North Peru

Most of the tour companies fly from Lima to Trujillo , then a loop by road back to Trujillo, Allow 12 to 14 days

Audley 5.2 inc flights seems best option

Steppes 4.8 no flights

Last Frontiers 2.7 no flights

Journey Latin America 4.2 no flights

Undiscovered ? for private tour

 

Trujillo

Trujillo was a cradle for some of Peru's most important ancient cultures, whose people left a legacy of fascinating archaeological sites. Relatively few visitors make it to this region, but that's their loss and your gain – these hugely significant ruins are yours to explore in peace. On this archaeological tour you'll begin by visiting the 1,500-year-old Huacas del Sol and de la Luna, two religious structures whose walls are made up of thousands of moulded adobe bricks and decorated with extraordinary friezes. After briefly stopping to take note of a much more recent era in Trujillo's history at the Spanish-built Plaza de Armas, you continue to the Archaeological Museum to put the ruins into context. Next you visit the pre-Inca temple of Huaca del Dragón before taking lunch at Huanchaco Bay, where local fishermen still set sail in reed skiffs whose design dates back to the Mochicas. We visited Huaca de Luna on the Explorer

Trujillo bisects the remnants of Chan Chan, a sprawling adobe city built by the Chimú culture between 1000 and1476 AD and preserved by the desert conditions. As you drive in, you might notice clusters of reeds among the sun-baked earth — remains of ponds that once served as Chan Chan’s water supply. With the high mudbrick walls glowing golden in the late afternoon sun, it feels more Valley of the Kings than Peruvian edifice. It all seems inscrutable at first, but your eyes gradually home in on the details. Some areas have intricate friezes of geometric and zoomorphic designs along with lattice-like walling that lets in breezes from the nearby ocean.

 

Cajamarca

The drive from Leymebamba to Cajamarca , a boutique colonial town set in a fertile dairy-farming valley, is long — around nine hours of snaking mountain road. However, the only traffic you’re likely to encounter is free-roaming livestock. My driver pulled over at times to let me walk for a little way along the empty road and admire the views. The Andes rise up around you, the mountainsides flecked with splashes of magenta from wild bougainvillea and indigo blue from jacaranda. There’s also the odd brownish patch where farmers have lit fires, believing the smoke will bring rain.

This pleasantly walkable cluster of cobblestone streets has a large, fountained central plaza that acts as the town’s de facto living room. Just off this main square, hidden away amid plateresque churches and other colonial relics, is the Cuarto del Rescate (Ransom Room). Inca emperor Atahualpa bargained with Pizarro to fill this room with treasure in exchange for his freedom. Peek through the trapezoidal doorway and you’ll see niches where idols and war trophies were kept, as well as the stone on which Atahualpa was eventually executed. Precisely tessellated stonework aside, it’s an unremarkable ruin, but a good guide can bring it to life. Mine, Manuel, regaled me with (unapologetically biased) tales of how Atahualpa verbally sparred with Pizarro, exposing the conquistador’s illiteracy.

Cumbe Mayo. Reaching this site created by the Cajamarca culture (circa 500 to 1000 AD) involves a 45-minute drive out of Cajamarca up a bumpy, chicaning mountain road, the altimeter ticking up to 3,500 m . As you climb, you’ll glimpse highland women wearing traditional dress of wide skirts and rainbow-patterned shawls. They sport tall straw hats in place of the squatter, bowler styles seen in the south. Cumbe Mayo (‘thin stream’ in Quechua) is the well-preserved remains of a pre-Inca aqueduct or canal. Like Revash, it’s less of a ruin, more of a good walk. You pass through a winding dale peppered with gorse-like yellow bushes, the air ringing with the cawing of Andean rockpeckers. Spiked crowns of glacially sculpted columns known as Las Frailones (the Tall Friars) rise up around the dale, some standing up to 60 m (196 ft). Their surfaces have eroded into shapes resembling human faces. The local explanation for their humanoid appearance is livelier: they were originally wrongdoers who were petrified in an electrical storm sent by Pachakamac, the Inca creator-god. Manuel led me to an area where the canal disappeared under a weighty boulder, or rather an altar. Surprisingly, Cumbe Mayo’s water wasn’t used for irrigation but for religious rituals. Manuel pointed out where the straight-sided channel suddenly entered a couple of carefully crafted zig-zags, which represented the sacred staircase, or the path to heaven.

Leymebamba

Travel to the small mountain town of Leymebamba to see a cache of over 200 mummies discovered in a nearby cave by grave robbers. Believed to be between 500 and 1,000 years old, the mummies are extraordinarily well-preserved and many retain their original textiles and grave goods, painting a vivid picture of the ancient Chachapoya civilisation to which they belonged.

Revash is 90 minute drive from Leymebamba. and is less archaeological ruin, more scenic experience. The only way to witness this 13th-century burial site of the Revash culture is on foot. The wide, paved trail begins in a modest highland village, and you’ll pass through outlying homes and smallholdings before reaching a cliff-edge. Itinerant chickens, schoolchildren dwarfed by enormous backpacks, and the occasional villager leading a pony share the first section of path with you. You then traverse the cliff’s flanks on a narrow, stony track to reach a viewing platform. Opposite and slightly above sit chullpas (funerary buildings or tombs) constructed into an overhang on an impregnable-looking limestone cliff face. In fact, most of the tombs were looted by huaqueros (grave robbers or treasure hunters), leaving only skeletal remains inside. But the chullpas, which resemble miniature reddish mudbrick cottages, are largely intact, along with a series of red pictograms. Their meanings have been largely lost, but one is thought to represent a sacred feline figure.

 

Kuelap

The Chachapoya culture (800 to 1476 AD — the name roughly translates to ‘cloud warriors’, a possible reference to their foggy homeland) built this limestone brick settlement running directly north to south along an escarpment 3,000 m above sea level. It’s protected with backfilled walls 20 m high and looks like a fortress, though current thinking compares it to the Vatican, a religious or ceremonial nucleus whose walls signified power and prestige. All around the site lie yawning mountain passes, one with a great looping syncline visible in its exposed strata.

It is no exaggeration to say that in terms of archaeological significance, Kuelap is on a par with Machu Picchu. However, tucked away as it is in a little-visited mountain realm, it receives a tiny fraction of the visitors, meaning that those that do come are often met with the increasingly rare feeling of having an extraordinary treasure all to themselves. Leave the beaten track far behind to visit this remarkable site, quietly commanding a view from its mountain perch on the far edge of Andean civilisation. The complex contains around 400 circular stone houses, set across multiple levels and enclosed by a colossal wall – the largest stone structure in South America. Parts of the fortress are still thatched by a tangle of jungle plants, and bromeliads sneak between nooks in the stonework, all adding to the sense of stumbling upon an undiscovered ruin. The recently inaugurated Kuelap cable car adds a new dimension to a visit to the site and is sure to increase visitor numbers to the region - a welcome boost to the local economy. The telecabinas cross the valley in just 20 minutes, which means the overall journey time is about 30 minutes shorter than when travelling by road and the magnificent views across the valley ensure a scenic start to your Kuelap experience.

Inside the ramparts, cloudforest has partly reclaimed the ruins. Unlike Machu Picchu, Kuélap’s vegetation has been partly left to run wild. Trees, mosses, orchids and fuchsia have wiggled their way into the site’s drystone roundhouses in a way that reminded me of Cambodia’s Ta Prohm. The greenery helps wick away water, contributing to the site’s preservation. Other shapes emerge as you explore: a watchtower, buildings decorated with enigmatic friezes of zigzags and rhombuses, and an inverted cone-like construction named El Tintero (‘The Inkwell’). Its purpose has intrigued archaeologists; theories range from solar observatory to bone depository. Getting there is also fun: you take a 20-minute cable car trip over a forested gully with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. Tip: minutes after you set off, look back at the rock face to glimpse some human remains — including a skull — stashed in difficult-to-reach burial niches. Kuélap is best visited en route from Gocta to the whitewashed highland town of Chachapoyas, which makes a pleasant base for exploring the area.

 

Chachapoyas

From the second you step out of the car in the Chachapoyas region the air feels moist, as if newly rinsed. Bromeliads cling to tree trunks, and you might catch hummingbirds flitting past, their wings beating a rapid tattoo. You’re now in cloudforest. It’s an area where weekly calendars revolve around the local cattle market. Legend and folklore abound: waterfalls are jealously guarded by mermaids, and the screech of an owl can curdle the blood of local people, for whom it signifies the ‘cry of death’. All mischief or unexplained happenings are attributed to sprite-like creatures called duende.

The mysterious figures standing guard over a cliff face at Karajía (45 km north of Cachapoyas) reveal a morbid detail on second glance: human skulls perch on top of their stern, mask-like faces. These are in fact the unique tombs of ancient chieftains, part of the Chachapoya culture which was contemporary with the Incas. Set into this remote and inaccessible cliff, the striking sarcophagi face east to greet the rising sun. The seven (originally eight) sarcophagi stand up to 2.5 meters tall, constructed of clay, sticks and grasses, with exaggerated jawlines. Their inaccessible location high above a river gorge has preserved them from destruction by looters. However, an earthquake toppled one of the original eight in 1928. They have been radiocarbon dated to the 15th century, coincident with the Inca conquest of the Chachapoya in the 1470s. The construction is painted white and overlaid with details of the body and adornment in yellow ochre and two red pigments, such as the feathered tunics and male genitalia visible on the Carajía purunmachus. Often the solid clay head will boast a second, smaller head atop it. The purunmachus of Carajía are unique because of the human skulls that sit atop their heads, visible in the photograph

 

Chiclayo

From Cajamarca it’s a very long drive to the coast, swapping highland scenery for flatter, sandy coastal plains. The northern coast is a desert hinterland quite divorced from more familiar images of a green, mountainous Peru. Chiclayo is an unprepossessing town, little more than a base for exploring the nearby sites. That said, it does have some winsome quirks. Pop your head into the Mercado de Brujos (witches’ market), where witch-doctors ply the customer with a cabinet of curiosities: dried herbs, powders and packaged remedies claiming to cure a host of ills, from headaches to heartache. There are also stalls piled with luscious produce, from tuna (prickly pears) to lúcuma, a fleshy, nutty-caramel fruit beloved of northerners. Try it in ice-cream form.

The town of Lambayeque lies around 20 minutes from Chiclayo by road, and it’s the proud owner of one of the best museums in South America. This scarlet Toblerone of a structure was purpose-built to house the priceless objects discovered by Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva in the tomb of a Moche noble known as the Lord of Sipán. (The original burial site is about 48 km (30 miles) away). Representing one of the most important archaeological finds to be uncovered in the Americas within the last 30 years, the Sipán burial site contained the intact grave of an ancient Moche nobleman. This 'Lord of Sipán' was interred in full regalia, dripping in gold and precious metalwork. The original remains and grave goods are now housed in the excellent Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum, while the extensive burial grounds contain in situ replicas. No stay in Chiclayo would be complete without visiting these hugely important monuments.

 

Chaparri Bears

The Chaparri Conservation Area is a community-owned and managed reserve protecting a pristine area of grassy rolling hills, backed by vertical rock walls and studded with trees and cacti. The remote habitat shelters a wild population of threatened species including the Andean spectacled bear, and there is also a rescue centre for bears and other animals confiscated from illegal captivity. You can explore the park on a network of trails, providing excellent wildlife and bird-watching opportunities. To visit the rescue centre you need to spend a couple of days at Chaparri Eco-Lodge, a 90min drive from Chiclayo on the coast of northern Peru.

 

El Brujo

We visited On the Explorer. From Chiclayo it’s around a two-hour drive to El Brujo, a truncated, stepped pyramid complex created by the Moche culture (200 BC to 600 AD). At moments on this journey, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d wandered into a desert-like version of Southeast Asia: the highway splices paddy fields, rice being a staple part of the diet in the coastal north. Look for great bags of it being sold by the roadside. You then follow the Pan-American Highway south, moving out of the desert and into the surprisingly verdant Chicama Valley with its maize and asparagus plantations. Snow-white cattle egrets pick their way through the stalks.

El Brujo archaeological complex, where an extraordinary mural adorns a Moche pyramid. Also visit the Señora de Cao Museum, housing the tattooed mummy of the first ruler of the Moche civilization, the Lady of Cao.

El Brujo rises out of nowhere at the end of a long minor road that comes out at the slate-grey Pacific — the background rumble of its waves accompanies you around the site. A lone armed guard stands watch at the top of the main ruin, the Temple Cao, like a knight prowling battlements. The Temple Cao itself is a 30 m (98 ft) high pyramid made out of adobe mudbricks. It’s a bizarre Russian doll of a structure in which outer temples were built around earlier ones by successive generations every time a priest (thought to have been the leaders of Moche society) died. El Brujo’s strangeness is immediate. An area in front of the Temple Cao appears sprinkled with bits of pottery and other archaeological detritus. But a closer glance reveals a white lump to be a human pelvic bone. Around it lie scraps of tattered cloth — original Moche textiles, preserved in centuries of dust. ‘We can’t walk there,’ said my guide, Janette, matter-of-factly. ‘A lot of this place is still being investigated.’ Archaeology in northern Peru is thrillingly in the raw. Giant friezes embellish the temple façades. One depicts a line of well-endowed prisoners being led to sacrificial slaughter. ‘We think the victims were made to drink a hallucinatory brew that made them… stand to attention,’ said Janette, with a wry smile. Then she pointed to another set of bas-reliefs. ‘Look: human foot bones.’ I squinted at some dancer-like figures. Sure enough, lumps of whitish bone slotted into the wall, forming the figures’ ankles.

Planning