Inland from Chimbote to Cajamarca.

Inland from Chimbote to Cajamarca.

This is a cross-country route that follows the path taken by the Spanish up from the coast to Cajamarca, where Spanish invader Pizarro and the Inca Atahualpa had their fateful encounter. There are much easier ways to get to Cajamarca, as this route described a set of winding narrow earth roads, but few routes which offer more insight into the ways of the Northern sierra, its archaeological sites and country towns.

Please note that a separate route, on a higher quality road, leads from San Pedro de Lloc, North of Trujillo, to Cajamarca, following the Jequetepeque river. This can be done in a day, whereas this route takes at least three days. In brief: this road climbs up from the desert to cactus and passes the Gallito Ciego (little blind chicken) reservoir. Little villages appear, including Tembladera, which has small archaeological museum. Near Km 100 from San Pedro de Lloc, on much higher ground, you can visit the important site at Kunturwasi, a Chavín-influenced jaguar cult site dating to 1200BC. It is a mountain that, through the additions of walls and stairs was converted into a pyramid. The Cupinesque culture held the site after 700BC. This site has a striking museum. Forty miles further comes the 3100m pass at El Gavilán, where the road switches back and forth through huge boulders of eroded basalt. Cajamarca lies in the valley beyond, at Km 185.

The full distance from Trujillo in total is around 380 Km. You can also approach from Trujillo via Otuzco, although this is a more round-about route - please see the map. Otuzco is 75 KM from Trujillo on a good road, and lies in pleasing countryside. It has the image of the Virgen de la Puerta, and the patronal on October 15th is a national event, described elsewhere.

Cross country from Chimbote.

Elsewhere, we describe the Callejón de Huaylas and the route from it that follows the Río Santa down to near Chimbote. The access to this of the Panamericana is a tarred road that heads East up the Santa river, 10 km North of Chimbote. This proceeds up a narrowing valley filled with irrigated crop land, which becomes patches around the river as the valley narrows to a steep-sided gorge. Tarmac runs out and the road is surfaces with sharp-edge rocks, much the size and form of an axe head.

The gorge becomes extremely steep, with the road clinging to and occasionally digging into the cliff face. The only vegetation are sprigs of pepper trees clinging to rocks by the water's edge. After half an hour - about 80 Km from the main road - the road arrives at a small settlement called Chuquicara. This is sometimes called "Santa", which is confusing as it is also the name of the village at the end of the road near the river. This has a few one story buildings around a dusty open space, a small market and a police post.

The largely abandoned 4500 hectare nature reserve of Calipuy backs against the village, and can be accessed from the road we describe below. This is an area of arid yunga scrub, including the Puya raymondii, which is preserved as an example of its type but abandoned for want of funds. The mountain range in which it is found is called the Cerro de Huacate. These accompany the road on its left side for the next few hours

The road from Huaraz comes in down the valley. A hard left off this, across the river, leads into a similar narrow valley, but one which rises quite sharply and out of which the road begins to climb. Various tributaries of the river flow in, and vegetation begins to appear: cactus, yucca and the occasional settlement. This is, however, an almost deserted area, used only by shepherds. A turn to Santa Rosa and Cabana leads to the right - this is the way to Sihuas, but not where we want to go on this route. The road that follows the river enters a more open valley with farming and settlement, and then turns to rise steeply in a series of switchbacks to the ridge above. The views down the valley are very fine.

Eucalyptus woods announce the approach to the town of Pallasca, approximately Km 180. The trip from Chimbote will have taken around six to seven hours in a 4x4, nearer eight in a truck or bus. Pallasca is a pretty village of red roofed, adobe buildings with good views on every side. The Plaza de Armas has a simple sixteenth century church, said to have been founded by Pizarro as he passed by. There is a basic hotel and am adequate restaurant. The hills above offer pleasing walks amongst sheep and Eucalyptus, and lakes above the town are stocked with trout. If you are experienced in the Peruvian sierra, you may notice an oddity about the inhabitants. Very few have the characteristic features of the sierra, but rather European bone structure, facial hair and - occasionally - blue eyes. It appears that the area was depopulated and resettled by the Spanish immediately after the conquest.

Click here to see a series of images The road out of town weaves sharply down past the cemetery to the river, across a bridge and then up again in a set of blind 180 degree turns. Locals say the road is "slippery" after rain, and they mean it. An hour or less brings Mollepata, a little village arranged around a large church. My description of this is cut short as we were way-laid to be an ambulance at this point, and we had little time for exploration.

The road climbs steeply to Mollebamba - a rather ugly settlement laid out around a huge pasture standing for a Plaza de Armas - winding on through hilly, well-watered and -populated country. We delivered our patient to the Hospital at the ugly mining town of Angasmarca (3100m) from which around a million tonnes of poly-metallic ore is extracted every year.

Crossing the river just beyond the town, the road rises steeply out of the valley in which the mine is located. The terrain becomes open rolling pasture, with scattered settlements. Santa Cruz de Choca is met after fifteen kilometres, and a similar drive through pretty country brings the spa town of Cachicadán (3300m). This can also be reached from Trujillo, via Otuzco, Julcán and Santiago de Cucho, a trip of around 180 Km. It is famous for its thermal springs, the waters of which are considered to be amongst the best in the country. They are rich in iron and the exit temperatures surpass 60°C. The surroundings offer the steaming red lakes of Cachicadán Verano and Cachicadán Invierno, both fed by the hot springs. The town has limited accommodation and restaurants. The one hotel has a pretty garden with the restaurant, and hot-spring baths. One of the rooms has this built into it, which makes for a humid night.

The road to Huamachuco from Cachicadán winds through dry, picturesque if largely empty rolling country, with the occasional spectacular view. The journey is around 55 Km and takes three hours. The village of Coñachugo is the only way-marker of any size, and it has no facilities except fuel.


Huamachuco (3100m) is a large and relatively sophisticated city, with all facilities and good hotels. Around 22,000 people live there, and many more trek in to its daily markets. It makes its living by servicing local mines and agriculture with goods from Trujillo - nine hours away by the most direct route - and transport is therefore frequent in all directions.

Click here to see a series of images The Plaza de Armas is huge - 400m x 300m, but fronted with dull buildings and a modern Cathedral without much merit. There is a museum in the alley behind this. The name means the "town of the fat falcon". The market is located all over the city, but chiefly towards the river area. Local people in traditional clothes are to be seen every morning, selling their wares.

The square is the location for striking fireworks displays during the August patronal of La Virgen de la Alta Gracia. The whole event runs from August 10th to 20th, with the peak day on August 15th. The day is marked with dancing troops from the mountains, called things like the Indios Fieles, or Los Diablos de Sarín.

The evening is celebrated with fireworks. Wealthy local people (and consortia) commission multi-story bamboo structures on which hundreds or thousands of fireworks are mounted. These detonate over two or three hours, assisted by people who work within the display to animate it, or stretch out a rope carrying particularly interesting assemblies. Not all fireworks go where they are intended, and the display has some aspects of a firefight to it. Both of these events are subject to live serraño music broadcast from immense loudspeakers, with different groups setting up at either end of the square. Do not expect to sleep if booked into a hotel facing the square during the fiesta. There are also a series of bull fights that run erratically throughout this event.

Huamachuco has a rich and deep history, flagged both by spectacular ruins - see below - and by many festivals throughout the year. It appears to have formed from people who originated in the jungle and who carved out an area of influence. They linked with the culture in the Cajamarca valley, and prospered until overshadowed - if not conquered - by the Wari around 500 AD. When the Wari fell apart, so too the unity of this region collapsed and Huamachuco was largely isolated in a sea of chaos.

The Waman Raymi (August 11th) celebrates the traditional history of the Wuamachuco people, much as the Inti Raymi celebrates the Inca. Around 10,000 people take part. The story of the liberation of the Wuamachuco from the savage Wachemines by the God Ataguju and his son, Waman Silu is danced out.

The two are captured by the Wachemines, but the Princess Kautaguan falls in love with Waman Silu. They are caught together, and Waman Silu is burned alive. The princess dies giving birth to two giant eggs, which the Wachemines throw in the garbage. They are rescued by a local woman who respected the divinity of Waman Silu. One hatches a weakling and the other mighty Catequil, who frees his people. Hurrah!

These events take place in the ruins of Viracochapampa, where much of this is said to have taken place. The site is close to the town. It appears to have been an administrative centre, and was abandoned before it was finished. The buildings are of mud-mortared stone, all constructed around a central Plaza. Small drains may have been connected to the local Cuchilla river.

The Wamachucos prospered, acquiring pottery and metal working from the coast. They were eventually conquered by the Inca under Pachacútec, but have left a number of smaller sites and one truly impressive ruin called Marcahuamachuco.

Click here to see a series of images This dates to around 400 BC. It is located at 3600m on a flat-topped crag about 10 Km from the town, approached on a rough road that needs a 4x4, although taxis can be persuaded to undertake it. The site itself extends over five square kilometres, and consists of impressive stone walls and buildings, set against a fine set of views of the surrounding hills. Much of the site is protected by 500-800m drops to the rivers below.

The site is divided into "hills", cerros, although the land is largely flat. These are the cerros of the castle (castillo), of the monks (monjas), the pens (corrales) and the old hill (cerro Viejo).

Cerro de Castillo is a double-walled enclosure with lookout towers and a massive internal structure that has chambers and contorted tunnels. Its use is obscure.

Cerro de las Monjas consists of six buildings of an oval or round shape, up to three stories high, containing a clutter of cell-like rooms. The upper floors have little windows, some with perhaps-funerary niches.

Cerro de los Corrales are two round buildings that are surrounded by a double wall, One of them has a round tower set in a central space, from which radiate what may have been llama pens.

Cerro Viejo is a hillock surrounded by a double wall. A great gate connects into inner constructions.

A huge wall - perhaps 15m tall - cuts one end of the site off from the rest. Passing through its great gate, one arrives at an enigmatic circular structure around 75m across and 12m high. It has one tiny door, through which one has to crawl, and a double-walled interior, something of a signature of the site. The location and the great wall suggest either a last redoubt or a sanctum to be protected at all costs.

Marcahuamacucho is the largest of many such sites, others being Viracochapampa and the Cerros Amaru, Sazón, Tuskan, Campana and Coipín. Viracochapampa has already been mentioned.

Cerro Amaru is 7 Km East of the city, close to Marcahuamachuco. The site has been little studied, and is in a poor state. It consists of monumental structures built of mud and stone. The upper reaches of the site have cisterns normally associated with divination - see here for Chavín de Huantar and one interpretation of these.

Cerro Tuscan is close to modern Huamachuco, and has stone remains close to its conical summit. Some of these are old and others a part of more recent terracing. Cerro Sazón is close by, and consists of a large extent of dilapidated walls, much affected by agriculture and plundering for building.

La Cuchilla is close to Purubamba, and consists of 5-10m high mud brick walls, some as much as 15m thick. IT is said to have been a part of an aqueduct that supplied Viracochapampa.

Cerro Campaña East is close to the Sausacocha lagoon. It is a chain of small buildings with rounded corners, of function unknown. The Western complex lies near the Cahuadán lagoon, and consists of a series of conical mortuary mounds. The top of the hillock has a lowered square surrounded by buildings, which may have been a fortress or - given the site - a place of religious significance. Sausacocha is a large natural lake which is 15 minutes from the city and a tranquil place to relax. It was named for the Wamachuco princess Xuama who married an Inca after the conquest. It is full of hungry trout, and small boats are available for fishing. The reed beds at its shore are full of wildfowl. Rock paintings at Quilca near Sartimbamba, and those of Chinacpampa near Chugay may date back a few thousand years.

Coipin is North of Marcahuamachuco, perched along the edge of a deep ravine. It was a formidably walled and fortified town, containing the remains of houses and other buildings. There appear to have been fields within the walls, suggesting provision against long sieges.

There is a lot to see around Huamachuco, but until better access is created, it will remain a zone that is almost free of international tourists. There are a variety of circuits that can be made from the town, such as the one day trip to Marcabal, a remote and "typical" village which what is said to be good walking around it. The village is just off the route to Cajabamba.

To Cajabamba

The road from Huamachuco to Cajabamba is much better than any encountered so far on this trip. It wanders through low hills which obviously receive good rainfall, and the fields cultivate barley and maize. Gradually, however, it contours upwards into much higher altitude terrain, leaving trees behind. In Autumn, fluorescent patches of quinoa and golden cereals spot the hillsides, and distant snow peaks can be seen in Huaylas. The open high ground continues for 10-15 Km before descending once again into valleys full of Eucalyptus. The terrain is now much wetter and more densely populated. The only town of any size is Chaquibamba.

Cajabamba is a moderate sized town of red tiles and adobe walls. It has a small Plaza de Armas and several churches. The area around it is known for its trout-filled lakes. The town has a good hotel, and several adequate restaurants. (The best is a little difficult to find, as it is on the outskirts, but it is well worth asking any Moto driver to take you to the new restaurant.) The period from July 24th to August 10th is the town's sports festival, focusing on bicycling and mountain biking.

The patronal is celebrated in October, in honour of Nuestra Señora del Rosario. This entails bull- and cockfights, processions and fireworks. Cajabamba claims to be the source of the nation-wide marinera dance, now celebrated in Trujillo in a major festival but originating from and practiced in its purest form in Cajabamba. It also offers the Señorial Danza de Diablos de Cajabamba, in which the dancers have masks with bull's horns jutting from them.

The road to Cajamarca is largely good, if unsurfaced, and the 125 Km takes about three hours. San Marcos marks the half way point. This is one of the poorest regions of Perú, with families living on half to four hectares of land. It contrasts strongly with the highly technified dairy and arable farming practiced only 50 Km away, East of Cajamarca.


The city of Cajamarca (2700m) has around 1.3 million inhabitants. It is one of the oldest settled sites in Perú, having archaeological ruins dating to 3000 years in the past. It is located in a shallow, well-watered basic, in a saddle which offers some of the best access in the Andes between the coast and the jungle. It is around 850 Km from Lima, and has both a completely different culture and ethnic mix. There are few buildings higher than a few stories, the pace of life is slow and the peninsular Spanish influence obvious and immediate. At the same time, the traditional life of the sierra penetrates to the heart of the city in a way which is not evident in any other major city in Perú. History is everywhere around you. The name means "lightning town" which is, given its laid-back nature, less than appropriate today.

The city operates as an administrative centre, a centre of farming and has seen its role as a trade mediator between the coast and the selva fade away as the Piura-Chiclayo to Moyobamba highway has matured. Its tourist traffic is minimal when compared to Cuzco, which in many ways it outstrips for both charm and historical interest. Agriculture is carried out in a system of irrigated and rain fed pastures, dotted with willows and alders. Mines in the region extract silver and gold, with the controversial Yanacocha mine as amongst the largest in the world. It is seeking to expand production into land which is the primary watershed for the Cajamarca valley, and issue which has prompted local direct action and much friction.

Settlement in the valley developed ceramics around 1800BC, relating to the Pondache and Yesopampa cultures. Excavations at Huacoloma show a sequence in which llama and alpaca domestication enters the valley and after which major institutions obviously developed, as flagged by ceremonial sites and luxury ware. Sites such as Kunturwasi and Pacopampa flag the beginnings of the formal "Caxamarca" culture, usually spelled the same way as the city. This has left some of the most complex ceramics - based on fired kaolin, not potters' clay - in the country. This ware was adopted by the Wari nobility and propagated down the spine of the Andes.

The Wari heavily influenced if not conquered the region, and established their centre at Viracochapampa. As they fell apart, so various warlords established their fiefdoms, and were eventually overcome by the Inca, who made Cajamarca their Northern capital. The conquest occurred in 1450 AD, under the Inca Capac Yupanqui.

In 1532, a small group of Spanish under Francisco Pizarro took the Inca of the time, Atahualpa, prisoner. The Inca had been fighting a civil war and Atahualpa was in Cajamarca to recuperate at the important hot springs near to the town. He was fascinated by Pizarro, and fell into a trap much as did the ruler of Mexico with Cortez. Pizarro held him captive until a ransom was paid, which amounted to filling a room with gold and twice over with silver to the height that the Inca could reach. You can visit the room today, and see the scratch made to mark the target level.

Bullion was brought from all over the Inca empire. Pizarro then demanded that Atahualpa should both abdicate in favour of the Spanish monarch and also convert to Christianity. When he refused, Pizarro reverted to judicial murder and Atahualpa was publicly strangled in what is now the Plaza de Armas. Pizarro then marched on Cuzco, eventually to displace the rival Inca of the South.

Click here to see a series of images Cajamarca was evidently attractive to the Spanish, who settled in great number. This is evident from a glance at the people on the street, where serraño features are less common than elsewhere in Perú. The city is laid out around a large Plaza de Armas, on one side of which is the Bishop's palace and private church, and on the other, the Cathedral. Largely pleasing buildings run around the rest of the square, including one fine hotel and a range of useful restaurants.

The narrow streets behind the Cathedral maintain a strongly Spanish feel. Market stalls overflow the pavements of the narrow streets in the lower reaches of these. The town is as safe as anywhere in Europe, and it is pleasant to stroll along these little streets, exploring.

The Santa Catalina Cathedral was built in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the flow of gold from the Hualgayoc mines was at it height. It sits on Inca foundations and used stone from Inca temples in its construction.

It has an immensely baroque façade and a deceptively simple interior, with huge columnar columns and an arched nave. The altar screen, La Preciosa, is made from solid gold and silver. The main altar is entirely converted in gold plate, rather than leaf. The Cathedral holds the effigy of Virgen de los Dolores, the patroness of the city. The jewel is, however, the Cathedral music, which brings in the congregation, traditional local instruments and plainsong in a most moving mixture.

The church and convent of San Francisco is located across the square from the Cathedral and was the Bishop's church and quarters. It was built chiefly in the Eighteenth century, although the flanking towers were added in 1951. It is, in many ways, a grander building than the Cathedral. It possesses many documents, images and figures dating back to the first Spanish settlement. It has a museum of Colonial Art in which these can be viewed.

The Conjunto Monumental de Belén is an Eighteenth century colonial baroque building that is now a women's hospital. It is officially regarded as the finest building in Cajamarca. It is built of pinkish stone, carved in a more classical peninsular than baroque style. The church of La Recoleta was built in the seventeenth century. It located in the largely untouched colonial San Sebastián district of the town. It has a dour stone façade that is decorated by triple arch espadañas.

Atahualpa's ransom room is called El Cuarto del Rescate. It is the only remaining Inca building in the town, so thoroughly did the Spanish erase all traces of former civilisations. It was, presumably, retained as a trophy, and is now much-visited by these who want to see the mark made on the wall to which the treasure had to be heaped. It is likely that the Spanish obtained 4-5 tonnes of gold objects and about 12 tonnes of silver bar from this single manoeuvre. The recasting of this metal is known to have taken a month.

There is a viewpoint above the town, known as the Colina Santa Apolonia. It has a ruin which shows a Chavín-influenced altar, which locals call the Inca's chair, or la silla del Inca. The site was dedicated to the mountain apu and there are still hints of syncretism in the local church. You will be able to see the church of Santa Apolonia at night, as it is floodlit so that it is seen to watch over the city.

Cajamarca celebrates the Carnival de Ño on or around 22nd February to 1st March. This is a major celebration at a national scale, with large numbers of visitors coming from the hills around to participate. Local people spend months in preparation for it. Each part of the town selects its nominee for Queen of the Carnival, who will preside over events. Expect dancing, bands, processions, feasting, much drunkenness; water-throwing.

Easter (Semana Santa) is strongly celebrated, as is Corpus Christi. July sees a range of cattle-oriented festivals, with caballo de paso exhibitions and much dancing. There is a rather artificial tourist-oriented event in August. The Baños del Inca celebrate the Fiesta del Huanchaco on September 7th.

Large festivals outside the city include Fiesta de San Isidro in Ichocán on May 15th. Doors are laden with fruits and sheaf of corn to celebrate the harvest. The Fiesta de Todos los Difuntos is celebrated in Porcón on November 2nd - similar to the 'day of the dead' in Mexico - and the Fiesta de San Juan in Chota on 24th June. Smaller festivals occur weekly all over the valley and it is worth asking what is happening when you visit.

Cajamarca has a long tradition of working in textiles and leather. It also makes 'panama' - paja - hats, and excellent crochet work. Porcón village makes and sells granite figures, many large but open to export.

Cajamarca has excellent food, based around the dairy and beef industries that surround it. Roast pork and the inevitable guinea pig (cuy) are also local delicacies. Sopa verde is a vegetable soup. Quesillos con miel are made from white cheese with honey.

Around Cajamarca

Atahualpa had come to Cajamarca to bath in the hot springs. The Baños del Inca are 6 Km from the town, and developed as a medical spa. Water emerges at 70°C, and in the large, open cooling ponds, it is interesting to see the plaques of thermophyllic bacteria which have developed to exploit this. A tiny spring had emerged in a section of lawn and I found grass apparently happy whilst water at near boiling point emerged from around its roots. There is a preserved section of Inca baths, but the majority of the site is a hymn to concrete and pastel paint.

Click here to see a series of images Hacienda La Colpa is surrounded by cattle ranching, but is a dairy centre where the cows are summoned to milking by name. Those brought up on a farm will find this less than extraordinary, but the landscape is pleasing and typical of the area. The near-by village of Pariamarca specialises in weaving with textiles dyed with natural materials.

The Ventanillas de Otuzco is a necropolis around 8 Km from Cajamarca, comprising hundreds of niches carved into volcanic pumice. Some of these are closed funerary niches, whilst others penetrate deep into the rock, forming links. There are further internal niches. The site is not firmly dated but almost certainly pre-Christian era. Bambamarca, Quilcate, San Cristóbal and Cerro Yanguil all have similar structures, apparently built over a protracted period. The landscape around is attractive.

Cumbemayo is an archaeological site covering 2.5 hectares and dating to 1200 BC. It has caves with petroglyphs, an aqueduct and a large stone structure shaped to resemble a human head. The origins are unknown, but thought to be from the East - Chachapoyas - rather than the coast. The aqueduct runs for around 7 Km and is made from thousands of shaped stones.

Porcón is a pretty village 40 Km from the city, set in wooded land. As mentioned above, it has a number of striking festivals. These include a local interpretation of Easter, the Domingo de Ramos. Tall poles are decorated with mirrors palm fronds and flowers, and the image of the Señor de Ramos is processed through the town on a white female donkey. It is also known for its stoneworkers, who produce both architectural carvings and stand-alone statuary. It has some simple hotels. Huanbocancha is somewhat closer to Cajamarca, and does similar work but is less regarded for it.

Agricultural specialists may be interested in the Universidad Agraria, which has a demonstration site at Aylambo that combines modern and traditional practices. It has pioneered mixed cropping, in which several crops are grown together. This is ideally suited to labour intensive farming on limited land, and is able to increase yields by over half from a given parcel of land and without additional inputs. The local village is pretty and a centre of handcrafts.

There is a separate photoseries here which covers a farmer's market in the Cajamarca region.


There is little or nor organised trekking or water sports around Cajamarca, although the region is well-suited for this. For example, the Río Marañón - accessed at Celendín - offers near-ideal river rafting. It is, of course, possible to hire mules and guides, and set out on a number of interesting trips from Cajamarca. There are no set routes, but here are some interesting possibilities.

Two to three days: San Marcos – Huayanay – Quebrada Shitamalca – Tambo – La Honda – Los baños del Inca.

Four days: Bambamarca – Chota – Lajas – Ingenio – Tayapampa – Chancaybaños – Santa Cruz de Succhabamba. A high, tough route amongst the sources o fhte Chancay and Chotano rivers.

Six days: Overland to Celendín, passing from alpine pasture to arid badlands, and finally dropping to the hot little town of Celendín. Probably quite hard work, although downhill. Interesting for botanists, as the area around Celendín is very biodiverse.

Seven to eight days: Cajamarca – Verbena – Shinshilpata – Cucho – Totora – El Rejo – Yanacancha – La Llica – Chachaloma – La Preñada - Bambamarca. The route follows the Chonta river, rising to cross a 4200m ridge before descending to Bambamarca. Hard work.

Some counsel: bring everything that you will need, plus whatever accommodation you will make for the guide. Make sure that whoever you hire is reputable, experienced and sympathetic to your aspirations. Talk about security before you go, and discuss the route with the local police, as local situations change quite quickly and you may anyway learn of attractive fiestas on or near the route. Make as much use as possible of road transport - including sending the guide and animals ahead - insofar as South Amercia is huge, and it is pointless spending long periods plodding along the edge of a dusty road when you can get to the interesting country quickly.