprawls over a windswept plateau at a dizzying 3600m. The 3km-long site dates from around 400 BC and has immense defensive perimeter walls and towering ceremonial buildings. Research suggests that the complex formed a center of religious worship. Different communities from all corners of Huamachuco lands would visit to worship the gods that were believed to reside on the mountain peaks surrounding the site on all sides.

  • Sights in Northern Highlands

    Catarata Yumbilla

    A tiered waterfall falling in four sections, Yumbilla, rather like Gocta, was not properly surveyed until the early 2000s. And with all the recent attention heaped on Gocta, everyone seems to have forgotten about Yumbilla, which at 896m is a significantly taller cascade – indeed, it is currently listed as the fifth-highest waterfall in the world. Access is via the village of Cuispes near Pedro Ruíz, but you’ll need a guide to tackle the roughly marked trail.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Leimebamba

    Museo Leimebamba

    The mummies found at Laguna de los Cóndores are housed in the Museo Leimebamba, 5km south of town. The museum is owned by the local community and located in a wonderfully constructed complex with multitiered roofs that pays tribute to indigenous architecture. The mummies are stored behind glass in a climate-controlled room. Most are wrapped in bundles although some have been unwrapped for your gruesome viewing pleasure.

  • Sights in Northern Highlands

    Museo Kuntur Wasi

    This excellent museum at the foot of the Kuntur Wasi ruins houses many objects from the archaeological site including amazing gold crowns and jewelry. Be aware that pieces in the museum are sometimes loaned out to other institutions and unlabeled replicas are put in their place. Ask the staff to identify the original pieces.

  • Sights in Northern Highlands


    This historic site protects several brightly colored funerary buildings tucked into limestone cliff ledges high above a valley near the town of Santo Tomás. Looking a bit like attractive, yet inaccessible, cottages, these chullpas (ancient Andean funerary towers) are made of small, mud-set stones that were plastered over and embellished with red and cream paints. They are thought to date from the 14th century, but their bright taste in decor is still clearly visible today.

  • Sights in Northern Highlands


    This largely unexcavated archaeological site dates from around AD 1100 and is located 17km south of Chachapoyas near the village of Levanto. A visit here won’t appeal to everyone – there are no panels, guides or well-defined paths to aid you on your misty mountain hop – but for those who like their ruins well and truly ruined, Yalape will leave you imagining how explorer Hiram Bingham must have felt when he rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911.

  • Sights in Northern Highlands


    Cumbemayo (derived from the Quechua kumpi mayo, meaning ‘well-made water channel’) is an astounding feat of pre-Inca engineering. These perfectly smooth aqueducts were carved around 2000 years ago and zigzag at right angles for 9km, for a purpose that is as yet unclear, since Cajamarca has an abundant water supply. Other rock formations are carved to look like altars and thrones. Nearby caves contain petroglyphs, including some that resemble woolly mammoths. The site is located about 20km southwest of Cajamarca.

  • Sights in Northern Highlands


    This extraordinary funerary site hosts six sarcophagi perched high up a sheer cliff face. Each long-faced tomb is constructed from wood, clay and straw and uniquely shaped like a stylized forlorn individual. The characters stare intently over the valley below, where a Chachapoyas village once stood; you can see stone ruins scattered among the fields today.

  • Sights in Tarapoto

    Alto Shilcayo

    Dense jungle lies just 3km from the city limits of the crazy, cacophonous metropolis of Tareapoto. This section of the Aréa de Conservación Regional Cordillera Escalera protects the thick foliage around the upper Río Shilcayo. The zone is populated by monkeys and many bird species, and there are five rarely visited waterfalls plus a fantastic natural lookout. Some trails become impassable when very wet.

  • Sights in Leimebamba

    Laguna de los Cóndores

    This part of Peru hit the spotlight in 1996 when a group of farmers found six chullpas (ancient Andean funerary towers) on a ledge 100m above a cloud-forest lake. The burial site was a windfall for archaeologists, and its 219 mummies and more than 2000 artifacts have given researchers a glimpse past the heavy curtain of history that conceals the details of the Chachapoyas civilization.

  • Sights in Pedro Ruíz

    Abra Patricia-Alto Nieva Private Conservation Area

    The 2960-hectare Abra Patricia-Alto Nieva Private Conservation Area is a bird-watcher’s paradise managed by the Association of Andean Ecosystems (ECOAN). More than 300 species call this area home, 23 of which are considered globally threatened. There are a half-dozen named trails in the reserve. None of them are particularly long, but all offer perfect conditions for observing the native birds.

  • Sights in Tarapoto


    This town, a short drive from Tarapoto, is remarkable in the way that it is split into two distinct halves with mestizo (person of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent) residents positioned on the upper plateau while the indigenous community resides on the lower. A large faux-European castle has been constructed on the edge of the upper town, a bizarre sight that serves to reinforce the weird colonial vibe.

  • Sights in Leimebamba

    La Congona

    The most captivating of the many ancient ruins strewn around Leimebamba, La Congona is definitely worth the three-hour hike needed to get here. The flora-covered site contains several well-preserved circular houses, one of which, oddly for Chachapoyas culture, sits on a square base. Inside, the houses are adorned with intricate niches; outside, wide circular terraces surround each residence.

  • Sights in Cajamarca

    El Cuarto del Rescate

    The Ransom Chamber, the only Inca building still standing in Cajamarca, is where Inca ruler Atahualpa was imprisoned. The small room has three trapezoidal doorways and a few similarly shaped niches in the inner walls – signature Inca construction. Visitors are not permitted to enter the room, but from outside it's possible to observe the red line marking the original ceiling of the structure – the point to which it was to be filled with treasure to secure Atahualpa's release.

  • Sights in Chachapoyas


    The tiny and agreeably unkempt village of Huancas (pronounced like the English ‘wankers’!) has a small artisan community making clay pots the old-fashioned way. You can watch the local potters at work in a couple of houses on the diminutive Plaza de Armas. Huancas is also famed for its two magnificent miradores (lookouts), both a short walk from its main square.

  • Sights in Moyobamba

    Morro de Calzada

    Drawing your eye on your way into Moyobamba from the west is a craggy hill rising abruptly out of the flat forest. This is the Morro de Calzada (550m), a wildlife-rich natural feature encased in a protected reserve with a clear if sometimes rocky trail to the summit. On the way up, you'll pass through thick jungle-like vegetation and, with luck, see an abundance of birdlife, including owls.