The Chachapoyas region is most famous for Kuélap, a massive pre-Inca citadel built by the Chachapoyas civilisation which controlled the area from 900-1400 AD and were conquered by the Inca less than 200 years before the Spanish arrived.

The archeological site is known as the Machu Picchu of the north and there are numerous tours and treks that end at Kuélap, just as numerous treks in the Cusco region will take you to Machu Picchu. The site is famous for the hundreds of round houses decorated with murals, carvings and friezes of geometric patterns.

When the World Monument Fund put Kuélap on their watch list in 2004, the ruins began to receive funding for restoration work. Infrastructure was developed so visitors wouldn’t further degrade the site. Since 2017, a cable car whisks visitors up to the site, which otherwise is a nine km hike that takes about four hours due to the steep uphill climb.

One of the biggest differences between Machu Picchu and Kuélap is the price. The entrance ticket costs a tenth the price of Machu Picchu and there is no expensive train to book either. The daily number of visitors is still so low (less than 100 per day in 2022) that there has been no need for the government to limit the number of visitors. Tickets for both the archeological site and the cable car can be purchased upon arrival. Adults pay S/20 soles (about $5) for Kuélap and students pay half that. The cable car costs S/25 regardless of age and must be paid in cash.

Note: Heavy rains in April 2022 caused part of the southern perimeter wall to collapse. The site reopened in June 2022, though the area near the collapse remained closed.

Here's our overview of the top treks and hikes in the Chachapoyas and Kuelap region.

Kuélap

Kuélap: Peru's "Machu Picchu of the north"

Chachapoyas treks

Top treks and hikes around Chachapoyas and Kuelap

The following treks and hikes can be organised with trekking companies operating out of Chachapoyas or Cajamarca.

Kuélap day hike

Kuélap day hike

Difficulty: Moderate

Duration: One day

Max elevation: 3,000 metres

Start/end point: Tingo

Kuélap is without a doubt one of the most extensive archeological complexes in South America. There are hundreds of buildings to visit, many of which still contain murals and friezes. Though most guidebooks call it a fortress, it was in fact a citadel. Between 2,500 and 3,000 of the Chachapoyas elite lived here, surrounded by ceremonial centres built between 900-1100 AD. In the second half of the 15th century, the Inca Tupac Yupanqi conquered the area. Evidence of Inca control can be seen in the five rectangular buildings of classic Inca construction.

Unlike the Inca division of residential, ceremonial and agricultural areas of their cities, the Chachapoyas built homes mixed in with religious buildings and artisan workshops. Another unique feature of the culture is that families buried their ancestors under their homes, believing that the dead protected them. The elite burned the city, rather than allow it to be captured by the Spanish. It was forgotten for centuries and “re-discovered” in 1843 by the Italian Antonio Raimondi. There are few signs and plaques in the ruins, so a guide is highly recommended.

How long is the trek?

You have the option to take the cable car from Nuevo Tingo or to hike from Tingo Viejo. If you are going without a guiding service, make sure you go to the right place. If you hike up, the trail is nine km and takes about four hours due to the elevation gain. If you take the cable car, you’ll be at the top in 20 minutes.

How difficult is the trek?

The hike up to Kuélap is just that, uphill. The trail is wide and easy to follow but it’s advisable to take it slow for the altitude and steepness. Also, if the sun is out it will be strong so make sure you have a good hat and sunscreen.

Where to stay

Most people visit Kuélap from the town of Chachapoyas. Public transportation is available if you decide to not hire a guiding service, which always includes transportation.

How to book

Every tour agency in Chachapoyas and Cajamarca offers tours of Kuélap. It is easy to book a one day tour with or without the cable car. If you prefer to go on your own to Kuélap, guides are available to hire upon arrival.

Key considerations

You will need to protect yourself from both the strong equatorial sun and the mosquitoes. Long sleeves are highly recommended. You should also bring light snacks and plenty of water.

Gocta Waterfall hike

Gocta Waterfall hike

Difficulty: Easy

Duration: One day

Max elevation: 2,000 metres

Start/end point: Cocachimba

The Gocta Waterfall is 771 metres high, which makes it the third highest waterfall in Peru. The forest you walk through on the way is perfect for birders and you’re likely to see several species of hummingbirds. It’s common to see the Gallito de las Rocas, often translated as Cock of the Rock, though the Spanish word “gallito” means little rooster.

Though the Chachapoyas civilisation used the waterfall area, it was unknown to the modern world of tourism until recently. In 2002 the German archeologist Stefan Ziemendorff was researching the Chachapoyas culture in the area and came upon the waterfalls. The exact height wasn’t measured until 2006.

How long is the trek?

The hike is five km each way and the trail has a lot of up and down.

How difficult is the trek?

The trail is not difficult, but many people opt to rent a horse for the day. It can be muddy and slippery at any time of the year because of the cloud forest.

How to book

You can book with any agency in Cajamarca or Chachapoyas. If you choose to go without an agency, have cash for the S/20 entrance fee. You can also hire a guide on arrival for about S/50.

Key considerations

If you book through an agency, they will include transportation from Chachapoyas to Cocachimba. If you choose to go on your own, ask about public transportation in town. You will take a bus to Puente Cocahuaico and then a moto taxi (tuktuk) to the trailhead in Cocachimba.

Karajia chachapoyas kuelap Gran Vilaya trek peru

Karajia sarcophagi on the Gran Vilaya trek

The Gran Vilaya trek

The Gran Vilaya trek

Difficulty: Moderately difficult

Duration: Four days

Max elevation: 3,500 metres

Accommodation: Hostels, homestays and cabins

Start/end point: Cocachimba/Kuélap

This is the best trek in the north of Peru to see both spectacular jungle and pre-Inca archeological sites. You’ll visit the petroglyphs of Pitaya, the sarcophagi of Karajia, the extensive Gran Vilaya archeological complex, the Lanche archeological site and the immense citadel of Kuélap. You’ll also see Gocta Waterfall, which is an astonishing 771 metres high, and the unique ecosystem that transitions from the high Andes to the Amazon Rainforest. You’ll hike past coffee farms and have the opportunity to try locally grown and roasted coffee.

How long is the Gran Vilaya trek?

Though most agencies run this as a four day trek, there are also three day and five day options. The number of kilometres per day varies and it is possible to do most of the trek on horseback. Not all agencies include the nine km return hike to Gocta waterfalls on the first day, so be sure to ask about that when you book.

How difficult is the Gran Vilaya trek?

This is a moderately difficult trek, as long as you are comfortable both hiking and on horseback. The third day is planned on horseback because it’s 20 kilometres, which makes for an exhausting day if you don’t want to ride a horse. That day also has the greatest climbs, with an ascent of 1400 metres of elevation and a descent of 700 metres. You will carry your own picnic lunch every day.

Lodging on the Gran Vilaya trek

You will stay each evening in a town that has electricity and bathrooms with plumbing. Lodging on this trek is usually quite basic and there are no fancy hotels in the area. The first night is in Huaylla Belén, usually in cabins. The second night is in Congón, where you have the opportunity for a homestay with a local family. The third night is usually in a family B&B in Choctamal, just below the Kuélap ruins. If you prefer to stay in tents, make sure to notify the agency when you book the trek.

How to book

There are a few local tour operators in the town of Chachapoyas. If you book with a tour agency in Cajamarca, Lima or an international agency, ask which local operator they partner with so you can look for reviews of their services. Ask if the cable car is included for the descent from Kuélap on the last day.

Support staff

You will have a muleteer for the pack horses and the horses you ride. Depending on the size of your group, your guide may have an assistant with them. There are sections on the first and fourth day when you will be in a van.

Key considerations

Transportation is usually included from the town of Chachapoyas to Cocachimba and from Kuélap back to Chachapoyas. There are daily flights from Lima to Cajamarca, which is 328 km from Chachapoyas. If you need to be picked up in Cajamarca be sure to mention that when you book. You can also fly to Jaen, which is 186 km from Chachapoyas, but smaller than Cajamarca with more limited flights.

Laguna de los Cóndores trek

Laguna de los Cóndores trek

Difficulty: Moderately difficult

Duration: Three days

Max elevation: 3,500

Accommodation: Camping

Start/end point: Leymebamba

On the hike from Leymebamba to Laguna de los Cóndores you will ascend almost 1,400 metres of elevation. You will hike through several ecological zones, as the flora and fauna are different at each level of elevation. Once you reach the lake, you will be treated to a secluded body of water that often has so little wind that it becomes a perfect mirror, reflecting the steep jungle-covered cliffs that surround it.

On your second day, you’ll have all day to visit the cliffs where hundreds of mummies were discovered. Most of the artefacts are in the museum in Leymebamba, which is why it’s a good idea to visit the museum before you begin the trek. Some mausoleums in the cliff are intact, which is why it’s a good idea to bring binoculars. As the name promises, you’ll often see condors soaring along the cliffs above the lake.

How long is the trek?

This is a long hike, which takes most people about nine hours from the trailhead to the lake. If walking that many hours in one day doesn’t sound like fun, ask the guide about hiring a horse.

Some agencies combine this with hikes to the Gocta waterfalls or other nearby archeological sites to make a four or five day itinerary. You may also spend a day in Leymebamba visiting the museum and spend the night there before you begin the trek.

How difficult is the trek?

The trek is difficult enough that you will be glad to spend the second day visiting the lake and the cliff where the mummies were found. On the hike in, you’ll ascend 1,400 metres of altitude and descend about 700 metres. You’ll hike back out on the same trail, so it will be only 700 metres up but a knee-aching 1,400 metres of descent.

Camping on the trek

You will camp two nights at the lake. Some agencies have built small cabins nearby, so inquire what kind of accommodation is included. Most agencies don’t include sleeping bags.

How to book

All local agencies in Cajamarca and Chachapoyas have treks to Laguna de los Cóndores. If you book with an agency in Lima or internationally, ask which local operator they use so you can check for reviews of their service.

Support staff

Even if you choose to walk, your guide will hire a muleteer and mules or pack horses to carry the tents and other camping gear. Depending on the size of your group, you could hire up to five people: the guide, assistant guide, cook, muleteer and assistant muleteer. It’s a great opportunity to support the local economy and get to know the descendents of the Chachapoyas culture.

Key considerations

Trekking agencies always include transportation from Chachapoyas. If you require transportation from the airport in Cajamarca or Jaen be sure to notify the agency when you book.

About the author

Chachapoyas Treks

Heather Jasper

Based in Cusco, Peru, Heather is an expert on travel to Peru and South America. Heather writes on tourism, trekking, and social issues in Peru for publications including BBC Travel, Fodor’s Travel, Matador Network, Thrifty Nomads, World Nomads, Frommer's, Flashpack, and more. Heather co-founded the Covid Relief Project with Henry Quintano Loaiza to assist vulnerable families in the Cusco region.

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