Cajamarca is a cute town set into the mountains in northern Peru at about 2,750 meters (9,022 feet) elevation. We arrived at 5:30 in the morning fresh off the night bus and began our now familiar early morning trek to the hostel. Our hostel was located just outside the main city and we were the only people staying there, so we were able to get into our room early. The owner of the hostel made us scrambled eggs and served coffee for breakfast and then we took a nap.
We had ended up in Cajamarca mostly because Jess had read in a blog that it was one of the nicest cities in northern Peru, and Jess was under the (very much mistaken) impression that Chachapoyas was only 40 minutes away. It’s actually a 12-hour very curvy, possibly dangerous, cliff-edge bus ride away, but you know…close.
The first afternoon we walked around the historic center of Cajamarca. There are multiple churches with beautiful stone-carved facades and a nicely landscaped look out point at Cerro Santa Apolonia with a view over the entire city.
One of the attractions marked on the tourist map of downtown Cajamarca is the Ransom Room (Cuarto de Rescate). This is the place where the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa, was held hostage by the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, in 1532. He was taken hostage following the battle of Cajamarca which started when Atahualpa would not hand over his lands to the Catholics. In an effort to secure his freedom, Atahualpa offered to fill the room in which he was being held with gold, much of which was allegedly brought from Koricancha in Cusco. The Spanish melted down the gold (a value of roughly $15 million) and then executed Atahualpa for a variety of crimes including usurping the crown and idolatry. While Cajamarca is the site of the Inca empire’s demise and the story is very interesting, the Ransom Room is apparently just a small stone room and many of the reviews of it are underwhelming. Having seen Koricancha, a large stone room that was also once filled with gold, we decided to skip the Ransom Room.
On our stroll around town, we found many tour companies offering tours to Cumbemayo and booked one for the next day. Cumbemayo is an archaeological site dating back to 1500 BC located just outside Cajamarca. There’s no public transportation there and it’s about a 50 minute drive uphill the whole way, so it’s not very easy to get to on your own without a car. Cumbemayo Tours offered a half-day tour option for 20 soles ($6) in Spanish or 25 soles ($7.50) per person in English, so we opted for the English tour. Another couple that ultimately joined our tour got a cab to drive them to Cumbemayo and wait for them for 80 soles ($24) so that’s another option. We met Manuel in his office at 9:15 the next morning and were directed to a minibus where we waited for other tourists. Eventually the minibus was filled with Spanish-speaking tourists – we were the only English speakers in the group. On the way up, Manuel told us a lot about the history of the area and the end of the Inca empire. He alternated between Spanish and English making sure we got all of the important details.
Jess particularly enjoys tours in both languages because she thinks it is interesting to hear what the guides tell the Spanish speakers that they don’t translate. In this case, Manuel seemed to be shaming the Peruvians for not knowing local indigenous languages and for not walking in their mountains. Apparently foreigners often learn a few words of Quechua but the locals rarely do, and the foreigners are often well-adjusted to the altitude but the Peruvians, particularly those from the lowlands, aren’t. Since we were about to walk around at 3,500 meters (11,500 ft) of elevation, the altitude part at least was relevant, but Jess thought it sounded rather condescending.
When we arrived at Cumbemayo, we purchased our entrance tickets for 8 soles ($2.41) per person and began the 90 minute trek with a visit to a rock that looks like a face with a stone-carved temple underneath. Inside the temple are petroglyph markings; unfortunately, no one knows exactly what the petroglyphs say. We continued on around the rock faces to find a narrow tunnel which we were supposed to walk through. There is a path around the outside for anyone who is claustrophobic or won’t fit, but we decided to give it a try. The tunnel is very short, so the portion of complete darkness is over quickly, but it is quite narrow. Even Jess was glad she wasn’t any bigger. The rock formations at Cumbemayo are striking in their own right, but even more so because they are set into beautiful scenery of fields and rolling hills. It is green everywhere except where there is rock.
As we continued our walk, Manuel pointed out a large rock formation with a smaller rock tucked underneath. The smaller rock was covered in markings which Manuel explained was a map showing the location of the reservoir and aqueduct we would see later. A few steps further on, we came to the area known as frailones (the friars). In this area, many of the rock formations are believed to resemble friars and nuns with their backs turned. The local people were unable to explain how the rocks formed in these shapes, so they created a story. Legend has it foreign friars and nuns came to the area to look for (and steal) gold. The Inca god, Pachacama, the creator of the universe was angry and struck them with lightning, petrifying them in place as they ran into the mountains. Of course, today we are able to explain these formations as a result of glacial water flows.
Below the frailones is an area with an impressive aqueduct built around 1500 – 1000 BC using only stone tools. The aqueduct crosses a continental divide which is particularly impressive because a continental divide is what separates waters that flow to the Atlantic from waters the flow to the Pacific oceans. The aqueduct flows for 5.4 miles at a very slow pace, which is to say hardly at all, because for the first 2.4 miles, the canal decreases in altitude only 2.73 feet per mile. This low level of water flow helped to store water in times of low rainfall. In some places there are corners built into the canal. Some have speculated these were intended to slow down the flow of water. However, the water already moves so slowly, it is now believed they reflect the geometric step pattern commonly found in art and architecture of ancient peoples representing the stairs connecting earth and heaven.
At the end of the tour we got back in the minibus to drive back down. Walking the 10km route along the Inca trail is an option and one guy in our group opted for it, but since it was threatening to rain and we didn’t have any rain gear or snacks, we decided to skip it.
When we got back to town we walked to the office of the one bus company that offers a route to Chachapoyas – Virgen del Carmen – and bought tickets on the night bus for the next day for 50 soles ($15) per person. The night bus wouldn’t have been our first choice for this allegedly nightmarish cliff road, but it was the only option.
On the way back to the hostel we got the answer to a small mystery. Every night around 8pm there was a howling session between dozens of dogs right near the hostel. We ran into the manager of the hostel near a pack of these dogs, and he told us that the city’s dog population had recently exploded because of a change in the laws. The government used to be controlling the dog population using poison. The locals didn’t like this because there were often dead dogs in the street, and also because their pet dogs would sometimes eat the poison. The poisoning was outlawed, but this resulted in the dog population ballooning very rapidly. Our hostel happened to be on a corner where a large pack congregated each night.
We spent our last day in Cajamarca wandering around town exploring neighborhoods we hadn’t seen yet. We walked to the Inca monument which honors the 14 Inca emperors from 1150 to 1532. Then we walked towards a mountain that Maps.me indicated had a hike until we ran into a staircase littered with dogs and decided now was a good time to turn around. In the meantime, Jess wasn’t feeling great. She’d been dealing with an unusual sore throat for most of our stay in Cajamarca and was now feeling a little nauseous. We stopped for lunch at a place with a 10 soles ($3) lunch menu, but Jess couldn’t eat anything and elected instead to deposit her breakfast in the street gutter. We decided this was a good time to go back to our hostel and rest up for our night bus to Chachapoyas in a few hours.