The city of Cajamarca is sitting in a valley between the brawny Andes Mountains in the Northern Highlands of Peru. With a mild, dry and sunny climate, Cajamarca boasts the perfect getaway. The city is home to brilliant Colonial architecture, a beautiful countryside, abundant dairy products and cheeses, and a rich history. This mix of ingredients is what makes Cajamarca an unforgettable destination. Relatively unknown by international tourists, you will feel like a true pioneer when exploring the city! To help you with your planning, a three-day itinerary in Cajamarca is suggested, including tips for getting around, the best places to visit, advice on where to stay, and how to get to Cajamarca.
DAY 1: Acclimatize, relax and discover the historic centre
Upon arrival to the city, you should not underestimate the impact of the altitude on your body. Cajamarca is located at approximately 2,700 m (8,900 ft) above sea level, so you should take it easy on your first day. This will also give you the opportunity to explore the historic centre by foot! Cajamarca played an important role in the South American history, which is still noticeable today. In this ancient Inca city, the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro imprisoned and killed the legendary Inca chief Atahualpa, which marked the start of the defeat of the Inca Empire. The building where Atahualpa was detained, ‘el cuarto del rescate’, is the only Inca ruin that is still standing in the centre. After the Spanish overruled, the city was designed in the traditional Spanish way. These Colonial constructions remained relatively intact thanks to the isolation of the city. Today, you can witness this remarkable architecture all around the city. Especially remarkable are the Cathedral, and the churches of San Francisco, Belen, and la Recoleta. These are all located within walking distance from the main square, or ‘Plaza de Armas’, which is probably one of the most beautiful and well-maintained plazas in the country. With a variety of restaurants, stores and tourist offices around, you can easily lose track of the time!
If the square isn’t exciting enough, you can also immerse yourself in the true Peruvian culture at the Mercado Central. Become part of the typical Peruvian ambiance and enjoy its richness of colours, noises and flavours. The market will definitely leave an overwhelming impression because of the vast crowd of Peruvian shoppers and vendors, blasting music from their store and shouting out the most recent discounts.
After being totally flabbergasted by the chaos of Cajamarca, it is time to enjoy some peace and quiet at the most picturesque viewpoint over the city. The Santa Apolonia natural viewpoint is best visited during the sunset hours, when the entire city and its surrounding mountains turn orange and flaming red. Crack a beer or a bottle of wine, buy some local cheese, listen to music, watch the local kids flying their kites, and most importantly… cherish this magical moment!
DAY 2: Visit Cumbe Mayo and the beautiful countryside
On the second day it is time for more action! Embark on an incredible journey to Cumbe Mayo, which is the architectural highlight of the region. An area filled with giant rock formations demonstrate a pre-Incan hydraulic system, which is at least 3,000 years old and thus one of the oldest in South America. This fascinating construction was created by the Cajamarcans, who used dark volcanic stones as a tool. However, the Cumbe Mayo represents much more than hydraulic engineering. Massive volcanic rocks are spread around a vast area, which makes it an interesting and impressive site. Allow yourself enough time to walk around and pay attention to the ancient petroglyphs which are carved in the stones! To learn more about its history, you can opt to take a guided tour. Tours are usually offered in Spanish only, and can be booked in any tourist office in Cajamarca. A half day tour, including a guide and transportation, costs only 20 soles (equalling 5 euro). The amount of Peruvian tourists flocking to the area at the same time can be disturbing at times. Therefore, I personally recommend to walk back from the site to the city of Cajamarca instead of returning by the tourist bus. This alternative also allows you to spend more time at the site itself, enjoy the peace and natural surroundings, and go back at your own pace. There isn’t a marked or straightforward path back, but you should just keep following the Cajamarca river (clearly indicated on maps.me). This downhill route takes approximately 3 hours and stays close to the main motorway. The walkway will take you along traditional Peruvian farms, rolling hills, and meadows clothed with flocks of alpacas, sheep and goats. It is recommended to bring a lunch or some snacks as there are no shops along the way.
DAY 3: Combine excursions to the Baños del Inca, Ventanillas de Otuzco, and cheese factory
On the last day, you can combine several excursions that are just a short drive outside the city. Start the day with a relaxing soak at “Los Baños del Inca”, the perfect respite for travellers. These Inca Baths are thermo-medicinal hot springs where the Incas used to unwind after a long trip. The hot water has volcanic origin and is therefore rich in important minerals like sodium and calcium. For that reason, the hot springs are curative and beneficial for the treatment of various health conditions. Nowadays, due to the enormous popularity, the thermal pools have evolved into a true touristic complex that provides many facilities for families and individuals such as private and collective pools, indoor and outdoor pools, bungalows, showers, and massage services or treatments. It is recommended to go early in the morning, as the thermal pools are extremely popular with Peruvian tourists and locals. Los Baños del Inca are located 6km from Cajamarca, and can be reached by foot (1,5 hour walk), by taxi, by combi (minibus that leaves from Chachamayo and Plaza a Puga), or by an organized tour (costs 25 soles).
After this rejuvenating experience, continue your journey with a visit to the Ventanillas de Otuzco. This pre-Incan necropolis is a fascinating archaeological site made up of roughly 200 small ‘windows’ or ‘holes’ carved into a volcanic rock by the ancient Cajamarca culture. The old tombs were originally filled with mummified bodies of the upper class along with their valuables, jewellery and sometimes even gold. However, these were eventually plundered and destroyed by the Spanish. Even though the burial holes in the rock are empty today, the history of the Cajamarca culture and their burial practices make this site particularly interesting! It is recommended to take a guided tour to fully understand the importance of this place.
End this wonderful day with a short visit to one of the cheese factories around. The Cajamarca region is known for its dairy production, which explains the abundance of cheese and chocolate shops around the city. The cheese factories are located just outside the centre, amidst the green hills and farms. Learn about the production of cheese and indulge yourself with a wide variety of cheeses to choose from! It is possible (and recommended!) to book an organized tour that combines a visit to the cheese factory and the Ventanillas de Otuzco. They typically depart from the main plaza twice a day (morning and afternoon) and cost no more than 25 soles.
Places to Stay
As Cajamarca remains fairly unexplored by international travellers, the prices are significantly lower than other touristic places. You can easily find a cheap hotel room in the middle of the historic centre. There is no need to book in advance as the hotels are usually quite empty. Besides, only few hotels are actually listed online, which makes it a struggle. I stayed in a private room at a simple three-star hostel, Imperio Hostel, for about 15 euro per night. In some hotels you might be able to bargain about the price.
Getting to Cajamarca
Cajamarca is the gateway to Ecuador, the east bordering the Amazon River Basin like Chachapoyas (known for the Kuelap ruins and the Gocta falls), and the coastal area such as Trujillo and Huanchaco. There are several buses that run between these destinations on a daily basis. The bus is the most inexpensive mode of transportation and offers magnificent views along the way. However, it is also long as the roads are often twisty, bumpy and in poor condition. Unfortunately, if you are travelling to any smaller destinations, it is often the only option.
If you are coming from Lima, there is the possibility to fly to Cajamarca. Flying is slightly more expensive (around 50 euro one-way), but much quicker (approx. 80 mins). LAN Airlines operates three direct flights from Lima to Cajamarca daily. If you are coming from another major tourist destination, you might consider combining flights. Note that these flights will always go through Lima and may have bad connections that are time-consuming!