Inland Northern routes to Tarapoto.

Inland Northern routes to Tarapoto.

This route travels from coastal desert to the alta selva, and is undoubtedly the easiest road route into the jungle anywhere in Perú. It connects with the route from Cajamarca to Chachapoyas, described here. The route leads to Tarapoto, a point of access to the jungle, and also the termination of the route from Tingo Maria, described here.

From Chiclayo

The Panamericana North from Chiclayo splits after Lambayeque, with the right land branch heading towards Olmos. The archaeological site of Túcume can be visited after leaving Lambayeque: see here for more. Irrigated maize fields extend as far as Jayanca (Km 34) and thereafter travels through increasingly harsh desert. Salas (Km 50) is famous as a centre for healers (curanderos) and witches (brujos). About ten kilometres further on, the foothills of the Andes begin to appear, and in particular a rough stone hill which is known as la vieja,the old woman. There is a rough stone figure at the foot of this which is worshipped, (very) notionally as a Virgin. The ceremonies are strongly tied to the activities of the curanderos.

As the road begins to rise, it encounters a further cult site at around 70 Km from Chiclayo, the Cruz de Chalpón. A hermit called Juan Abad inhabited this cave, high in the rocks amongst algarrobal scrub. He died, and in 1868 a cross was found in the cave which has since become seen as a worker of miracles. This has a continuous flow of devotees, and two major events on February 5th and the first week in August, with the 5th as the key day.

The road from Olmos to the Porculla pass is encountered 85 Km from Chiclayo: perhaps an hour's drive with no stops.

From Piura

The road from Piura to Olmos passes through flat desert for much of its length. Olmos is in an area where the land rises and the argarroba trees become denser, forming the season bosque seco, or dry forest. Goats roam without apparent management and when these stand on the road in wet weather or to catch the evening warmth off it, they can make driving hazardous.

The brush-land and this has become a centre for bird watching. There is a private bird sanctuary 10 km north of Olmos, and the El Limon hacienda is internationally known a site for rare birds. Quebrada Limón - sometimes called the Guan cañón - on the Río Olmos is particularly rich, and home to the endangered white guan. These are long-tailed black birds, with distinctive white wings and red throats.

In addition, the region has the Peruvian plantcutter and the endemic rufous flycatcher. Other birds include the rare black-faced ibis, the Tumbes and amazilia hummingbirds, the short-tailed woodstar, the peruvian sheertail, the scarlet-backed and golden-olive woodpeckers, necklaced spinetail and the white-edged oriole.

Olmos has a number of basic hotels and restaurants. It is not particularly attractive, but the new Eastern road has brought traffic and development to it. The town has la fiesta de los limónes in the last week in June, when the local lemon farmers meet to dance, compete on rather more issues than lemons, elect the Lemon Queen and generally raise the roof. There are caballo de paso events, bull- and cock-fights, processions and fireworks. There are petroglyphs at Liches, which show shamanic images of people and animals merging.

From Olmos into Amazonas

Click here to see a series of images The road winds up into increasingly well-watered hills. Irrigation and the extensive planting of citrus - and in particular - of lemon trees clusters around scattered villages. The Porculla pass (2159m) is around 50 Km from Olmos, and has the dubious honour of being the lowest road pass over the Andes in the entire cordillera. Views from the pass are usually obscured by mist, but the vegetation and birds around the area are comparable with the wetter areas in the Piura sierra. The eroded hills are covered with a thin, dense scrub which is being rapidly cleared for cultivation. The rare Piura Chat-Tyrant - which sounds like a particularly annoying dinner guest, but to each their own - is repeatedly reported from this region. The oil pipeline, on its way from the Northern jungle to the port at Bayovar, crosses close to the road.

Once across the pass, the vegetation changes dramatically. Hualapampa Km 60 has restaurants, and a scattering of further farming villages appear, along with the Huancabamba river. The road in from the magicians' town Huancabamba - discussed here - comes in on the left, making that an alternative is slow route from Piura. The road now winds slowly downward into Amazonas. As the descent continues, so rice fields begin to appear. Pucará, Km 120 from Olmos, is a farming town which also services the oil pipeline, and has many restaurants and assorted vehicle services. Nearby Puerta Chiple has a major Friday market. (The designation "Puerta" - port - can be confusing for a land-locked town. Perú uses a great deal of river transport and local convention is that any town that ties into this, quite reasonably, either is a port or has a port.) A Southern road connects to Cajamarca in around 290 Km.

The road rises into low hills covered in cactus, agave and scrub, continuing to Chamaya 60 Km further. Here, the road to near-by Jaén runs North to the Ecuador border. Jaén is the marketplace for a coffee growing district, and has hotels and restaurants.

Continuing through what is now a wide valley, the road drops with the river Huancabamba to the Río Marañón. This is a major tributary of the Amazonas river, joining it at the Pacaya-Samiria national park. As the road drops to this river, however, the land becomes starkly arid, with one belt of cactus species supplanting another every hundred metres or so of fall. The wide brown-watered river is encountered at Km 195 from Olmos, where the road crosses the Puente 24 de Julio at Corral Quemado. This bridge replaces a hazardous system of rafts which once managed all traffic across the river. On crossing, one enters Amazonas in not quite the environment that one might have expected: the name evokes dense tropical forest, but the reality is bare pink rock and cactus.

Signs to the North point to Bagua (not Bagua Grande, which is ahead on the main road.) Bagua is the starting point for a rough road that penetrates North-East to Imaza, from where it is possible to take a boat to, eventually, Iquitos or Brazil. Bagua Grande on the highway has fuel and assorted amenities - if fewer attractions - and marks Km 225 from Olmos. It is situated in rice fields amidst coconut palms, and at last the humid tropics feel close to hand.

The road now enters the valley of the Utcubamba, the river that flows down past Kuellap and Chachapoyas. [More here.] The countryside is suddenly green and there are many villages by the side of the river. The road climbs up to Pedro Ruiz, Km 295, where the Chachapoyas road enters from the South. Once again, there are many restaurants and hotels in this not-unattractive town.

Click here to see a series of images Beyond Pedro Ruiz, one might be in a different country. The road winds through spectacular gorges that alternate between wet and dry flanks. Each kilometre makes the landscape more green, however, and after a rapid drop it begins to climb once again, in order to pass over the sierra Oriental. Pomacochas (2200m, Km 325) has a fine lake set in emerald countryside, amidst vertical little ceros covered in vegetation. There is at least one good hotel in the area, overlooking the lake. This makes a good place to break your trip.

The road now goes across the grain of the land, rising to a series of forest-clad passes before dropping into valleys, each wetter than the last. Pomacochas leads into the remnants of mist forest - thirty minutes walk will bring the virgin forest to you, at the time of writing, but "progress" continues apace. This is a place of hummingbirds and small furtive movements in the undergrowth, little aerial gardens on every branch and astounding insects wherever the sun touches. A still place, damp in the dawn light.

Above this, limestone cliffs support lichen and hardy ferns, and then we drop down again, passing through a number of villages to Buenos Aires, the largest of these at Km 345. The road winds through fine forest and rock cliffs, and orchid enthusiasts - amongst others - have much to gain from short trips away from the road. A climb through limestone cliffs, the quebrada del Oso Perdido - lost bear gulch - brings another pass, the Pardo de Miguel (Km 365, 1930m). The drop down from here involves sweeping curves through dense wet forest - essentially impenetrable without a machete and suitable clothing - over a river and then up and over the Venceremos pass (1880m, Km 385).

The landscape immediately after this is every child's dream of a jungle setting, with huge tracts of forest sweeping down the flanks of the ceja de selva, the eyebrow of the jungle. It is a place of mists and sharp rainstorms, with the drops pattering on leaves the texture of leather and every conceivable shape and size. Every branch creaks under a load of epiphytes, and lianas tie it all together. Varicoloured parrots crackle and squawk about in it, and little birds peek out from under huge wet leaves. This area is protected as the Bosque de Proteccíon Alto Mayo, a huge horse-show shaped area that sweeps around the ceja de selva as far as Rioja, below. The 170,000 hectare area tries to protect the forest cover of the watershed of the Alto Mayo river, but insufficient funding means that it is les than completely successful in this. There is no organised access to the area, but Moyobamba has people who are familiar with it and will be able to take you into the forest.

Into San Martín

Having conquered this pass, we drop continually into San Martín department, notorious for its cocaine production and sporadic violence. In general, do not pick up hitchhikers in Perú, but really do not stop for anything or anyone not in uniform in San Martín. If they are in uniform, stop extremely promptly. However, this stretch of the road is well-patrolled and likely to be safe. In general, the province was badly affected both by the rampaging drugs trade in the 1975-95 period and the 1985-95 peak of the Sendero Luminoso. The first is now much constrained by active military force and the second has been eliminated. However, a legacy of violence remains that puts a rough edge to this region and of which you should be aware.

There are several villages in the next phase of the trip, but the local centre of population is Naranjos, Km 430. It has most services and a military base. The jungle ends rather abruptly some way before this, and the road passes into the wide and flat Alta Mayo valley. You can see the Andes blue-gray on your right, whilst all around you are rice fields. There are many more roadside settlements, chiefly built of wood and thatch, and Nueva Cajamarca (Km 460) on the Río Yuracyacu is the largest and most settled of these. It has good restaurants, serving bony fish from the river. The road continues more or less without curves through more rice and coconut palms to the next town of any size, Rioja (1400m, Km 480).

Rioja is not granted much charm, but it is home to excellent weavers in fine paja tejida - white rush work - and it's hats and handbags are famous. It also makes textiles dyed with natural colorants. The Mashuyacu lagoon is five kilometres from the road and a centre for breeding semi-tropical fish and as a source for the rushes used for weaving. The nearby caves limestone at La Unión have not been much explored, and are set in lush and romantic scenery. If this is your first stop for some time, you may be surprised by how much the faces, physique and dress of the people has changed to meet the jungle norm.

The road continues to descend through rice culture and scattered villages. Uncultivated land has a patchy, infertile look to it and the soil is an old, sandy relict of Andean weathering.

Moyobamba

Moyobamba (850m Km 500) calls itself the "city of orchids" and greets you with a four-metre high concrete Cattleya rex in the middle if its principle roundabout. It was notionally founded in 1549 but in fact seriously settled by the Spanish in the Eighteenth century. This said, it has a modern feel to it. It has good hotels and all facilities. There is next to no organised travel industry and activities are best organised by word of mouth. Leave time for this: words must be dropped, cousins and brothers marshalled before you can set out.

Click here to see a series of images The town is essentially an agricultural market town, with industry engaged in making timber products and paja hats. (Another fibre, bombonaje, is extracted from a palm tree, and is less fine but more durable than paja.) These hats were exported all over the world in the nineteenth century - across the then abominable roads and non-existent bridges of the time - and made the town's fortune. It is only now regaining its footing, thanks to the new road and much improved security situation. Culturally, visitors will note that the reticence of the Peruvian coast on sexual matters has shifted to Amazonian frankness, and it is quite normal for the porter in a hotel of any quality to offer single male visitors a girl for the night. Be prepared, and feel mortified if he fails to do this, not if he follows your expectations - evidently you look incapable!.

The best months to visit are June to November, when it is less wet than in Summer. The town has many small festivals and of course celebrates the large national festivals. The semana turistica 23rd-30th June has been built around the patronal of San Juan, on June 25th. There is an orchid week on 1st to the 4th November. The also town specialises in dance movements that combine something of the Amazon with traditional coastal forms such as the negrita or marinera.

The Río Alto Mayo flows past the town, which has a substantial fishing port on it five minutes walk from the town. It is easy to engage a boat for a brief trip, a day's fishing or a more substantial trip into the jungle.

This can include a trip to visit a local ethnic community. The Aguarunas are a people who are related to the Jíbaro of the deep forest, but who had settled the Alto Mayo valley long before the arrival of the Spanish. They still live a hunter-gatherer life around the fringes of settlement, trading fish and handicrafts. Their villages can be visited by arrangement in Moyobamba, but be guided exactly by the briefing on your behaviour and dress which your guide will give you.

Click here to see a series of images On the other side of town, the Andes foothills press close in, and five minute's drive take you into coffee plantations and closed valleys walled with forest. It is advisable to take a guide and to heed their advice, for these villages are prone to sometimes violent rivalry and one need to take the local temperature before proceeding into the region. The reason for going is, of course, the wild life, not least of which are the orchids.

There is an orchid nursery (vivero) in the town, an easy walk from most of the better hotels. Ask for the 'mirador' - lookout point - overlooking the port. The nursery is the large house on the left of the approach road. One pays a few soles to enter and can wander around an extensive collection, with parrots. The sell flasked seedlings for export, which are except from CITES certification. These and the other nurseries mentioned are ethical and not at all affected by what follows. However, please excuse a deviation.

CITES - the convention on the trade in endangered species - greatly constrains the export of mature orchids from Perú and their import in the EU, USA, Japan and other signatory nations. If you are caught smuggling, the result is confiscation, a fine and a criminal conviction. The same convention applies to animal products such as turtle skins and stuffed birds, as well as to live animals.) We mention this because people who make themselves known a enthusiasts in a place like Moyobamba will begin receive all sorts of suggestions about how this or that person can 'get' something choice for them. A payment and a subsequent parcel from Perú can start a wholly new chapter in your life, one perhaps better not started.

A second orchid nursery is found about two kilometres South of the town, on the good road leading to the hot spring baths. Wear long sleeves and trousers, as its mosquitoes are enthusiastic. The same road degrades sharply a little way further, and leads into an area of coffee plantations and high rainfall and, eventually, to the 120m waterfall at Gera, close to the village of Jepelacio, around 20 Km from Moyobamba. This is pretty enough, but the real reason for the trip is the scenery, which is fine. The custodian of the falls has a small but choice orchid collection, including numerous Phragmepediums.

A smaller fall in more open country, with a larger lagoon is at Lahuarpía, around 45 Km from Moyobamba. It is accessible by normal vehicles, unlike Gera which demands a 4x4.

Local foods are distinctive:

To Tarapoto

The road passes the turn to Lahuarpía, discussed above, 32 Km from Moyobamba. A rather flat and uninteresting road runs through patchy rice fields and small settlements to the turnoff to Lamas, 83 Km from Moyobamba. Lamas is a town populated by a distinctive people who regard themselves as the descendents of the Chankas, who once inhabited midlands towns such as Ayacucho. They have a distinct folklore, which is displayed in irregular events which they hold. Lamas is also a centre for healers (curanderos) and shamans, as well as handicrafts.

Tarapoto ( 330m, 120 Km from Moyobamba) is a busy and charmless commercial city of around 54,000. It has all facilities, and an excellent resort hotel on its outskirts, at Puerto Palmeras. It is perched on the confluence of the Huallaga river - which drains the area South, as far as Tingo Maria and Huánuco - and the Alto Mayo, which the road has been following. It was founded in 1782 as a trading port and has since gone through many cycles of boom and bust. Currently, it is on an upswing and this is evident from the frantic activity in the city. Its patronal is La Sagrada Cruz de los Motilones, which runs from 10th to 18 of June, and the other major local event is the city's anniversary, on 20th of August.

The reason to come here is, first, that it is a part of the circuit described here, and second, that many interesting things happen around it. The town has a number of agencies, which offer everything from fishing trips to ayahuasca ceremonies. (Ayahuasca is one of the principle drugs used by shamans when taking people on a divinational journey. More on it here.) The drug culture is very strong in Tarapoto - it was one of the chief places from which cocaine paste was exported during the peak of the narcotrafficante period and it is still a centre for the legal trade in the coca leaf. One should bear this in mind when on the streets after dark, on when in receipt of an offer from a stranger. Note also the posters on the walls in respect of SIDA - AIDS in English - which has followed drug injection and sexual openness.

Around Tarapoto

The rivers around Tarapoto offer almost unlimited capacity to fish, bird watch and generally muck around in boats. It is easy to find someone to help you to do this, either for a few hours or for protracted periods. (You will need to bring all of the camping equipment that you will need, but you can buy all necessary provisions in the city. Please note the issues of malaria, discussed here.)

The Laguna del Sauce ("Willow Lagoon") is 5 Km long by1-2 Km wide, complete with a hotel. It is across the Huallaga river from Tarapoto, and offers complete isolation, tranquillity and excellent fishing and bird-watching. One follows the marginal road South from Tarapoto past for 35 Km to where the Huallaga is crossed with a bridge. A further 16 Km down a Eastern offshoot to this road leads to the lagoon.

A rough road leads from Tarapoto to Yurimaguas, a port on the Río Marañón. This has a port with regular departures that head fro Iquitos in the deep {selva}. It could be a way of getting to Iquitos, although poor public tansport to Yurimaguas makes this is logistically complex to manage. However, there are more attractions on the way to Yurimaguas than in the destination.

The trail leads off the Yurimaguas road into the Parque de la Biodiversidad, by way of the Ahuashiyacu waterfalls. Local people follow the same trail, carrying trade goods on their heads. The centre maintains a study centre for this area of rich biodiversity. Trees laden with ferns and orchids surround the trail, which leads on to the waterhole at San José. This is a clean swimming pool, fed by the Cainarache brook. It is also a good place to camp for the night. The next day brings the waterfalls of Tirayacu after 3-4 hours of walking, and those of Atunyacu and Carpishoyacu later in the day. The last has access to transport. However, going a little beyond the falls, one finds the Pongo de Caynarachi, a narrowing of the river that produces formidable rapids and much thundering of the water. It is essential to have a guide for this walk.

A separate route visits San Roque de Cumbaza, a village around 40 Km North from Tarapoto on its own rough road. An early start from San Roque follows a broad path through areas of cultivation to Cumbasa, at around 8 Km. San Antonio is a similar tranquil tropical settlement a further 7 Km further along the trail. This is a good place to spend the night, camping near the river. The second day visits the waterfall at Huacamaillo before returning to San Roque. Again, make sure that you have a guide and have paid attention to your security before attempting this.