Often overlooked by travelers and missing from the best-selling travel guidebooks, Cajamarca is a picturesque mountain town situated high up in the Peruvian Andes. It’s about six hours bus ride from the city of Chiclayo and makes a great alternative from the standard Gringo trail heading straight up/down the Peruvian coast. If you’re heading down to Lima, or alternatively up to Mancora, Cajamarca is well worth taking a short detour to check out for a few days.
1. Wandering and getting lost.
It’s totally safe and everyone is friendly. This place is a breath of fresh air. The old cobbled streets combined with the three hundred year old architecture make for a great day out to just wander the town and take it all in. Get lost in the back streets and discover the hidden markets selling some of the best knitted handicraft in the region for a fraction of the price elsewhere in Peru. We stumbled upon this couple performing a traditional Peruvian dance at the back of the Mercado while out looking for some eggs on Saturday morning.
2. Cumbe Mayo
Cumbe Mayo is a mind bogglingly complicated series of irrigation canals built by a the ancient Incas over 3000 years ago and pre dates any other known canal system in the world. It is thought to be one of the oldest constructions in South America and is a genuine engineering marvel. The 30 min bus there winds up through mountains to 3500 meters where you’ll then breathlessly hike through a gorge of impressive rock formations. Along the route you’ll see many of the beautifully dressed locals going about there daily business, weaving colourful cloths, farming the land and selling snacks to the few tourists that make it up there.
You’ll pass by intricate petroglyph’s carved into the rocks, which are remarkably intact and legible. There is also a ‘stone forest’ where you can see how the rock has been eroded into various shapes resembling animals. It’s said that these creatures give the area a spiritual resonance, as if the early Incas left them as guardians of the sacred land.
Book tours from one of the many agencies along the east side of Plaza De Armas for around 20 Sols. We went with Mega Tours, but all seem to be similar in price and service.
3. Plaza De Armas and the whistling Security.
You cant escape ending up at the main square in town as every road passes through it. Flagged to the east by the huge cathedral and to the south by an equally massive convent, this is the perfect spot in town to grab a coffee and slice of decadent chocolate cake from one of the main small bakeries nearby and watch the world go by. When the sun is shining and you can feel the heat on your face, there really is no better place to be in town. Just a word of warning – don’t sit on the grass because oddly the fun police take that seriously and are ready with their whistles. It’s bench-sitting only here!
4. The People – traditional dress at every turn.
They look fantastic kitted out in their colourful traditional dress, and are full of big welcoming smiles. The people in the mountain region of the Andes are full of good humour and cheer. We were welcomed into homes and offered cups of mate tea by complete strangers that just wanted to get to know you better. As Cajamara is strangely omitted from the bigger guide books, there’s a lack of overseas travelers passing through which means the locals are extra curious, but in a good way. After some of the bigger cities we’ve been to recently this kind of genuine hospitality was just what we needed.
5. Mountain Air – breathe it in – much needed after Chiclayo.
You can taste the freshness and it’s delicious. Just being up in the mountains and filling your lungs with clean unpolluted air makes you feel fit and healthy. No smog, no factories, no old eaten up chicken buses clogging up the air. Take a walk in any direction from the town centre and you’ll be in the countryside within 10 minutes. Find a quiet spot, sit down, close your eyes and take a deep breath.
6. Ventanillas de Ortuzco and the walk to Banos Del Inca
A little out of town but well worth a visit. We were heading to the famous Banos del Inca anyway for a soak in the renowned mineral enriched waters, but our hostel host recommended we combine it with a walk from the interesting archaeological site of Ventanillas de Ortuzco. We took a combi van from outside the main market for 2 sols, leaving every 15 mins and asked them to drop us off at Ventanillas. Pay the 5 sols entrance and walk up a steep path. The rock formation looks like an ancient hotel that’s crumbled away leaving a series of windows, but is in fact an intricate funeral complex dating from as early as 1130 BC.
Once you’ve got your head around how old they are and how important this area must once have been, start the 5km walk to Banos where you can soak your travelling bones. Look for the small road opposite the main site office and follow it to the end. There’s signs for Banos which will take you down well marked roads then along side a river for the most part. Once you reach the town go left at the town square complete with impressive Inca warrior statue and past the food stalls. There you’ll find the entrance to the famous Banos (baths) after which the town is named. We paid 6 sols each and wandered in expecting to find various volcanic outdoor pools for us to wallow in until we’d blanched ourselves clean. Not so. There are outdoor pools but they reach up to 70 degrees so it’s not advised to go near unless you want 2nd degree burns. These main pools act as feeders for a series of smaller baths situated within the building to the left. It’s not exactly clear what to do when you get in there so we spent a bit of time looking like lost gringos until a kind old caretaker explained the situation.
Basically you pick one of the many small rooms and within is your own huge private bath for 30 mins (or more if you want to pay for it). Turn on the industrial size tap and it’ll fill up to near head height with boiling volcanic water in no time at all. Shut the door, add it a little cold water to taste, and enjoy it to yourself or with a friend. We spent a good thirty minutes boiling our bones until we had wrinkles on our wrinkles. Afterwards we felt a million dollars and as clean as they come. The grounds are also interesting to walk around and contain an original Inca building where Peruvian Princes once took their royal baths.
7. Cerro Santa Apolonia – Take in the view from up high, thinking about life the universe and everything.
It’s a steep hike from the town centre but the views for miles are worth it and then some. Hike up from the Plaza de Armas straight to the top and try not to stop. Grab yourself an ice cream from one of the hand carts at the summit for a mere 20c and take it all in. This is where the famous Inca Chair is situated and where Inca chiefs would sit and survey their kingdom from the heavens. If you see dark rain-clouds forming on the hills in the distance you have about 15 minutes before you get a soaking so take cover!
8. Food – Big hearty menus for under $3!
In Cajamarca we’ve eaten like kings for peanuts and each meal gets more delicious. The best and cheapest restaurants are near the market opposite the stadium. If you’re feeling adventurous you could try the Cuy Frito (fried Guinea Pig) or if you’re not quite there yet, then chicken foot soup starter, grilled chicken with salad main, and a large mug of tea will set you back 5 sols ($2). There’s often an absence of actual menus so just head inside and ask what the food of the day is. With a little basic Spanish it should be relatively easy. And if not, then you might be in for a surprise!