For most people, when they hear the word Peru they think of Machu Picchu, Cusco, the Nazca Lines, or Lima. While southern Peru has a lot to offer travellers seeking city escapes, archaeological wonders and adventure, for those looking to get off the beaten path and explore cultures other than the Incas, northern Peru is the perfect place to explore. Myself and AJ spent some time in Cajamarca and Chiclayo and happily immersed ourselves into the madness of the transportation system, the wonder of uncovered tombs and ancient architecture, and the tranquillity of a sleepy mountain town. In this article I’ve put together a review of our experiences in both towns, along with some must-do’s and top tips.
Cajamarca is a small, sleepy mountain town (not as high as Cusco or Huaraz, so no fear of altitude sickness) which AJ and I travelled to on an overnight bus from Trujillo. One of its main products is cheese, and there are plenty of shops to choose from, so take your time. We saw very few tourists while staying there, and of the tourists we saw, the majority of them were Peruvian. What it does mean is that there is next to no English anywhere so make sure you’ve got your basic Spanish up to scratch!
Most of the town shuts down between 1pm and 3pm as a sort of resting period, even the schools. It’s best to plan to do nothing for those two hours – go for a rest yourself in your accommodation, take a wander or find a place to sit and people watch. Because this town doesn’t cater hugely for western tourists, there’s nowhere to really sit out with a drink, although there are coffee shops around the main square. If you’re looking for something to cool you down, go to Heladeria Holanda on the main square; their homemade icecreams and sorbets are delicious!
Just off the main square there is a tourist booth where you can get a free map of the city – it’s on the only pedestrianised street off of the main square.
I was a bit disappointed with the restaurant choices in Cajamarca to be honest – the recommended more expensive places were either average or not great (had the weirdest non-meat hamburger in Tuna Café, it was gross!). The best places we ate were the local cheap-eat places that did usual chifa-style food, and a sandwich bar called Sanguchon which did amazing burgers.
What To Do and See
As with all Peruvian towns, the local market is fun to wander around. In Cajamarca it sprawls over several streets about a 5-minute walk from the main square, and walking around you can spot all sorts of food being sold, from whole chickens, to various animal body parts, to various types of vegetables. During the day canvas covers are strung up to keep the food in the shade, so watch out if you’re tall!
The Cathedral, San Francisco Church and Iglesia Las Concepcionistas Descalzas are all a definite must to go visit – they are all stunning! San Francisco church is open throughout most of the day, but the Iglesia Las Concepcionistas Descalzas and the Cathedral are only open for services early in the morning and in the evening, so make sure to be as quiet as possible and keep to the back of the building while the service is on-going.
For 5PEN, you can get an all-inclusive ticket that will allow you access to the Cuarto del Rescate (only remaining Incan building in the city and where the Incan Atahualpa was kept prisoner), Museo Arqueologico, Museo Etnografico, Museo Medico, and Iglesia de Belen (an absolutely STUNNING church, which unfortunately, you cannot take any photos of).
Behind San Francisco Church are its catacombs and religious museum, which you can go into for 10PEN. It’s well worth checking out as the religious art and artifacts are stunning, and you get to see the type of room that the monks used to live in. Be warned though, you cannot go in without a guide, but all of their guides are volunteers and aren’t necessarily there all the time – we were waiting over 30 minutes before a guide arrived.
Off the main square on Jr. Dos de Mayo you will find a series of steps leading up to the top of the hill. The way up the steps is lined with stone carvings and beautiful green spaces, and at the top you will find the Mirador Natural Santa Apolonia – a small church you can look into, and from there you can see over the whole town. To the side of the church is the entrance to the gardens, which you can go into for 1PEN. There’s lots of walkways and open spaces to explore, it’s a great way to spend a few hours.
Outside of Cajamarca is the town of Otuzco, where you can find the archaeological site the Ventillas de Otuzco – an ancient funerary enclosure which predates the Incas, where you can see many entrances to crypts. You can either get a combi to Otuzco from Cajamarca and then walk out to the site, or you can arrange to go on a half day tour, during which you’ll also get to stop off at some local sites such as a farm, garden and craft market. The tour costs around 40PEN.
From Cajamarca you can also go to Cumbemayo, a pre-Incan series of canals and aqueducts which are thought to be the oldest man-made structure in South America. Cumbemayo is located within the Stone Forest, also known as Los Frailones, where the towering rocks form shapes of various animals including rats and rabbits. It’s a seriously impressive place, and it’s absolutely amazing to see the precision in the aqueducts and canals – the perfect angles, how it follows the lay of the land, and how it was built to collect every drop of water possible to be brought down to the land lower down. The easiest way to get to Cumbemayo is to take a half day tour, which costs around 40PEN.
From Cajamarca you can get an overnight bus to Chiclayo, though be aware that it does get in around 5am. Our hostel was a 5 minute walk from the station so we were able to walk to it no bother, but if your accommodation is far from the station, it would be best to get a taxi at this time.
Within the town of Chiclayo itself there’s not a huge amount to do for tourists, but it’s a great jumping off point for different sites to see and explore. Everything’s pretty easy to get to once you get the hang of the combi system. The first thing to realise is that there are TWO combi stations; one is the Terminal Terrestre Epsel which is found at the junction of Nicolas De Pierola and Avenida Quinones (number 1). The second is the terminal which is found at the junction of San Jose and Lora y Lora (number 2). You need to be super clear on where you need to go and therefore which terminal you need to be at. If you get it wrong though don’t worry, as the drivers there will tell you to go to the other terminal (and if there’s a combi nearby going there they will just shove you on it so you definitely make it!).
While we personally had no problems while walking around Chiclayo and felt safe there, even when walking around at night, there is repeated warnings of theft happening in the city so make sure to be smart with your belongings.
What To Do And See
The Mercado Central and Witchcraft Market are both located in the same place – the Witchcraft market is near the back of the site; walking down Avenida Balta from the main square, turn left as soon as you hit the market building – the entrance to the Witchcraft market is at the stalls for herbal remedies. Look out for the shrunken heads and piles of herbs!
The Museo de Tumbes Reales de Sipán is where the majority of treasures discovered in the tombs in Sipán are kept and put on display, along with the remains of the Lord of Sipán set up exactly as they were found in the tomb. This museum is not infact in Sipán but in Lambayeque. To get there you need to go to terminal number 2 and get a combi going to Lambayeque; tell the driver you want to go to the museum and he’ll drop you off near the entrance for 1.50PEN. It’s 10PEN to enter the museum and worth every penny as the displays are stunning. Unfortunately due to security issues there’s no photography allowed and in fact you can’t even take any bags in with you. There’s also very little information available in English so read up on it before hand or bring a dictionary with you.
Huaca Rajada is the actual site where the Lord of Sipán and many other tombs were discovered. Just across the road from it is the Museo de Sitio which has the story of the tombs which lost many of their treasures to graverobbers before the site was declared protected and a programme was put in place to actively try and recover as many of the treasures as possible. The museum is very well done and the archaeological site is AMAZING; they’ve left the remains in the tombs exactly as they were set up so you can look down and see how it was all done. The site and museum are both located in Sipán, so to get there you need to go to terminal number 2 and get a combi going to Sipán. Tell the driver where you want to go and he’ll drop you off at the entrance to the museum for 3PEN.
The Bosque Pomac is a national park containing a variety of wildlife and various sites including a viewpoint from which you can look over a large chunk of the forest, the Arbol Milenario which is an impressive 500 year old tree, the Rio de Leche (milk river – called so because when the rains come and the river fills up the minerals in it make it look white like milk), and two ancient temples – Huaca El Oro and Huaca Las Ventanas. It was the dry season when we visited so the river was completely dried up – it was so cool to stand in the middle of where a river usually flows! It costs 10PEN to enter and you can spend as long as you like in there.
TOP TIP: when you get there you can walk, rent a bicycle or take a moto taxi around the forest. AJ and I were under the impression that because it was a forest we would be walking along lovely woodland trails like you would back in the UK. This is not the case in Bosque Pomac; we ended up walking over 8km along a dusty gravel road, and were lucky enough to grab a lift on the back of a truck to get back to the entrance. I would advise either cycling or taking a moto taxi – cycling may be the best bet as there weren’t a huge amount of moto taxis around.
The temples are definitely worth the journey out to them, especially as you can climb up on top of them and see some great views. When you get to the Huaca El Oro, go around to the right – this will take you around the front where you can climb up to the top of the temple. Just be careful as parts of it are pretty crumbly! The Huaca Las Ventanas has much more structure and has proper staircases to walk up.
To get to the Bosque Pomac go to the terminal number 1 and get a combi going to Batan Grande – ignore any combi drivers that tell you to get on their combi going to Ferranafe and from there you can get a combi going to Bosque Pomac because, while this is true, it is a hassle trying to figure out exactly where you’re supposed to get the combi from in Ferranafe. Tell the driver going to Batan Grande that you want to go to the Bosque Pomac and he’ll drop you off at the entrance for 4PEN.
For archaeological wonders and a chance to get off the beaten path and see parts of Peru not traversed by many other tourists, Cajamarca and Chiclayo in northern Peru are excellent places to explore. If this article isn’t incentive enough to try out the lesser-known parts of a beautiful and fascinating country then remember; after a few adventures in Cajamarca and Chiclayo, it’s only a few hours to the beautiful beaches of Máncora when you’re done.