The Northern Highlands


Terrain and Weather

In northern Peru, the Andes divide into three ranges, the Cordillera Occidental, near the coast, the Cordillera Central and the Cordillera Oriental, splitting into more ranges, most predominantly, the Cordillera Blanca where Peru’s highest peak, 22,205-ft Mt. Huascaran is found, and the Cordillera Negra. On the west, the region is comprised of these towering peaks of the Andean ranges, fertile valleys, verdant highlands, grassland slopes and plateaus, called punas, and deep canyons. To the east of the Andes are humid cloud forests, pampas and subtropical valleys with orchids and bromeliads in a transitional area called La Ceja de la Selva (the eyebrow of the jungle) as the region transitions to Amazon Rainforest.

The northern highlands are usually driest from May to October, though the weather can be unpredictable. Hikers on Peru tours will find the driest conditions between June and August. River rafting is most exciting during the rainy season from December to April. The cloud forests are warm and humid with a long rainy season from October to March, sun from April to October and cold nights year-round.

Mountain Mecca

At an elevation of 10,042 feet, the town of Huarez is the center of Peru’s most beautiful alpine region, situated between the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra. Travelers that come to explore the Cordillera Blanca for Peru trekking, river rafting and other outdoor pursuits, use Huarez as a base. Seventy percent of the world's tropical glaciers are found in Peru, among them the high altitude Pastoruri Glacier, fifteen miles south of Huarez. Though still a beautiful hike, the blue ice caves for which it was once known, have melted, testament to the vulnerability of tropical glaciers the world over. The Cordillera Blanca is one of the few places in the Andes where the unusual Puya raimondii is found. The largest species of the bromeliad family, it grows thirty feet tall, and its cactus-like form is a sight to behold.

Further south, those interested in longer treks on Peru tours will find the stunning mountainous landscapes of the Cordillera Huayhuash in Huascaran National Park to their liking. Covering 1,158 square miles, the park protects the upper reaches of the Cordillera Blanca and was established in 1975. The hiking here is sublime whether on day hikes or on the three to five day Llanganuco-Santacruz loop, midst mountain peaks and pristine glacial lakes. Its increasing popularity has forced the government to establish visitor rules.

Except in designated areas, permits and guides are now required. Southern Explorations' ten-day Cordillera Blanca Hike Peru Trekking Tour visits Huarez and Huascaran National Park.

More National Parks

In addition to Huascaran, five other national parks are located in the region. Cutervo was Peru’s first national park, established in 1961, and is located between Chiclayo and Chachapoyas. The 6,178-acre park protects cloud forest flora and endangered fauna including the nocturnal birds that inhabit Guacharos Cave. Rio Abiseo National Park is situated between the Maranon and Huallaga rivers on the border between La Libertad and San Martin departments. Its bio-diverse habitat of mostly montane cloud forest is home to a variety of monkey species, birds and the spectacled bear as well as containing Chachapoyan archeological ruins called the Gran Pajaten. Established in 1983 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990, it is still closed to the public, but plans call for establishing services in the vicinity to accommodate tourists. Huge 5,225 sq mile Cordillera Azul National Park was established in 2001 to protect Andean forests and lowland valleys in the mountain range between the Huallaga and Ucayali rivers. The public began to be allowed in the park in 2006.

Tingo Maria National Park is a tiny 2,000-acre park in the Pumaringri Mountains south of Cordillera Azul National Park. Established in 1973, it contains an interesting mix of highland rainforest wildlife, making it a popular destination for birdwatchers on Peru tours hoping to observe rare species. East of the Andes, bio-diverse 302,000-acre Yanachaga-Chemillen National Park was established in 1986 to protect the river basins that support the area’s indigenous communities. It contains archeological sites of the Incas and Yaneshas.

Active Sports

The valley of the Rio Santa, called Callejon de Huaylas, runs between the cordilleras Blanca and Negra. It offers the region's best whitewater rafting with Class II and III rapids from May to October between Caraz and Yungay. The Mayo and Huallaga rivers with Class II and III rapids are another option starting at Tarapoto. Mountain biking in the Piura highlands is pleasant from May to October. The routes from Piura to Canchaque and from Canchaque to Huancabamba are not for beginners. Those visitors in good enough condition for high-altitude cycling on Peru tours may wish to experience the Callejon de Huaylas by bicycle, best between May and October.

The Cities

Eighty miles from the coast in an 8,900 ft high valley, is Cajamarca, the largest city in the region. It is the nearest population center to one of the world's largest gold mining operations, evident by the city’s thriving economy, though traditional life continues on in many ways unchanged. On hillside roads, craftsmen chisel marble into miniature animals; women in colorful garb spin wool as they walk. The colonial city is known for its gilded mirror crafts and its cheese.

Tucked away on a side street, sits an eerily empty room that belies its significance in Latin American history. It is here where Atahualpa, emperor of the Incas, was held for ransom by the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, in 1532. In a Wagnerian swap of gold for freedom, Atahualpa naively negotiated his release by agreeing to fill one room with gold and two with silver, but when the deed was done, it was execution, not freedom, that awaited him.

Other smaller cities of note are Moyobamba, the capital of San Martin Department, located in the beautiful Rio Mayo Valley, a region of tropical forests. Called the city of orchids, 3,500 species are found here. Between May and October, paragliding through the valley is popular. Tarapoto, sixty-eight miles southeast of Moyobamba, is increasingly used by visitors as a stopover in their Peru travel on their way into the Peru Amazon. The Andean community of Huanuco is one of Peru's first colonial towns, and is to the east of two archeological sites, the pre-Columbian Cotosh ruins and Huanuco Viejo, Incan ruins with carved stone that rivals the craftsmanship of Cusco.

Archeological Sites

The region offers many cultural riches including archeological ruins that few tourists visit, even though some rival Machu Picchu. The major sites that are remnants of the Chachapoya people are all located in the vicinity of the city that today bears the civilization's name. Called the "cloud people" for the terrain they inhabited, the Chachapoya initially succeeded in fighting off the Incas but were eventually overtaken. The best known site is Kuelap, a walled fortress-city above the Utcubamba Valley. Measuring 1,969 feet by 361 feet, it was built in 800 AD. Birdwatchers visiting the area on Peru tours will have the rare opportunity to observe what is called the world’s most exotic bird, the Marvelous Spatuletail, one of Peru's 118 hummingbird species.

Twenty-four miles east of Chachapoyas is the 1,038-acre Purunllaca site, what is left of an elaborate pre-Incan complex of palaces, temples and thousands of houses constructed of stones. The complex dates back to 1300-1100 BC and may have been built over a period of two hundred years. The Gran Vilaya region between the Maranon and Utcubamba rivers contains thirty separate sites, some more interesting than others. The sarcophagi of Karajia are carved human forms thought to be tombs of Chachapoyan chiefs. Little is yet known about the ruins, most of which have not yet been excavated. Marca Huamachuco, south of Cajamarca, is an 11,800 ft extraordinary mountaintop complex, perhaps used for ceremonial purposes as early as 300 BC. Scientists are still debating which cultures created and occupied the site.

Other Sights and Activities

Huallay National Sanctuary is a rock forest where erosion has carved boulders into animal and other interesting shapes near the town of the same name. North of Chachapoyas in the Utcubamba River canyon near the town of Pedro Ruiz is 2,532-ft Gocta, one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. East of Piura, near the town of Huancabamba, is Las Huaringas, the sacred lakes where believers come from great distances seeking cures from the shamans who inhabit the area.


Cajamarca is known nationwide for its February Carnival celebration. The revelry includes much throwing of water balloons and other substances. Dress accordingly.

Holy Week celebrations of note in the region are held in Huarez and Cajamarca. In July, the Fiesta de Sol is held at the Huanuco Viejo archeological site. In October, the Senor Cautivo de Ayabaca Festival in the town of Ayabaca, 131 miles east of Piura, has a colorful procession through streets decorated with flower carpets.