63 Best Sights in The North Coast and Northern Highlands, Peru

Chan Chan

Fodor's choice

With its strange, honeycomb-like walls and labyrinth of wavelike parapets, this sprawling ancient capital is the largest adobe city in the world. Its surreal geometry once held boulevards, aqueducts, gardens, palaces, and some 10,000 dwellings. Within its precincts were nine royal compounds, one of which, the royal palace of Tschudi, has been partially restored and opened to the public. Although the city began with the Moche civilization, the Chimú people took control of the region 300 years later and expanded the city to its current size. Although less known than the Incas, who conquered them in 1470, the Chimú were the second-largest empire in South America. Their territory stretched along 1,000 km (620 miles) of the Pacific, from Lima to Tumbes.

Before entering this UNESCO World Heritage site, check out the extensive photographic display of the ruins at the time of discovery and postrestoration. Then, begin at the Tschudi complex, the Plaza Principal, a monstrous square where ceremonies and festivals were held. The throne of the king is thought to have been in front where the ramp is found. The reconstructed walls have depictions of sea otters at their base. From here, head deep into the ruins toward the royal palace and tomb of Señor Chimú. The main corridor is marked by fishnet representations, marking the importance of the sea to these ancient people. You will also find renderings of pelicans, which served as ancient road signs, their beaks pointing to important sections of the city. Just before you arrive at the Recinto Funerario, the funeral chamber of Señor Chimú, you pass a small natural reservoir called a huachaque. Forty-four secondary chambers surround the funeral chamber where the king, Señor Chimú, was buried. In his day it was understood that when you pass to the netherworld you can bring all your worldly necessities with you, and the king was buried with several live concubines and officials and a slew of personal effects, most of which have been looted. Although wind and rain have damaged the city, its size—20 square km (8 square miles)—still impresses.

Ctra. Huanchaco, 5 km (3 miles) northwest of Trujillo, Trujillo, La Libertad, Peru
sights Details
Rate Includes: S/20, includes admission to Huaca Arco Iris, Huaca Esmeralda, and Museo del Sitio; ticket valid for 48 hours, S/20, includes admission to Huaca Arco Iris, Huaca Esmeralda, and Museo del Sitio; ticket valid for 48 hrs

Chavín de Huántar

Fodor's choice

Indiana Jones would feel right at home in these fascinating ruins, which feature an underground labyrinth of stone corridors and a terrifying idol at their center. The idol, known as the Lanzón, is a 4-meter (13-foot) daggerlike slab with a jaguar's face and serpentine hair, and it was the Holy of Holies for the Chavín people, who were the mother civilization for the Andes. Pilgrims from all over South America would come here to worship, eventually spreading the cult of the so-called Fanged Deity throughout the continent. To make things even crazier, during ceremonies here, Chavín priests and their acolytes would ingest the psychedelic San Pedro cactus, thus facilitating their transformation into the smiling, ferocious god.

Visiting the Chavín archaeological complex, which dates from 1500 BC, is a favorite day trip from Huaraz. The UNESCO World Heritage site sits on the southern edge of the tiny village of the same name, and comprises two separate wings of the main temple, a large U-shaped main plaza, a second plaza surrounded with mysterious carvings, and an on-site museum that houses the grinning stone heads that once looked out from the temple's outer wall. On the drive southeast from the city, you get good views of two Andean peaks, Pucaraju (5,322 meters/17,460 feet) and Yanamarey (5,237 meters/17,180 feet), as well as of the alpine Laguna de Querococha. The eight-hour tour costs about S/50 per person, not including the entrance fee to the ruins. If you'd prefer to get here on your own, regular buses run between Huaraz and Chavín, and you can hire a guide at the entrance to the ruins.

El Brujo

Fodor's choice

This intriguing complex is currently one of the hot properties on the Peruvian archaeological circuit. Plopped down in a barren dune about 6 km (4 miles) from Magdalena, it consists of three distinct huacas, or holy sites: Huaca Cao, Huaca Prieta, and Huaca Cortada. Huaca Cao is the star: in 2006, it was the site of the electrifying discovery of the Lady of Cao, a 1,600-year-old mummy whose tattoos marked her as a Moche priestess or ruler. The finding was immediately compared with that of King Tut's tomb in Egypt, as it completely turned notions of power in pre-Columbian Peru upside down. Equally impressive is the huaca's pyramid itself, where the multicolored friezes of warriors and human sacrifices give a powerful idea of the Moches' artistic skill. The excellent on-site museum is among the most informative of its kind. The other two huacas are still undergoing excavation, but the entrance fee covers all three. The site is well worth the trip from Trujillo.

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El Cuarto del Rescate

Fodor's choice

This ransom chamber is the only Inca building still standing in Cajamarca. After Pizarro and his men captured Atahualpa, the Inca king offered to fill the chamber once with gold and twice with silver. The ransom was met, up to a marking on the stone wall, but the war-hardened Spaniards killed Atahualpa anyway. Today, visitors aren't allowed in the room itself, but if you look closely, you can still make out the marks the Inca left in an attempt to buy off his captors.

Gocta Waterfall

Fodor's choice

Surprisingly, Gocta, a 771-meter (2,529-foot) waterfall, believed to be the fourth tallest in South America, wasn't brought to the attention of the Peruvian government until 2006. The falls, about 50 km (31 miles) outside town, are strongest during the rainy season, from November to April, though during the dry season, the sun will likely be out, and you will be able to swim at their base. Occasionally, on the 2½-hour hike from Cocachimba (you can hire guides there if you are not coming on a tour from Chachapoyas), you may be able to spot toucans or the endemic yellow-tailed woolly monkey. The best way to appreciate the falls is by staying at the charming, 16-room Gocta Lodge, especially if you prefer the light of the morning or afternoon.

Huaca de la Luna and Huaca del Sol

Fodor's choice

Stark and strange beneath the ash-gray hill that towers over them, these astonishing Moche pyramids were the scenes of bloody human sacrifices. Their exteriors may have eroded, but inside archaeologists have uncovered sinister octopus-shaped reliefs of the great Moche god Ai-Apaec, as well as evidence of a cataclysmic El Niño sequence that effectively destroyed Moche civilization.

The Huacas of the Sun and Moon are located some 10 km (6 miles) outside Trujillo, near the Río Moche. The former is the bigger of the two, but it's not open to the public due to its decayed state. (Built up of 130 million adobe bricks in eight continually expanding stages, its treasures were literally cleaned out of it in 1610, when the Spanish diverted the Río Moche to wash the imperial gold and silver from its innards.) The Huaca of the Moon is awesome in its own right, with numerous exterior and interior walls blazoned with bizarre mythological reliefs. These include spider-like creatures, warriors, and the scowling face of Ai-Apaec, the ferocious god to whom captives were sacrificed at the pyramid's base. These sacrifices probably occurred to propitiate the gods of the weather, but alas, it didn't work. A series of violent El Niño events around the year 600 brought drought and sandstorms, eventually ending the Moche civilization.

When you visit the Huaca de la Luna, you'll start from the top, near the sacrificial altars, and work your way down through the inner galleries to the murals at the base. This was where archaeologists discovered bones of the Moches' victims in recent decades. Be sure to allot time for the excellent museum, which includes exhibits of Moche artwork and informative discussions of the culture's history and religion.


Fodor's choice
Discovered in 1985, the six coffins that make up this uncanny funeral site 48 km (30 miles) northwest of Chachapoyas overlook a ruined village and are thought to contain the mummies of shamans and great warriors. The Chachapoyas people built the tombs into a sheer cliffside sometime around the year 1460, and today the eerie funeral masks—together with the bones scattered around the site—provide a haunting reminder of the great chieftains that once held sway over the surrounding country. The Karajía sarcophagi, or "ancient wise men" as the locals call them, originally included eight coffins, but two have collapsed due to earthquakes. This has allowed archaeologists to study the contents of the wood-and-clay structures, which were found to house a single individual in the fetal position, along with all the ceramics and other belongings the deceased carried with him into the afterlife. Visitors today can't get close to the sarcophagi due to their remote location, but the view of them watching over the ravine below is awe-inspiring.


Fodor's choice

Consistently compared to Machu Picchu by visitors, this extraordinary site high in the cloud forests of Chachapoyas was a walled city sufficient unto itself, housing farmers, shamans, and administrators, as well as the "warriors of the cloud" that made up the Chachapoyans' military class. Wandering the circular ruins, with their 12-meter-high (39-foot-high) stone walls and enigmatic carvings of faces and snakes, you catch a haunting glimpse of a fierce people that resisted the Inca Empire to the bitter end.

Kuélap sits at a dizzying 3,100 meters (10,170 feet), high above the Río Utcubamba. Consisting of more than 400 small, rounded buildings, it contains lookout towers, huts with grass roofs (now reconstructed), turrets, and rhomboid friezes typical of the region. The most interesting of the rounded buildings has been dubbed El Tintero (The Inkpot), and features a large underground chamber with a huge pit. Archaeologists hypothesize that the Chachapoyans kept pumas in this pit, dropping human sacrifices into its depths during religious rituals. The ruins are in surprisingly good condition considering the antiquity (1,000 or so years) of the site: the Incas appear to have left it alone when they overran the Chachapoyas people in 1472.

Laguna 69

Fodor's choice
Regularly featured on "most beautiful lakes in the world" lists and Instagram bucket lists, this small but stunning turquoise glacial lake near the city of Huaraz and within Parque Nacional Huascarán merits all the hype for its natural beauty and for the spectacular and scenic hike leading to the lake. Treat your visit to Laguna 69 like a high-altitude hike, not a photo op, and be prepared. The trek to Laguna 69 will take your breath away, figuratively and literally, as the lake sits 4,600 meters (15,092 feet) above sea level. Remind yourself that this altitude is just 2,000 feet below base camp at Mount Everest, and then train, pack, and plan time to acclimatize accordingly. It’s possible to get to Laguna 69 and do the hike solo, but it is cheaper (and safer) to take a tour. If you are an experienced high-altitude hiker, you can beat the crowds by staying at a campsite by Llanganuco lake near the hike's trailhead to start your morning hike as early as you wish.

Lagunas de Llanganuco

Fodor's choice

Make sure your camera memory card is empty when you go to see these spectacular glaciers, gorges, lakes, and mountains. Driving through a giant gorge formed millions of years ago by a retreating glacier, you arrive at Lagunas de Llanganuco. The crystalline waters shine a luminescent turquoise in the sunlight; in the shade they're a forbidding inky black. Waterfalls of glacial melt snake their way down the gorge's flanks, falling lightly into the lake. There are many quenual trees (also known as the paper-bark tree) surrounding the lakes. Up above, you'll see treeless alpine meadows and the hanging glaciers of the surrounding mountains. At the lower lake, called Lago Chinancocha, you can hire a rowboat (S/5 per person) to take you to the center. A few trailside signs teach you about local flora and fauna. The easiest way to get here is with an arranged tour from Huaraz (about S/40 plus entrance fee), though if you are going on the Santa Cruz trek you will probably start here. The tours stop here and at many other spots on the Callejón de Huaylas, finishing in Caraz.

Museo Nacional Tumbas Reales de Sipán

Fodor's choice

This striking pyramidal complex, which ranks among the country's best museums, displays the artifacts from the Tomb of the Lord of Sipán, one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. The discovery showed the world how advanced the Moche and other pre-Inca civilizations in Peru once were, and these stunning exhibits detail what and where every piece of jewelry, item of clothing, or ceramic vase was found. As you descend through the different floors, you'll see spectacular turquoise-and-gold earrings, bizarre hairless dogs buried with the Señor, and life-size mockups of Sipán warriors. This museum is very highly recommended. English-speaking guides are available to help with the Spanish-only descriptions and confusing order of exhibits.

Parque Nacional Huascarán

Fodor's choice

The Lagunas de Llanganuco are one of the gateways to the Parque Nacional Huascarán, which covers 3,400 square km (1,300 square miles) and was created in 1975 to protect flora and fauna in the Cordillera Blanca. This incredible mountain range has a total of 663 glaciers and includes some of the highest peaks in the Peruvian Andes. Huascarán, which soars to 6,768 meters (22,200 feet), is the highest in Peru. The smaller Alpamayo, 5,947 meters (19,511 feet), is said by many to be the most beautiful mountain in the world. Its majestic flanks inspire awe and wonder in those lucky enough to get a glimpse. Not far away, the monstrous Chopicalqui and Chacraraju rise above 6,000 meters (19,700 feet).

Within the park's boundaries you'll also find more than 750 plant types. There's a tragic scarcity of wildlife in the park—many animals have been decimated by hunting and the loss of natural habitats. Among the 12 species of birds and 10 species of mammals, you're most likely to see wild ducks and condors. With a great deal of time and an equal amount of luck you may also see foxes, deer, pumas, and vizcachas.

The giant national park attracts a plethora of nature lovers, including campers, hikers, and mountain climbers. Myriad treks weave through the region, varying from fairly easy one-day hikes to 20-day marathons. Within the park, you can head out on the popular Llanganuco–Santa Cruz Loop, a three- to five-day trek through mountain valleys, past crystalline lakes, and over a 4,750-meter-high (15,584-foot-high) pass. Other popular hikes include the one-day Lake Churup Trek, the two-day Quilcayhuanca–Cayesh trek, and the two-day Ishinca Trek. Check with guide agencies in Huaraz for maps, trail information, and insider advice before heading out.If possible, plan on visiting Laguna 69, one of the park's loveliest lakes; it's frequently included in hikes and day-trips from Huaraz.

Although experienced hikers who know how to survive in harsh mountain conditions may decide to head out on their own, it's always safer to arrange for a guide in Huaraz. You can opt to have donkeys or llamas carry the heavy stuff, leaving you with just a day pack. The most common ailments on these treks are sore feet and altitude sickness. Wear comfortable hiking shoes that have already been broken in, and take the proper precautions to avoid feeling the height (drink lots of water, avoid prolonged exposure to the sun, and allow yourself time to acclimatize before you head out). The best time to go trekking is during the dry season, which runs May through September. July and August are the driest months, though dry season doesn't mean a lack of rain or even snow, so dress appropriately.

Some hikers decide to enter the park at night to avoid paying the hefty S/65 for a multiday pass (from 2 to 30 days), but the money from these fees goes to protect the Andean habitat; consider this before you slip in during the dead of night (nighttime safety is a concern, too). You can purchase a pass at the Huaraz office of Parque Nacional Huascarán, at the corner of Rosas and Federico Sal, as well as at Llanganuco. Be sure to carry a copy of your passport with you.

Baños del Inca

About 6 km (4 miles) east of Cajamarca are these pleasant hot springs, which flow into public pools and private baths of varying levels of quality, as well as some spa facilities such as a sauna with its attendant massage tables. Each service has a separate price, though everything is quite inexpensive. The central bath, the Pozo del Inca, is where Atahualpa was relaxing when he received news of the conquistadors' arrival in 1532. It's an intact pool with a system of aqueducts built by the Incas and still in use today. Be sure to check out the volcanic pools in the center of the complex, but don't touch! The temperatures can reach 70ºC (160ºF). Don't forget to bring your swimsuit and a towel!

Av. Manco Cápac, Cajamarca, Cajamarca, Peru
sights Details
Rate Includes: S/6

Casa de la Emancipación

This branch of Banco Continental is unlike any bank you've ever been in. Go through the central courtyard and up to the small art gallery on the right. Enjoy the current exhibition—anything from modern to traditional works of art—and see a scale model of Trujillo when it was a walled city. Continue to the back, taking in the chandeliers, the large gold mirrors, and the small fountain, and imagine how, in this house, Peruvian republicans plotted the country's independence from Spain, which was declared on December 29, 1820. The house later became the country's first capitol building and meeting place for its first legislature. Fun fact: much of the furniture is original.

Casa del Mayorazgo de Facalá

The open courtyard, from 1709, is surrounded by beautiful cedar columns, greenery . . . and bankers: as with many colonial mansions in Peru, this one is now owned by a bank. Scotiabank, however, welcomes tourists and clients into the house to see its wonderfully restored beauty. Notice the classic brown stucco-covered adobe walls and Moorish-style carved-wood ceiling. The security guards are happy to answer questions about the house. The entrance is on the corner of Bolognesi and Pizarro.

Jr. Pizarro 314, Trujillo, La Libertad, Peru
sights Details
Rate Includes: Free, Closed weekends

Casa Urquiaga

The enormous, elaborately carved wooden door is a stunning entrance to this beautifully restored neoclassical mansion from the early 19th century. The house is owned by Peru's Central Bank; simply inform the guard that you'd like to go inside and look around. Don't miss the lovely rococo furniture and the fine collection of pre-Columbian ceramics.

Catedral de Cajamarca

Originally known as the Iglesia de Españoles (Spanish Church, because only Spanish colonialists were allowed to attend services), this cathedral on the Plaza de Armas was built in the 17th and 18th centuries. It has an ornate baroque facade that was sculpted from volcanic rock. Like many of the town's churches, the cathedral has no belfry; the Spanish crown levied taxes on completed churches, so the settlers left the churches unfinished, freeing them from the tight grip of the tax collector.

Catedral de Piura

On the city's main square, the cathedral, built in 1588, is one of the country's oldest churches and is worth a visit. Inside you'll find an altarpiece dedicated to the Virgen de Fátima dating back more than 350 years.


The enormous Chiclayo cathedral, dating from 1869, is worth a look for its Neoclassical facade on the Plaza de Armas and its well-maintained central altar.

Cerro Santa Apolonia

At the end of Calle 2 de Mayo, steps lead to this hilltop mirador, or scenic lookout, where a bird's-eye view of the city awaits. At the top are many carved bricks dating from pre-Columbian times. One of the rocks has the shape of a throne and has been dubbed the Seat of the Inca. According to local legend, it was here that Inca rulers would sit to review their troops. You'll also find pretty gardens and a maze of winding paths. You can either walk or go by taxi (round trip S/6).

Chan Chan's Museo del Sitio

Begin your archaeological exploration at this small but thorough museum, which has displays of ceramics and textiles from the Chimú Empire. The entrance fee to the museum includes Chan Chan, Huaca Arco Iris, and Huaca Esmeralda, so hold on to your ticket (you may also go directly to the ruins and purchase the same ticket there, for the same price). From Trujillo, take a taxi or join a tour from an agency. Each location is a significant distance from the next. Guides are available at the entrance of each site for S/10 or more (S/25 for Chan Chan) and are strongly recommended, both for the information they can provide and also for safety reasons (a few robberies have occurred in the more remote sectors of the archaeological sites). At the museum, and all sites, there are clean restrooms and a cluster of souvenir stalls and snack shops, but no place to buy a full meal.

Chaparrí Reserve

Getting to the Chaparri Reserve on your own can be difficult—it's 75 km (47 miles) northeast of Chiclayo, a little more than an hour's journey—but if you can get a group together or join a tour to this community-owned dry-forest nature preserve, it might just be one of your most memorable experiences in Peru. The 34,412-hectare (85,000-acre) reserve was created to help safeguard rare native species such as the white-winged guan, the Andean Condor, and the guanaco (a type of camelid similar in appearance to a llama). Perhaps their most important work is protecting the spectacled bear, for which they have a rescue center that works to reintroduce rehabilitated animals into this last refuge for populations of the species.

While you can visit the reserve anytime from 7 am to 5 pm, you'll up your chances of seeing wildlife if you stay overnight in the 12-room Chaparri Ecolodge (084/255–718, www.chaparrilodge.com) in the heart of the reserve. Stays include three daily meals and a guide to the reserve. Advance booking for day visits and overnight stays is highly recommended, as space is limited and all visitors must be accompanied by a guide.

Cumbe Mayo

This pre-Inca site, 23 km (14 miles) southwest of Cajamarca, is surrounded by a large rock outcropping, where you'll find various petroglyphs left by the ancient Cajamarcans. There are also petroglyph-adorned caves so a guided tour is highly recommended. This site, discovered in 1937 by the famous Peruvian archaeologist J.C. Tello, also includes some of the most notable aqueducts in the Andes. Constructed around 1000 BC, the aqueduct was designed to direct the ample water from the Andes into the drier area of Cajamarca, where there was a large reservoir. Amazingly, more than 8 km (5 miles) of the ancient aqueduct are intact today. Guided tours cost around S/35 and take about four hours.

El Conjunto de Belén

Built in the 17th century, this large complex, originally a hospital, now houses the city's most interesting museums and a colonial church. At the Museo Arqueológico de Cajamarca, the town's archaeological museum, are exhibits of Cajamarcan ceramics and weavings. The pre-Inca Cajamarcans were especially famous for their excellent patterned textiles, which were often dyed vivid shades of blue. The Museo Etnográfico has a few displays of everyday bric-a-brac—there's even an old saddle and a dilapidated coffee grinder—dating back to precolonial times. The Iglesia de Belén is a charming church with a polychrome pulpit and cupola.

Jr. Belén and Jr. Junín, Cajamarca, Cajamarca, Peru
sights Details
Rate Includes: S/7, includes admission to entire Conjunto de Belén and El Cuarto del Rescate, S/5, Closed Mon.

El Santuario de Huanchaco

Although people come to Huanchaco for the beach, one of Peru's oldest churches, El Santuario de Huanchaco, on a hill overlooking the village, is a nice side trip. The sanctuary was built on a Chimú ruin around 1540. In the second half of the 16th century, a small box containing the image of Nuestra Señora del Socorro (Our Lady of Mercy) floated in on the tide and was discovered by locals. The image, which is kept in the sanctuary, has been an object of local veneration ever since.

Huaca Arco Iris

Filled with intriguing symbolic carvings, the restored Huaca Arco Iris, or Rainbow Pyramid, stands out against its urban backdrop. Named for its unusual rainbow ornamentation (the area rarely sees rain), it's also known as the Huaca El Dragón, or Pyramid of the Dragon, because of the central role dragons play in the friezes. This structure, built by the early Chimú, also has a repeating figure of a mythical creature that looks like a giant serpent. On the walls, mostly reconstructions, you will see what many archaeologists believe are priests wielding the knives used in human sacrifices. Half-moon shapes at the bottom of most of the friezes indicate that the Chimú probably worshipped the moon at this temple. You can climb the ramps up to the top of the platform and see the storage bins within.

La Esperanza, Trujillo, La Libertad, Peru
sights Details
Rate Includes: S/11, includes admission to Chan Chan, Huaca Esmeralda, and Museo del Sitio; ticket valid for 48 hrs

Huaca Esmeralda

As with the other Chimú pyramids, the most interesting aspects of these ruins are the carved friezes, unrestored and in their original state. The images include fish, seabirds, waves, and fishing nets, all central to the life of the Chimú. Like other Chimú pyramids on the northern coast, the ancient temple mound of Huaca Esmeralda, or the Emerald Pyramid, is believed to have served as a religious ceremonial center. The pyramid is in an area that's dangerous for unaccompanied tourists, so go with a guide.

Huanchaco Hwy., 2 km (1¼ miles) west of Trujillo, Trujillo, La Libertad, Peru
sights Details
Rate Includes: S/11, includes admission to Chan Chan, Huaca Arco Iris, and Museo del Sitio; ticket valid for 48 hrs

Iglesia de San Francisco

Built in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Church of San Francisco sits proudly on the Plaza de Armas in front of the main cathedral. The church's two bell towers were begun in republican times and finished in 1951. The church was called the Iglesia de Indios (Church of the Indians), as indigenous peoples were not allowed to attend services at the main cathedral; many consider it to be more beautiful than the whites-only cathedral. Inside you'll find catacombs and a small museum of religious art. To the right of the church, the Capilla de la Virgen de Dolores is one of Cajamarca's most beautiful chapels. A large statue of Cajamarca's patron saint, La Virgen de Dolores, makes this a popular pilgrimage destination for local penitents.

Iglesia Santa Ana

The town's oldest church was one of Peru's first "Indian churches," where indigenous people were forced to attend services. It was built in the 17th century and is on a small square of the same name.

Jirón José Olaya

To see Huaraz's colonial remnants, head to Jirón José Olaya, a pedestrian-only street that's one of the few places left untouched by the 1970 earthquake. The handsome white-and-green facades stand east of the town center, on the right-hand side of Raimondi and a block behind Confraternidad Inter Este.The best time to visit is on Sunday, when there's a weekly feria de comida típica, a regional street festival with local food and craft stalls.