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Despite an absolutely phenomenal boost in tourism in Peru over the last few decades, one part of the country that has remained more or less untouched by international tourists is Northern Peru. Sure, backpacking Northern Peru isn’t completely unheard of, but how many people have you heard boasting about that llama selfie they took in Chan Chan compared to Machu Picchu? I bet you my entire life savings (all £45 of it) that the answer is a big fat zero.
Looking for more tips for your trip to Peru? Check out these posts:
• The Ultimate 2 Week Peru Itinerary
• Top 12 Things to do in Arequipa
• Huayna Picchu vs. Machu Picchu Mountain: Which one is for you?
You know why that is? Because nobody goes to Northern Peru! A 2017 report actually stated that the southern areas of Peru see a whopping 85% of the country’s foreign tourists each year. Northern Peru is so off the gringo trail that by simply stepping foot on its soil you’ve earned Northern Peru citizenship (that’s a joke).
The relatively low number of international visitors that Northern Peru sees compared to its southern counterpart actually shocks me, as Northern Peru is so beautiful and has so much historical and archaeological importance, not just for the country but the entire continent. I think a lot of the time people don’t add it to their itinerary simply because they just don’t realise how much there is to see and do in Northern Peru. And we’re not just talking beautiful beaches and surfing here.
From ancient ruins outdating Machu Picchu to one of South America’s highest waterfalls, Northern Peru is a treasure trove of unexpected wonders and delights.
So whether you’re already set on backpacking Northern Peru, you’re umming and aahing about whether or not to venture further north than Lima, or you haven’t even considered it yet, I hope these 12 places will give you some inspiration for your Northern Peru itinerary. And hey, maybe next year I’ll see you at the annual “We love Northern Peru”* reunion?
*That’s not a real thing, I made it up.
10 Best Places to See in Northern Peru
Note: Most of the photos used in this post are stock images. All of my Northern Peru photos are conveniently saved on my back-up laptop which is currently in Wales and I’m here, in New Zealand. So there’s that.
Oh, Trujillo. If I didn’t have such a strong affinity with Arequipa, I would definitely nominate Trujillo as my favourite city in Peru. With the colourful facades of the colonial buildings in the Plaza de Armas and the lively music pumping from many of the surrounding streets, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in Colombia. But you’re not; you’re here in Trujillo, the largest city in Northern Peru and the first city to proclaim its independence from Spain back in the early 1800s.
Aptly nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring, the sky really is blue all the time in Trujillo! It also never rains. Like, ever. Rain was forecast for 2 out of the 7 days I was there but do you think one single drop of water fell from the sky? Absolutely not. Although there’s not much to do in Trujillo itself beyond the historic centre, a few museums and, of course, all the delicious Peruvian food, it’s the perfect base for you to discover the many archaeological sites nearby. Also, if you time your visit right you may get to witness one of Trujillo’s famous festivals, like the Marinera Festival.
2. Chan Chan
Chan Chan is the largest pre-Columbian era city in all of South America or, as the little girl on my day tour put it: “Es como un laberinto de castillos de arena! Que increible!” (it’s like a maze of sandcastles, it’s incredible!). This same little girl made her mother buy the only gringa on the tour an ice cream, so you can totally trust her judgement.
Chan Chan was actually the capital city of the Chimor Empire, so pre-dates the Inca Empire by hundreds and hundreds of years. Have that, Machu Picchu! Throughout the years the complex housed at least ten royal adobes The adobe clay walls are intricately carved with designs that many believe were an imitation of those patterns found on textiles. However, my guide explained that some historians believe the carvings had purpose at the time, to tell a story, most notably the importance of water (there are lot of carvings of fish!).
3. Huacas del Sol y de la Luna
Believe it or not, there was life before the Inca in Peru! This rings especially true for Northern Peru, where the Chimor empire and Moche culture reigned long before any Inca emperor got his hands on it.
The Huaca del Sol and Huaca del Luna are two huge adobe structures located just outside of Trujillo, built by the Moche people between 100-800 A.D. It’s thought that the larger of the two, Huaca del Sol (or Temple of the Sun), was administrative centre of the Moche capital while Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) acted as the religious centre.
Although Huaca del Sol is closed to visitors, you can appreciate its enormous size from afar. Even though around a third of the original structure has been washed away, it’s still an absolutely colossal construction! It’s estimated that at least 140,000,000 adobe bricks were used to build Huaca del Sol.
Unlike its larger neighbour, Huaca de la Luna can be visited with a guide – and if you get the chance, I’d highly recommend you do! My guide was a local man who’d grown up just down the road from the huacas, and you could tell he had an intense passion for sharing their story. Huaca de la Luna is absolutely covered with intricately decorated motifs, each depicting different animals and Moche Gods, and learning about the likely significance of each figure, and the reasons for each symbol being used where they were is extremely fascinating. One of the most interesting and informative things to do in Northern Peru!
If you’re keen on finding a good base to explore the ancient ruins in Northern Peru but don’t quite like the whole “city vibe” Trujillo has to offer, you may want to check out Huanchaco.
It’s hard to decide if Huanchaco is more famous for (or more proud of..)its surfing or its caballito de totoras, the traditional fishing boats you often see adorning the front of a postcard from Peru. The two actually go hand in hand, if you look back far enough: it’s believed locally that fishermen from Huanchaco used to use the canoes as the world’s first surfboard!
Surfing and traditional boats aside, Huanchaco is also famous for allegedly being the birthplace of ceviche, not just in Northern Peru, but everywhere! My experience of ceviche is less than pleasant, and I’ll save you the details, but if you’re after good surf, tasty fish and a relaxed atmosphere within reaching distance of Chan Chan and the huacas, settle on Huanchaco.
Alternatively, if you want to see the village but not stay there, you can visit as part of a tour. I actually took a full day tour that covered Chan Chan, Huaca de la Luna, Huaca del Sol, Huaca del Dragon and Huanchaco. It was a busy day, but so worth it to watch the sunset on the beach!
What’s a trip to Peru without a little venture into the rainforest, huh?
Iquitos is the gateway to the Amazon for a lot of tourists, and one of the most-visited cities in Northern Peru. Although it seems far-flung from basically the whole rest of the country on a map, Iquitos is incredibly well-connected, with flights coming in and out from the rest of Peru and abroad every day.
Iquitos is the perfect place to start all your jungle-y adventures, and popular trips include a jungle river cruise, wildlife spotting and, of course, a visit to the jungle itself. Although I haven’t visited Iquitos myself (I chose to go to Puerto Maldonado instead), I can promise you that any visit to the Amazon, no matter which part, will be something you never forget.
6. Cataratas de Gocta (Gocta Falls)
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it a thousand times more: I love waterfalls. So I am absolutely kicking myself that I’ve missed Cataratas de Gocta on all three of my trips to Peru. The Gocta Falls is an unbelievable wonder of nature that Peru was somehow able to keep as a hush-hush local secret all the way up until the early 2000s, when a German economist took an expedition with some Peruvian explorers and began spreading the word.
The reason the Falls remained hidden from the outside world for so long is because locals believed there was a blonde mermaid who guarded the pool beneath the falls, and revealing its location would provoke her to curse them.
Fortunately Gocta Falls are still one of the lesser visited places in Northern Peru, and over-tourism hasn’t hit it yet (and hopefully won’t ever!). Split into two drops of 540m and 231m, Gocta Falls’ total heigh is 771m, making it the 14th highest waterfall in the world.
To reach Gocta Falls you first need to get to Chachapoyas and from there to
Cocachimba, where the 3 hour hike to the falls begins. Much like the rest of Peru, any hotel or hostel would be happy to help you organise a guided hike.
Two words: Hagrid’s hut.
If you want to see some incredible ancient ruins in Peru but avoid the crowds and noise (and hefty entry price) at Machu Picchu, look no further than Kuélap.
Built in the 6th century by the Chachapoyas culture, Kuélap is actually the oldest stone ruin site in the New World. Just let that sink in a minute. While we’ve all been obsessing over the stunning beauty of Machu Picchu (because, let’s be real, it’s more than deserving of the praise!) this little gem of a site has just been chilling in Northern Peru, looking all cool and experiencing a mere fraction of the footprints its southern sister does.
Kuélap used to be absolute hell to visit. Sitting pretty at a cool 3000m above sea level and accessible only by a 2 hour drive from Chachapoyas or a 6-hour round hike, it’s no wonder the ruins have seen very little tourist activity in the past. These days, though, you can reach Kuélap in only 20 minutes from Tingo Nuevo, using the solar-powered cable cars.
Seemingly untouched by the modern era, Kuélap feels a lot more “authentically ruin-y” than Machu Picchu and its billions of excavations, easily making it one of the absolute highlights of Northern Peru!
8. Cumbemayo & Los Frailones
Have you ever lay awake at night wondering what a Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones crossover would look like? Yeah, me neither…For real, though, if any bigwig movie executives are reading this and cogs are whirring in your head, Cumbemayo is where you need to park your production trailer. You can thank me later!
Cumbemayo is an archaeological complex located around 12 miles out of Cajamarca. Comprising of aqueducts, a grotto and some incredibly detailed petroglyphs, it’s one of the oldest examples of hydraulic technology in Peru.
Los Frailones are the totally surreal and almost other-wordly rock formations you can see towering over those tiny little ant-sized visitors. Originally built more than 1000 years B.C., this stone forest is one of the oldest (and definitely most impressive!) examples of man-made structures in Latin America. Thought to have once been almost equally shaped and sized volcanic pillars, over the many years since its creation the elements have molded and distorted the rocks into the shapes they are now – reminiscent of the silhouettes of a group of hooded monks which, incidentally, is where they got their name (los frailones = the friars).
Somewhere totally off the beat and unexpected, Cumbemayo and Los Frailones are definitely one of the most amazing places to see in Northern Peru!
9. Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán
If you didn’t get your fill of actual human remains in Arequipa don’t worry because Lambayeque in Northern Peru has got your back!
The Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipán is a site to behold in itself; the dusk-red design is a modern take on the pyramid-shaped adobe structures of the Mochicas, residents of the area dating back as far as 100 A.D. Innovative architecture aside, what should attract you to the most notable museum in North Peru is what it contains inside.
To this day, the discovery of the remains of el Señor de Sipán (The Lord of Sipan) in 1987 remain one of the most significant archaeological findings in all of the Americas. The Lord of Sipan was found in a wooden sacrophagus, surronded by ornaments of gold, silver and other precious materials, and the remains of women and children, a dog, and a few animals, more than likely sacrificed to accompany him into the afterlife
The museum provides you with an interesting insight into the lives of a culture you otherwise wouldn’t have heard about, the Moche, and features many of the original artefacts found alongside The Lord of Sipan in his tomb and, of course, the remains of the Lord himself.
With some of the best beaches in Peru, great surf, delicious food and to top it off an average of 300 days sun a year (say what!), it’s no surprise that Máncora is finding its place on more and more people’s Northern Peru itinerary.
Thanks to a combination of the Humboldt Current (which is apparently cold) and the Niño Current (warmer than warm), the temperature of the sea in Máncora is always pleasant. Did you get that?! Always! No hop-skip-jumping from towel to agua for this gal.
If you’re planning on visiting Máncora during your trip to Northern Peru, just know that it is small. We’re talking two streets and a strip of sand small. Despite its tiny size, Máncora is developing a wee bit of a reputation as a party spot – so if you’re into surf, song and sun, a day or two R&R in tropical-ish Máncora would be an absolute treat for you!
If you’re planning a trip to Peru and thinking about skipping the North then I hope you’re changing your mind. I mean, imagine missing out on all of these stunners?! And if you’ve already visited Northern Peru – what have I forgotten?!