Chachapoyas, the Gate to the Amazon Basin, the high jungle (selva alta) which combines features of jungle and mountains, will stun you with its natural beauty and history. Even at times of Covid, it offers adventures that will take you trekking to the 16th highest waterfall in the world, Gocta, and various lagoons, to the Quiocta cavern which you need to explore with a torch and in rubber boots, to the 2.5 metres high Sarcophagi of Carajía, to the Kuélap fortress and much more.
Covid Times – Double Prices
Chachapoyas (both the town and the zone) is quite strict concerning the governmental protocol of Covid regulations. Everyone wears a face mask, social distancing (and thus merely 50% capacity of tours and transportation) is observed and the prices for tours and transport have gone up by 100% and more. So, a van to Tarapoto will now cost you 70 soles, and all the trips in Chachapoyas (to Kuélap, Carajía and Quiocta, etc.) start at 110 soles no matter which agency you use. The same tours from Cocachimba are now 150 soles. A private car (solely transport to one or two places) will cost you 200 soles. The moto taxis in Cocachimba are now 15 soles but the taxis in Chachapoyas keep their price at 3 soles and sometimes even take your negotiation (if the distance is just a few blocks) and charge you 2 soles. Lodging has gone up a little too, but merely by 5 – 10 soles, some places keep the same prices like before the pandemics.
You need to use face shields to enter bus stations and buses and also inside the vans (colectivos) and the cable car to Kuélap.
For all the above mentioned I recommend you too:
- If you can, come to Chachapoyas using your own car or a car you rent e.g. in Chiclayo or Cajamarca.
- If you don´t have a car and thus need to rely on tours, stay in Chachapoyas town for the days of all the tours you want to do and just then go to Cocachimba and stay in a hotel there to do all the trekking (Gocta waterfall and other falls) and a visit to Laguna de Pamacochas (see more info below).
The Chachapoyas Culture – A Bit of History to Begin with
The Chachapoyas (also called the “Warriors of the Clouds”) was a culture of the Andes living in the cloud forests of the southern part of the Department of Amazonas of present-day Peru. The Inca Empire conquered their civilization shortly before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. The name Chachapoya was given to this culture by the Incas; it is derived from the Quechua and most probably stands for “cloud forest”.
Much of what we know about the Chachapoyas culture is based on archaeological evidence from ruins, pottery, tombs, and other artifacts. The local guides in the area will be telling you stories of how the Chachapoyas culture used to be linked to the Vikings who, allegedly, first tried to conquer them, and thus the people of the zone today are generally taller (taking into consideration the Peruvian standards) and have oftentimes fair eyes. Hard to say whether this is a myth or the truth, after all, the marketing materials from the tourist agencies in the area will be claiming too that Gocta is the third highest waterfall in the world, which is a sheer nonsense based on the mistake of the discoverer (the waterfall was only found recently, in 2002) – Stefan Ziemendorff.
The capital of the Amazonas Region is clean and tranquil and offers some nice colonial architecture renowned for the typical balconies. It is located at an elevation of 2,335 meters and counts about 32 thousand people. Except for buses, you can also reach it by a plane. The typical products you can get at the central market include sugar cane, orchid and coffee as these form a main part of the local agriculture.
Chachapoyas’ transitional location between the arid Cordillera Occidental and Cordillera Central and the rain-forested Cordillera Oriental allow it to receive generally moderate annual precipitation. The temperatures are pleasant though at nights a little chilly.
Places of Interest
The area of the Chachapoyas is sometimes referred to as the “Amazonian Andes” due to it being part of a mountain range covered by dense tropical forest.
There are dozens of places of interest in the area. Except for the renowned fortress of Kuélap, Quiocta cave, sarcophagi of Carajía (and of Pueblo de los Muertos) and Gocta Cataracts you may visit Laguna de Pomacochas (though currently it is closed due to the pandemics) or Laguna Mamacocha, the thermal springs of Tocuya, the tribal communities of Imaza, the petroglyphs of Yamón, the mausoleums of Revash, or – these are specially great for those who love trekking – Huaylla Belén, a valley of approximately 700 hectares where there is a green lawn crossed by a river with impossible meanders, which is situated in the Luya district (when going there, you may want to stop by at the Wanglic ruins too), Laguna de los Cóndores and Cañon de Huancas Sonche. See the map to understand just how much there is to see in the zone.
It is clear that three or four days for your visit are not enough and that you want to come in a private car and simply be your own master. Do not worry about driving in the zone: the drivers generally are cautious there, and the dirt roads leading to the sights are well maintained and wide enough for two cars.
This walled settlement located at an elevation of 3000 metres in the mountains near the town of Tingo, was built by the Chachapoyas culture in the 6th century AD and attracts the attention of adventurous visitors.
Unlike Machu Picchu, which was excavated almost completely, Kuélap looks more like a ruin in the cloud forest. Parts of the 600 m big site are still green and wild, giving the visitors the sensation that they are the first to enter this ancient realm.
Before the cable cars (that run on solar power) were opened in 2017, there were only two ways to get to the site: by car or by hiking. It takes about 2 hours to drive the 32 km dirt road to Kuélap. The alternative is a 9 km long hike from Tingo Viejo. The hike takes about 4 hours up, gaining 1200 m in altitude, and 2 hours to get down. The cable car covers a 4 km distance in mere 20 minutes and then you walk for about a half hour.
Kuélap is probably the only place I would recommend you to do with a tour, as the price will come out more or less the same as if you go on your own in your car and you gain a guide “for free”.
Carajía and Quiocta
The tours would usually take you to both of these places. You could easily visit them on your own, but for some reason the security guards of Quiocta do not want to allow individuals into the cave saying that for their safety it is better if they go with a guide. Maybe it is because it used to be a sacrificial place? No, I honestly think they are more worried that someone could try to steal a part of the precious quartz stone massive they have there (as it already happened in the past) which is why you can only enter without your belongings (understand bags etc.), merely with a phone or a camera in your hand.
In the cave, you surely need rubber boots and a powerful torch – on the tours your guide lends you these. There are NO lights installed and no paved or in other way prepared paths. It is quite some adventure worth the 8 soles for the entrance.
The Chachapoyas culture had the tradition of protecting their dead and located their sarcophagi in protected, difficult to get to locations. Thanks to that fact, the Sarcophagi of Carajía remained practically intact as they are located atop a ravine of difficult access. They are unique also for their colossal size of 2.50 m. The locals call them “the ancient wise men”.
Due to the 1928 earthquake, one of the sarcophagi collapsed and disappeared in the abyss below the rock massive. It also tore apart the side of the adjacent sarcophagus which thus revealed the contents: a mummy on an animal skin, wrapped in mortuary cloths, accompanied by ceramics and diverse objects as gifts. This sarcophagus was emptied by scientists to prevent the damage of the insides by rodents and birds. The others remain intact.
To reach the rock massive where the sarcophagi are located, you walk for about twenty minutes. The local community offers horses for 20 soles.
This small town located about one hour (40 km) away from the town of Chachapoyas is well-known as it is where the trek to Gocta Cataracts begin. The accommodation here is more pricy than in Chachapoyas but you do get some marvelous views.
To reach Cocachimba, you take a colectivo van from Chachapoyas to Cocahuayco (10 soles) and then a moto taxi to Cocachimba (15 soles). To return to Chachapoyas you do the same, but the thing is you never know when the colectivos are coming and if there will be a vacant seat (as now they only allow 50% of the capacity to be filled) so make sure you have time on your hands.
It is definitely better to come to Cocachimba and stay there for the night on the day you want to do the trek to the Gocta Cataracts or even spend several nights there enjoying some other hikes in the area (see below).
I would recommend a hospedaje called Gallito de las Rocas as I was happy with the service, the kind and helpful staff (especially receptionist Kevin), the cleanliness of the rooms and the lovely views to the surrounding mountains as well as the Gocta Cataracts. A night costs about 120 soles for a double room with comfy beds and with a nice breakfast included (infusion or coffee, fresh pineapple or papaya juice, eggs, cheese, ham, fried bananas of your choice and fresh bread with marmalade and butter).
I truly enjoyed the calm atmosphere of the hospedaje, the starry night sky and the chill out evenings in the café which forms a part of the complex and where you can get some good local liquors as well as top-quality coffee and delicious cheesecakes.
If I were you, I would give the green light to this lodgement rather than the neighbouring Gocta Andes Lodge, famed for nothing really but its pool at the social networks, which is much more expensive (more than double the price) but offers practically the same views and not much more: the breakfasts are basically the same – though buffets, the choice is very limited – and the rooms are slightly bigger but do not offer any significantly different comfort. The swimming pool is just a small pool which at times of Covid and for the chill during the evenings you don´t want to use anyway. By the way, if you only come to eat at the restaurant of the Gocta Andes Lodge, you cannot even make photographs in the common areas (so neither by the pool).
They are unofficially listed as the world’s fifth-tallest but The World Waterfall Database ranks Gocta as the 16th tallest.
Indeed, a marvel to see. The three-hour hike (one way, so six hours in total to hike from Cocachimba to the Lower Cascade) is totally worth the effort. Make sure you take the weather conditions in Chachapoyas into consideration. Just go in quick-drying shorts and rubber sandals, having an extra T-shirt (to change when you get sweaty and wet due to the rain) and a light jacket if you get cold later. A good-quality plastic overall raincoat and a camera/phone/bag water protector will be useful with the frequent rain in the area (the drier season lasts for five months, from May to October, with the least wet months in June and July).
I was OK drinking the water from the streams on the way, but if you are likely to suffer from stomach issues, bring your own potable water or the cleaning water drops.
There are horses available for the trek, but it is not a difficult one to hike – though constantly it is an up and down one – so, avoid what some would call animal abuse, and just enjoy the hike through the safe enough jungle, which includes crossing one swaying suspension bridge.
If you do not want to take the same way back to Cocachimba, start early in the morning (from Cocachimba) taking a moto taxi to San Pablo and hike from there first to the Upper Cascade (about two and a half hour trek in a beautiful dense forest), then descend to the Lower Cascade and take the popular trek to return to Cocachimba. This will allow you to see much more in about seven hours, without taking the same route.
The full circuit is 15 kilometers long, while the shorter version is 10 kilometers long. The in and out version is totally more popular than hiking the longer trail. The views of the canyons and deep valleys are more breathtaking on the part of the trek from San Pablo to the Upper Cascade.
Know that in the wet months it is impossible to bathe in the waterfall as the water force will not allow you to even come near it.
Laguna de Pampacocha
This lagoon can be seen also on the way to Tarapoto from Chachapoyas. To reach it, take a colectivo from Pedro Ruiz Gallo (there, you need to get by a moto taxi or a taxi) worth 10 soles one ride. Currently, the place is closed for public due to the pandemics, so if you plan to go bathing there, call the municipality of Pamachocas first to know whether access is already officially possible.
A short video about Chachapoyas
Bus Trujillo – Chachapoyas (15 hours): 75 soles
Low-budget accommodation 1 person/1 night: 40 – 60 soles; 35 – 120 (2 people/1 night)
Moto taxis Cocahuayaco – Cocachimba: 15 soles
Colectivos in the area (e.g. Pedro Ruiz Gallo – Pamacochas): 10 soles
“Menu Turístico” in most places: 15 soles
Kuélap entrance: 30 soles
Kuélap cable car: 20 soles round trip
Entrance to Gocta Cataracts (from San Pablo or Cocachimba): 20 soles