Imagine Machu Picchu. Spectacular, historic, utterly iconic. And then magnify the history and minus the tourists, and you’ve got a sense of Kuelap.
You’ve probably never heard of Kuelap’s pre-Incan ruins and how they pre-date Machu Picchu’s, but it’s time their wonders got some recognition. Because they’re only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to lesser-discovered Northern Peru, a region we’re so excited to be taking travellers to for the first time ever.
Why? Northern Peru just has a different feel to it. Compared to more visited regions and more standard routes, it shows a sleepy, scenic side of the country that very few see: tiny Andean towns, dramatically lush landscapes and all. Not only are there fewer crowds and a more laid-back atmosphere, the highlights really are unbelievable.
Coming up: a quick guide to this barely-visited region (hint: it includes ones of the world’s highest waterfalls), what you need to know about the ruins of Kuelap, and all the cool activities Intrepid’s 7-day trip has to offer:
The allure of Northern Peru: the must-see spots
A few of our favourite historic and scenic parts:
Kuelap – the ‘new Machu Picchu’
Now, don’t get us wrong – we absolutely love Machu Picchu. We will never tire of standing at its Sun Gate, watching the mist lift off the mountain, feeling oh so small. It really is once-in-a-lifetime, a symbol of South America. But heading to Kuelap is truly like heading back in time. Mostly because you’ll be surrounded by so few other visitors that you can really enjoy the views from the hilltop fortress. And because you can really get lost in your imagination of what this place was like when the Chachapoyas civilization were here.
Yes, Kuelap is a pretty special place. It’s one of Peru’s most significant archaeological sites and it’s no longer difficult to get to thanks to the cable car that’s just been completed. Though it will get busier in time, visiting now is a perfect way of coming face-to-face with history. And of taking in Northern Peru’s jungle-clad, panoramic vistas.
The site itself is built on a mountain-top that sits in a cloud forest 3,000 metres above sea level. If that isn’t cool enough, it’s sheer age should be. It’s been estimated that construction on Kuelap began around the 6th-century, coinciding with the rising Chachapoyas culture. Its colossal walls and complex interior architecture reveal administrative, religious, ceremonial and other residences.
STILL not impressed? Kuelap is considered the largest stone ruin site in the New World. It’s comprised of 10 times the number of stone blocks that were used for the Great Pyramid of Giza. There you have it. A site that’s more than worth a day or so of your time. And, as The Guardian put it, the ‘new Machu Picchu’.
Gocta Falls – a little-known beauty
You’ve probably heard of Iguazu Falls, you may have been to Niagara Falls, and you’ve likely dreamed of Iceland’s array of waterfalls. But, let us be the first to tell you that the Gocta Falls are as spectacular as they are unknown.
That’s no exaggeration – until 2005 the two-level waterfalls sat hidden in the Andes, known only to locals. It’s only been in the last decade or so that they’ve gained more recognition. They’re still incredibly under the radar.
There’s little point in us explaining just how magnificent Gocta is – the photos speak for themselves – but rest assured that this spot is a must-visit. Not least because, by some measures, it’s the third highest waterfall in the world. And the 771 meter (2,529 feet) gem is also home to some picturesque hikes and a ton of photo opportunities.
Insider tip on when to visit Kuelap and Gocta from Gary Cohen, Intrepid’s General Manager for South America:
It’s generally quite warm during the day, but can get chilly at night. The best time of year to come here is during the dry season from May to September. A bit of rain isn’t bad though, it gets the Gocta Falls pumping harder!
Yerbabuena, Mancora and much more
There’s so much more to Northern Peru. But because we can’t list every cultural, archaeological and natural delight, here are a few more gems:
The Sunday markets of Yerbabuena. The largest market in the entire region, Yerbabuena attracts buyers and sellers from all over to sell produce and animals. It hardly attracts any tourists, making for an authentic and memorable visit.
The historic town of Chachapoyas. Though this town is charming and filled with colonial buildings, it’s its location that really sets it apart. Not only is it the gateway to the walled city of Kuelap, it’s also close to two worthwhile attractions. The first, the Revash Mausoleums, serve as collective tombs for Chachapoya’s dead; the second, Leymebamba Museum, is home to many mummies uncovered at the Laguna de los Condores site.
The surf village of Mancora. Home to some of Peru’s best beaches, sunny Manorca is one of the highlights of the country’s northwest. Its great surf attracts a mix of locals and tourists, but the hot springs, mud baths and lively nightlife are also reasons to visit.
We know Peru – both north and south – like the back of our hands, but we thought it was worth clarifying exactly how we make our new Northern Peru trip just so unique and memorable:
The expertise of local leaders
The reason we felt so confident saying we know the country like the back of our hands is thanks to the expertise of our wonderful local leaders.
Our Intrepid tour guides in Peru (all 60 of them!) are all locals. And, more than that, they’re all passionate about showing off their country. So, whether you’re looking for an un-touristy bar in Cusco, a behind-the-scenes insight into Peruvian culture, or some extra encouragement to accomplish that hike, they’ve got your back.
For more info on our local leaders and trips to Peru check out these 10 facts you probably don’t know about Peru.
Insider tips for exploring Lima
As we’ve said, our leaders know all the cool local haunts. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Peru’s capital, Lima. It’s in this city where you begin our Northern Peru trip, and where their tips will prove invaluable upon landing.
To help you acclimatise, we offer an included leader-led orientation walk of Miraflores, a neighbourhood you’ll love. It’s by the sea and offers some of the best parks, shopping and restaurants in the city. Not a bad way to get to grips with the city.
For more incredible experiences in Lima, we recommend our sister company, Urban Adventures. Their day tours are also all led by locals and include coastal biking trips, dinner with a Peruvian family, and a street food and nightlife tour.
We handpick all of our accommodation on all our trips, ensuring comfort, safety and an insight into the local culture. But this really is a special one. If you visit Northern Peru with our sister company, Peregrine (trip here), you stay at a lodge built for the sole purpose of providing views of the awe-inspiring Gocta Falls.
In other words, it sits nestled in the Andes, oriented towards the waterfall and is surrounded by all the gardens, pools, terraces and llamas (!) you could wish for.
Its outdoor swimming pool isn’t too shabby either.
Full-day guided tour of Kuelap
If it wasn’t obvious already, we’re pretty excited about Kuelap. (There aren’t many of us in the fan club YET but Lonely Planet has dubbed it “one of the most significant and impressive pre-Columbian ruins in all of South America”.)
So, to ensure visitors do this wonder justice, we offer a full-day guided tour of the site. It’s pretty spectacular and the local knowledge you’ll receive when there makes it all the more so. Honestly, pay it a visit and you’ll wonder why it receives so few visitors.
The new Machu Picchu has so much to offer the Intrepid explorer.
Northern Peru – beautiful, undiscovered and ripe for adventuring – awaits. Discover it for yourself on our 7-day Northern Peru trip.
Images all c/o Gary Cohen and Intrepid Travel.