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Northern Highlands & Coast

Once passed up for the south, the north coast and northern highlands are increasingly becoming some of Peru’s most sought after destinations for a variety of travelers. There are beaches, mountains, green fertile valleys, dry desert, and tremendous archaeological sites and museums. Aside from the coast, where getting up and down the Pan-American Highway is quick and buses are frequent, travel elsewhere in the region often requires time and patience.

Like the rest of Peru, there’s an incredible history behind the cities and towns you see today. First inhabited more than 13,000 years ago, the Chavín and Moche people later built colossal cities near the coast, to be replaced over time by civilizations like the Chimú and Chachapoyas. Eventually, all these were overtaken by the Inca, followed by the Spanish. Luckily, the extensive ruins and elaborate colonial-era mansions and churches are being preserved in many areas of the north.

A place of extraordinary natural beauty, the northernmost reaches of Peru have magnificent mountains, rare equatorial dry forests, and vast deserts. The steep, forested hills emerge from the highlands, and trekkers and climbers from around the world converge to hike the green valleys and ascend the rocky, snow-capped peaks towering more than 6,000 meters (19,500 feet) above the sea. The coast offers spectacular white-sand beaches, year-round sun, and an abundance of fresh seafood.

As Peru becomes a more popular international destination, tourism in the north is awakening, but is still light years behind Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. Come now and explore the relatively virgin territory that provides a rich peek into the cultural, historical, and physical landscape of Peru.

POINTS OF INTEREST

BARRANCA

A nondescript town with little to visit except a large Chimú temple nearby, this is a stop for those who are either determined to see every archaeological site in Peru or do not have the time to go to Trujillo or Chiclayo but would like to see some northern ruins.

CASMA

Once known as the “City of Eternal Sun,” Casma, like Lima, is now subject to cloudy winters and sunny summers. However, with its leafy Plaza de Armas and a number of pleasant parks, it makes the best base for visiting the nearby ruins. If you’re not into the archaeology thing, you might not want to include Casma in your itinerary.

PLAYA TORTUGAS

An easy drive from the Sechín area and 20 km (12 miles) north of Casma, this small beach is a low-key base for exploring the nearby ruins. A ghost town in winter, it is much more pleasant, in terms of both weather and people, in the summertime. The stony beach, in a perfectly round cove surrounded by brown hills, looks drab and offers limited hotel and restaurant options, but with its fleet of fishing boats and pleasant lapping waves, it’s a relaxing destination.

TRUJILLO

The well-preserved colonial architecture, pleasant climate, and archaeological sites have made Trujillo a popular tourist destination. The Plaza de Armas and beautifully maintained colonial buildings make central Trujillo a delightful place to while away an afternoon. Occupied for centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards, ruins from the Moche and Chimú people are nearby, as is a decent museum. Combine this with a selection of excellent hotels, restaurants, and cafés, and you’ll see why the City of Eternal Spring, officially founded in 1534, competes with Arequipa for the title of Peru’s “Second City.” The only serious problem for tourists is trying to fit in the time to visit all the sights—literally since many places close from 1 to 4 for lunch.

HUANCHACO

Less than half an hour away from the city, Huanchaco is a little beach community where surfers, tourists, affluent Trujillianos, families, and couples easily mix. With excellent restaurants, comfortable hotels, and never-ending sunshine, this is a nice place to unwind for a couple of days or to live it up at one of the many annual fiestas. The Festival del Mar is held every other year during May, the Fiesta de San Pedro every June 29, and multiple surfing and dance competitions happen throughout the year.

MAGDALENA DE CAO

Chances are if you are coming to this small remote village in the Chicama Valley, it’s to see the El Brujo archaeological complex, which is quickly growing in popularity.

SIPÁN

This tiny village of about 1,700 doesn’t offer much, but nearby is one of the country’s major archaeological sites. Arrange for a taxi or tour to take you to the tomb of the Lord of Sipán.

CHICLAYO

A lively commercial center, Chiclayo is prosperous and easygoing. Although it doesn’t have much colonial architecture or special outward beauty, it’s surrounded by numerous pre-Columbian sites. Archaeology buffs flocked to the area after the 1987 discovery of the nearby unlooted tomb of the Lord of Sipán. Chiclayo is a comfortable base from which to visit that tomb as well as other archaeological sites.

LAMBAYEQUE

This small town has some well-preserved colonial-era buildings, but the reason to come is for the outstanding museums. The museums’ exhibits provide details about the Moche civilization and original artifacts from the tomb in Sipán.

FERREÑAFE

Although it’s produced more winners of the Miss Peru contest than any other town, Ferreñafe has other charms. The Iglesia Santa Lucia, begun in 1552, is a good example of baroque architecture. However, most visitors come to visit its excellent new museum.

PIURA

The sunny climate, friendly people, and good food make Piura a delightful stop on your way north. Since most of the major flight and bus routes to the Northcoast beaches travel through Piura, stopping here is not just easy, it’s often required.

As Piura is a central commercial hub and the country’s fifth-largest city, it’s hard to believe how relaxed and friendly the city is to tourists. Historically, however, it’s a community used to transition. Founded in 1532 by Francisco Pizarro before he headed inland to conquer the Incas, the community changed locations three times before settling on the modern-day location along the banks of the Río Piura.

MÁNCORA

This laid-back beach destination, famous for its sunshine and white-sand beaches, has excellent waves for surfing, fishing, and diving. Although the relaxed but dusty town has tourist offices, restaurants, and small shops, the real draws are the hotels about 1¼ miles south along Las Pocitas, a lovely string of beaches with rocky outcrops that hold tiny pools of seawater at low tide.

PUNTA SAL

Sit on the beach, go for a swim, and relax in the afternoon sun—just what you want from a beach resort. That’s probably why Punta Sal has become a popular vacation spot in recent years. A few kilometers north of the Pan-American Highway, hotels and resorts abound in this area, tourists and vacationing Limeños flock here for the blond-sand beach, comfortable ocean breezes, and sunny climate.

TUMBES

About an hour’s drive north of the beach resorts of Máncora and Punta Sal is Tumbes, the last city on the Peruvian side of the Peru-Ecuador border. Tumbes played a major role in Peruvian history: it was here that Pizarro first saw the riches of the vast Inca Empire in 1528, which he would return to conquer in 1532. In the past, tensions were high—it wasn’t until 1941 that Tumbes became part of Peru following a military skirmish. Tensions are now minimal. Hot, muggy Tumbes, is unlike anywhere else in the country. The coastal desert that has defined the Pan-American highway all the way to Chile is no more, and in its place is a landscape that is decidedly more tropical. There are mangrove forests and banana plantations. For most visitors, Tumbes is just a transit point to or from Ecuador or a quick stop before an early flight. The city has few attractions or attractive places to spend the night. Though for those with the urge to explore, there are several excellent national parks, loads of inexpensive shellfish, and an atmosphere you will not find anywhere else in Peru.

If you find yourself crossing the border at Aguas Verdes, be extra aware of your personal belongings. Like many border towns, it has its fair share of counterfeit money, illegal goods, and scams to get money from foreigners.

HUARAZ

Peru’s number-one trekking and adventure-sports destination, Huaraz is an easy starting point for those wishing to explore the vast wilderness of the Cordillera Blanca. Unfortunately, the town has been repeatedly leveled by natural disasters. In the later part of the 20th century, three large earthquakes destroyed much of Huaraz, claiming more than 20,000 lives.

Despite the setbacks and death toll, Huaraz rallied, and today it’s a pleasant town filled with good-natured people. Being one of the most popular tourist destinations in northern Peru, Huaraz also has a great international scene; while the town has few sights, the lively restaurants and hotels are some of the best in the region. It can be hard to find an outfitter at this time; call ahead if you plan a rainy season visit.

CHAVÍN DE HUÁNTAR

If you have a car—and an excellent map and a good sense of direction—you can head out and explore the windy, confusing roads. For all others, simply hiring an inexpensive taxi when needed will ensure that you arrive where you need to safely. Major trips and treks should be arranged with experienced, certified guides.

MONTERREY

This area provides a quiet and attractive alternative to Huaraz. For some, it can feel isolating: there isn’t a town center, just hotels and restaurants spread about. There are local hot springs and a nice hiking trail just behind Hotel Monterrey that leads across a stream and up into the hills, eventually taking you to the Wilcahuaín Ruins. And you’re just a 15-minute drive from Huaraz.

CARHUAZ

A small, laid-back village, less touched by recent earthquakes, Carhuaz is a popular stop along the Callejón de Huaylas. A bright spot is the ice-cream shop, which scoops up excellent homemade helado. The town comes alive with bullfights, fireworks, dancing, and plenty of drinking during its festival honoring the Virgen de la Merced, held every year September 14–24. This is one of the best festivals in the region.

YUNGAY

On May 31, 1970, an earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale shook loose some 15 million cubic meters of rock and ice that cascaded down the west wall of Huascarán Norte. In the quiet village of Yungay, some 14 km (8½ miles) away, people were going about their normal activities. Some were waiting for a soccer game to be broadcast on the radio, others were watching the Verolina Circus set up in the stadium. Then the debris slammed into town at a speed of more than 200 miles per hour. Almost all of Yungay’s 18,000 inhabitants were buried alive. The quake ultimately claimed nearly 70,000 lives throughout Peru.

LAGUNAS DE LLANGANUCO

Make sure your camera memory card is empty when you go to see these spectacular glaciers, gorges, lakes, and mountains. Driving through a giant gorge formed millions of years ago by a retreating glacier, you arrive at Lagunas de Llanganuco. The crystalline waters shine a luminescent turquoise in the sunlight; in the shade, they’re a forbidding inky black.

There are many quenual trees (also known as the paper-bark tree) surrounding the lakes. Up above, you’ll see treeless alpine meadows and the hanging glaciers of the surrounding mountains. At the lower lake, called Lago Chinancocha, you can hire a rowboat (S/3 per person) to take you to the center of the lake. A few trailside signs teach you about local flora and fauna. The easiest way to get here is with an arranged tour from Huaraz (about S/30 plus entrance fee), though if you are going on the Santa Cruz trek you will probably start here. The tours stop here and at many other spots on the Callejón de Huaylas, finishing in Caraz.

CARAZ

One of the few towns in the area with a cluster of colonial-era architecture, Caraz is at the northern tip of the valley—only a partly paved road continues north. North of Caraz on the dramatic road to Chimbote is the Cañon del Pato, the true northern terminus of the Callejón de Huaylas. Caraz is an increasingly popular alternative base for trekkers and climbers. While in town be sure to try the ultra-sweet manjar blanco, Peru’s version of dulce de leche.

CAJAMARCA

Cajamarca is the best place to stay if you want to explore the lovely landscape and rich history of the northern highlands; from here there are a number of daylong excursions to nearby ruins and hot springs.

The largest city in the northern highlands, it’s a tranquil town of more than 150,000 people. Sitting in a large green valley surrounded by low hills, it feels a bit like Cusco minus all the tourists. The name Cajamarca means “village of lightning” in the Aymara language. It’s fitting, for the ancient Cajamarcans worshipped the god Catequil, whose power was symbolized by a bolt of lightning. The Inca conquered the region in about 1460, assimilating the Chavín culture. Cajamarca soon became an important town along the Capac Ñan or Royal Inca Road.

The arrival of the Spanish conquistador Pizarro and his quick-witted defeat of the Incas soon brought the city and much of the region into Spanish hands. Few Inca ruins remain in modern-day Cajamarca; the settlers dismantled many of the existing structures to build the churches that can be seen today. The town’s colonial center is so well preserved that it was declared a Historic and Cultural Patrimony Site by the Organization of American States in 1986.

CHACHAPOYAS

At the ceja de la selva (jungle’s eyebrow), Chachapoyas is the capital of Peru’s Amazonas department. The giant fortress at Kuélap, the Gocta waterfall, the Karajia sarcophagi, and the ruins of Purunllacta and Gran Vilaya are nearby. Despite the Amazonas moniker, there’s nothing junglelike about the area around Chachapoyas. The surrounding green highlands constitute what most people would call a highland cloud forest. Further east, in the region of Loreto (won by Peru in the 1942 border dispute with Ecuador), you’ll find true jungle.

Chachapoyas is a sleepy little town of 20,000. It has a well-preserved colonial center and one small archaeological museum. Chachapoyas—difficult to reach because of the poor roads through the mountains—is most easily accessed from Chiclayo. Infrequent flights arrive here from Lima as well.

KUÉLAP

A visit to Kuélap is an all-day affair. It’s best to visit Kuélap with a tour group from Chachapoyas. Remember to bring a hat for protection from the sun. Take frequent rests and drink lots of water to avoid altitude sickness. The most impressive archaeological site in the area is this immense pre-Inca city, 45 miles south of Chachapoyas. Most visitors to this region come solely to see the grand city. Little is known about the people who built it; archaeologists have named them the Chachapoyans or Sachupoyans. They were most likely a warlike people, as the city of Kuélap is surrounded by a massive defensive wall ranging from 20 to 40 feet high. The Chachapoyans left many cities and fortresses around the area. In 1472 they were conquered by the Inca Huayna Capac. If you’ve been to Machu Picchu or just seen photographs, you’ll recognize many similarities in this complex, built almost a thousand years before.

The city sits at a dizzying 10,075 feet above sea level, high above the Rio Utcubamba. The oval-shaped city has more than 400 small, rounded buildings. The city’s stonework, though rougher than that of the Inca, has geometric patterns and designs, adding a flight of fancy to a town seemingly designed for the art of war. The most interesting of the rounded buildings has been dubbed El Tintero (the Inkpot). Here you’ll find a large underground chamber with a huge pit. Archaeologists hypothesize that the Chachapoyans kept pumas in this pit, dumping human sacrifices into its depths.