Northern Peru has long lived in the shadow of the south, but it boasts plenty of its own treasures, discovers Steph Dyson
Home to archaeological monuments centuries older than Machu Picchu, the region of Peru that sits between Lima to the south and Ecuador to the north makes for a sustainable and less-touristed alternative or addition to a trip to Cusco and the Sacred Valley – as well as a compelling two-destination trip with Ecuador.
Lying on the coast just a 75-minute flight north of Lima, Trujillo is known as the ‘City of Eternal Spring’ thanks to a pleasant, year-round climate. But elegant colonial streets and a wealth of pre-Columbian archaeological sites are the region’s real draw.
Start with a walking tour of the colourful historic city centre, with its restored 16th-century mansions and mustard-coloured cathedral. Next on the agenda is a visit to the largest adobe city in the Americas, 8th-century Chan Chan, which lies north of Trujillo.
A day trip can end with ceviche at one of the many restaurants in coastal-village-turned-tourist playground Huanchaco, or a short ride on a caballito – a traditional reed raft that’s been used by local fishermen for more than 3,000 years.
South of Trujillo, a guided tour of Huaca de la Luna and Huaca del Sol is a fantastic introduction to the Mochica, a culture that inhabited the area from the first century to around AD700. A tour of these two vast ceremonial pyramids reveals fantastical murals depicting the grizzly sacrifice rituals employed to satisfy the gods.
On Trujillo’s main square, the Costa del Sol Trujillo Centro hotel partnered with international chain Wyndham Hotels in 2018 and is the city’s most modern choice. Its 73 bedrooms – many with pretty wooden balconies overlooking the square – are dotted throughout a restored colonial mansion, and guests have access to spa facilities, an outdoor pool and a restaurant serving traditional Trujillo cuisine. Wyndham’s newer property, Costa del Sol Wyndham Trujillo, is closer to the airport and features modern bedrooms with a pool or patio view.
Doubles for both properties cost from $85 per night, room-only.
Lodged into the lush cloud forest of the Amazonas region, the inland market town of Chachapoyas has risen to fame for its access to ancient sites pertaining to the Chachapoya culture. The closest airport is Jaén, which is reached by a direct 105-minute flight from Lima; all of the region’s star attractions lie within a two-hour drive of Chachapoyas.
The undisputed gem is the stone citadel of Kuélap, a clifftop fortress situated above the lush cloud forest of the Uctabamba Valley. Built sometime between the 5th and 15th centuries, this archaeological site became easier to reach in 2017 thanks to the installation of a cable car, which has trimmed travel time to a meagre 20 minutes. Within the area, hiking trails to the spectacular two-tiered Gocta Falls or to the lesser-known – and taller – Yumbilla Falls are other prime attractions.
For longer stays, the remarkable 219 mummies of the Museo de Leymebamba and the three-day trek to reach highland lake Laguna de los Cóndores (where the mummies were discovered) make fantastic additions to the itinerary. Lodgings within Chachapoyas are improving, but the best lie nearby in Cocachimba, at the foot of Gocta Falls.
The five boutique cabins of Gocta Natura are the ideal place for a relaxing retreat, each offering privileged views of the waterfalls from their private decks. Refurbished with slick, modern designs, the cabins have access to a plunge pool and gourmet Peruvian dishes are served alfresco on a stunning communal terrace.
The hotel’s sustainable credentials are impressive: owners Rocio and Augusto have implemented reforestation initiatives in the local area, and established a short hiking trail through secondary-growth forest on their own land.
Rates start at £280 per night for a full-board stay in a double cabin, with a two‑night minimum stay.
North of Trujillo, Chiclayo is northern Peru’s business capital. What it lacks in colonial charm is made up for in its access to regional pre-Columbian pyramids and excellent museums, all of which are tucked into a desert landscape populated by the largest dry carob forest in South America.
Clients can begin at the Museo Nacional Tumbas Reales de Sipán, which lies in nearby Lambayeque. Home to an extensive collection of Andean gold and the recreated tomb of an important Mochica noble, it’s considered one of the finest museums in Peru.
Túcume, a site containing 26 adobe pyramids and an award‑winning museum, should also feature on itineraries. Back in Chiclayo, guests can experience traditional northern Peruvian cuisine at Fiesta Chiclayo Gourmet, one of two restaurants owned by celebrity chef Hector Solis (his other, located in Lima, is ranked number 34 in Latin America).
The house speciality is rice with farm-raised duck, an exquisite ancient dish favoured by the Mochica. Casa Andina Select, on the outskirts of the city centre, won’t win any prizes for architectural design, but what it does have are comfortable, three-star facilities, including a gym, spa and 130 modern bedrooms, with all mod cons.
Doubles start from £52 per person per night, room-only.
Ask the expert
Alex Lopez, travel specialist, Latin Routes
“Visitors to northern Peru will be wowed by the incredible archaeological sites. The region is great for travellers who have discovered the most-known wonders of the central and southern regions and want to see something different.
Trujillo is the main city and has unbeatable gastronomy – plus it’s next to the marvellous adobe site of Chan Chan. Farther north, many treasures were found in the pyramids that were once tombs for the Mochica kings. They’re now on display in the Museo Nacional Tumbas Reales de Sipán.
Northern Peru is perfect for history and archaeology, and great to combine with Ecuador, with clients heading from Quito to Tena, Baños and Cuenca before crossing the border into northern Peru and visiting Máncora, then travelling to Trujillo.”
Latin Routes can organise a seven‑day extension to any itinerary for southern Peru or Ecuador to take in northern Peru from £1,339 for departures this year and from £1,479 in 2023. Prices include domestic flights in Peru, accommodation in three‑star properties on a B&B basis, some lunches and all tours and transportation.
PICTURES: Shutterstock/Chris Howey, Christian Vinces, Orlando Photography, Niar Krad