Expectations can be the worst enemy of travel. Months of drooling over images, maps, and careful plans can build a false sense of what’s really on the ground when your plane hits the tarmac.
This can be especially true in international destinations like Peru.
So when we finally booked our flights last month to Jaen, Peru to experience Kuelap, Gocta Falls, and the land of the cloud people of Peru that’s been billed as the ‘New Machu Picchu’, we wanted to keep our expectations grounded.
No doubt, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding the new Kuelap Peru cable cars – the first of its kind in Peru and an impressive 4-kilometer ride on brand-new enclosed gondola cars. This is leaving aside the attention garnered by nearby Gocta Falls, the 2nd largest waterfall in South America and only recently rediscovered just over a decade ago.
But with exciting new travel possibilities in Peru come inevitable growing pains to adapt to an influx of eager travelers. Comfortable hotel services, well-maintained sites and trails, and food variety at restaurants can all be ongoing challenges. After all, a destination doesn’t immediately get transformed to the ‘Machu Picchu of the north’ overnight.
Fortunately, we had the guidance of a few of our regional guiding partners in Chachapoyas to keep our heads out of the figurative clouds until our arrival. After hitting the runway in Jaen (a tiny, 3-room airport) in the late afternoon and after a 4-hour curvy ground transfer to Chachapoyas, we were chomping at the bit.
Lack of Crowds - The contrast between sleepy Chachapoyas and Cusco couldn’t be any starker. There’s no hiding that tourists are off the beaten track in a city like
Chachapoyas where the world doesn’t only revolve around tourism.
Not only does it feel like you’re in a normal Peruvian town in Chachapoyas, touring the ruins of Kuelap can be a surprisingly solitary experience too.
How do you get to Kuelap from Chachapoyas? We spent no time waiting and used our first day to explore the Kuelap fortress. A one-hour drive along windy paved roads takes you to the tiny town of Tingo. From Tingo, a large ticket station and welcome center for the Kuelap cable car is only 5 minutes up the road followed by a 15-minute shuttle transfer to the cable cars themselves.
After 20-minutes of sweeping views from the cable cars, you’re dropped off just a short 25-minute hike from the ruins of Kuelap. Looking back at the cable car starting point, the complex mountain geography makes it obvious why such a cable car exists here in the first place.
Kuelap itself sits perched upon a mountain point with 360-degree views of the green hills and mountain valleys below. But the amount of solitude at Kuelap is striking. Touring the outside walls of ruins, there can be times where visitors will literally see no one – an almost unimaginable feeling at the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Besides the lack of crowds at Kuelap (this does change a bit in high season between June and August), we also had the same experience of solitude hiking to Gocta Falls. Contrast this with a hike like the Rainbow Mountain in Cusco where hordes of ill-prepared, Instagram-photo-hungry take to the trail daily, and we’ll take Gocta Falls any day.
A Huge Range of Fascinating Sites - Though Kuelap is the chief site here, another huge advantage of the Chachapoyas area is the variety of sites nearby. Visitors can easily turn this into a 5 or 6 day visit without growing tired. Besides a day-hike to Gocta Falls, the sarcophagi of Karajia are an impressive set of statues built into the rocks that deserves a day itself.
Another impressive regional site is located at the Leymebamba Museum where a wide collection of mummies sits on display. Uncovered in 1997 near the remote Laguna de los Condores, 200 mummies of the Chachapoyas culture where recovered and have been the focus of much international attention.
The region also contains some impressively isolated trekking opportunities including to the Laguna de los Condores, a three-day trip terminating in one of the most picturesque lakes in Peru.
A Different Kind of Gastronomy – Not quite the Peruvian cuisine of the jungle and not quite cuisine of the Highlands, the food of the high jungle regions around Chachapoyas is tasty. It’s clear that there’s a budding gastronomy scene bound to take off here.
On many menus, regional favorites like Cecina of beef or pork can be found alongside fresh trout all served with a side of fried plantains. We were left most impressed by our visits to El Batan del Tayta, offering a surprisingly creative take on Peruvian classics like ceviche and a full book of creative cocktails.
Though there’s clearly room for more progressive restaurateurs in Chachapoyas, it’s a good sign that many restaurants don’t simply offer the Peruvian staples found in other regions of Peru. Take some time to find and try a new dish here.
A Long Slog to Arrive Here – There’s no way to sugarcoat that that it’s difficult to get to Kuelap, Gocta Falls, and Chachapoyas. Like nearly every location throughout Peru, the only sensible option is flying (some gluttons for punishment opt to take an 10-hour overnight bus from Chiclayo).
The tiny airport of Jaen, which does not even have fully enclosed terminal, is still woefully too small to serve the future needs of Kuelap. However, the runway is long enough to land two LATAM jets here daily from Lima.
From here, you will need to take a private or shared ground transfer to Chachapoyas in a 4-hour endlessly curvy, though beautifu,l ride (like all transfers in Peru this depends on conditions). It’s always recommended to arrange this in advance rather than grabbing a random driver available outside the Jaen airport.
What about flights to Chachapoyas itself? Though primarily used for private and military aircraft, the Chachapoyas airport does have four flights weekly from Lima via the small carrier ATSA Airlines. Planes are small and have a high rate of cancellation thanks to the constantly shifting clouds over the city, a big reason why the Jaen airport exists.
This can delay or ruin your trip. But a roll of the dice on ATSA can also get you in and out of Chachapoyas without the frustrating 4-hour transfers both to and from the Jaen airport.
Basic Tourist Services & Interpretation– As a budding tourist area, Kuelap and the Chachapoyas area feels like it is in its adolescence. This can be pure heaven when on a trail alone or at Kuelap with only a handful of people, but can be not so pleasant when looking for signage in English (we recommend having a guide with you at Kuelap for a deeper explanation of what you’re seeing).
Visitors need to come to Kuelap and Chachapoyas prepared for this. Though many guides have a deep knowledge of the history of the region and can interpret it fully in Spanish, English-language guides (and guides in other languages) can be difficult to find. Many guides expressed to us that they know there is a wide future guiding in English – it’s just that the tourism industry is still young and training opportunities have been limited.
Multi-language guide training is slowly coming to Chachapoyas, but be prepared for your guide in Kuelap, Gocta, and Karajia to be less proficient than your guide at Machu Picchu. It’s a double-edged sword travelling away from the well-trodden trail.
Limited Hotel Options – To see as many Kuelap area hotel options as we could, we changed hotels each of our four nights and saw as many of the others as we could. The verdict – hotel options are basic and limited in the region, but pleasant options do exist.
The quiet streets of Chachapoyas are contrasted with the lively avenues throughout Cusco. Only a handful of hotel options are in the city proper (to experience more culture we always suggest experiencing at least one night in Chachapoyas). The best of these hotels is the Xalca Hotel – a humble-looking hotel from the outside but with beautiful touches and large rooms inside. Service levels here are also slightly better than other hotels in Chachapoyas, with a friendly front desk and a ample breakfast buffet.
The other two good hotel options, with even closer locations to the Chachapoyas plaza, are the La Casona Monsante and the La Casona Chachapoyas, the latter being slightly more rustic and basic.
It should be noted that some slightly pricier and pleasant hotel options are located outside of the city. Though isolated, the Casa Hacienda Achamaqui (previously a Casa Andina property) is a beautiful sprawling property about 20-minutes closer to Kuelap. And for views, it doesn’t get any better than the perfectly situated Gocta Lodge with captivating views of the falls – though it should be noted that Gocta Lodge does sit on the edge of a small town.
Hotels will continue to open in the region in coming years, but fewer tourists, in our book, is always preferred to luxury hotel amenities.
So is Kuelap the next Machu Picchu? The comparison between the two will always have its faults. Our experience taught us that Kuelap stands in its own category as a breathtaking set of ruins in Peru from a completely different pre-Colombian culture. Though smaller and only 20% excavated yet, Kuelap’s views were just as striking as those of Machu Picchu.
It’s one of those sites not fully grasped and felt until you’re staring at the ruins and landscape yourself trying to imagine a lively city of 3,000 Chachapoyas ‘cloud people of Peru’ living in the place your standing 1000 years ago.
Of course, Kuelap has been here all along but the Kuelap cable car really does make travel here easier (and more fun!) by bypassing hours of travel on unpaved roads. Kuelap is undoubtedly poised for a boom in the coming years because the site truly does offer something different for those who want to get off the Gringo Trail.
Likewise, the hike to Gocta Falls is still a relatively peaceful endeavor, despite periodic large groups of horse-bound trekkers. The falls lie tucked only about 20 minutes off the highway and just over one hour north of Chachapoyas. It makes one stunned to think that such a jewel lied out of the public consciousness until relatively recently.
The falls themselves are nothing short of spectacular from near or far. The hike is only a moderate 11-kilometer round-trip trek that any relatively fit person should be able to muster, and approaching the falls themselves is a stunning display of the force of the waterfall (though it should be noted that water flows taper off in August and September). The Gocta experience was exhilarating, mostly quiet and felt surprisingly non-exploitative from commercialization despite a nearby town that has seen a huge influx of tourists.
This is the adolescence of tourism in and around Kuelap. Like our guides mentioned, tourism doubled year over year from 2016 to 2017 and is expected to do the same in 2018.
Despite the few drawbacks, the next few years are the window to get to Kuelap and Gocta Falls before the masses really catch on.
Stay Here! Despite the jaw-dropping views from the back porch of Gocta Lodge, we really liked La Xalca Hotel in Chachapoyas. It’s not going to win awards from the outside, but the beautiful courtyard, ample breakfast display, and large rooms make it feel better than other 3-star hotels. Rates start from $75.00 nightly.
Eat Here! The best restaurant for dinner in Chachapoyas is undoubtedly El Batan de Tayta. From various ceviches to Peruvian classics and a whole range of funky food displays (our ceviche came served on a mini-boat) there’s great creativity here. For casual fare, check out Café Fusiones for some good coffee, sandwiches, and a reading nook.
Locals Tip! Bring cash! Internet service and credit card processing can be iffy – especially paying for those once-in-a-lifetime cocktails off the back of the Gocta Lodge. The further from Lima, Cusco, and Arequipa you go, the more you should be prepared for paying in soles.