In Cajamarca

Colonial Cajamarca has several sights of interest, although the town's principal appeal might lie in its relaxed and proudly traditional air, as yet undisturbed by a tourist onslaught. Many of Cajamarca's premier tourist attractions are just outside the city in the beautiful pastoral countryside, within easy reach for day trips. Most are best visited by convenient organized tour.

Get Out of Town on Tuesday -- Most of Cajamarca's top sights are closed on Tuesday. If you're in town that day, it would be wise to schedule a visit to the Inca Baths or another out-of-town excursion, such as Cumbe Mayo or Otuzco.

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Plaza de Armas -- The heart of city life, Cajamarca's peaceful Plaza de Armas is one of the loveliest in Peru. In the days of the Incas, it was also the focal point of town, but it was a triangular courtyard rather than a square, per se. The plaza was taken in dramatic fashion by Pizarro's small band of invading troops in 1532, and the Inca Emperor Atahualpa was killed there after a mock trial. The fountain at the center of the square dates back more than 300 years, and the plaza is marked by handsome topiaries and low trees. Two grand churches front the square, and it can be difficult to determine which one is the cathedral. On one side is the Catedral (cathedral), built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its baroque facade is ornately carved from volcanic stone. The gloomy interior features a bold, amazingly carved main altar and a pulpit of carved wood and gold leaf. If the cathedral looks a bit squat and unfinished, it's because its belfry was never completed, a drastic measure to avoid payment of a Spanish tax on finished ecclesiastical buildings. As seen in colonial churches in Cusco, the cathedral is built upon original Inca stonework.

The grander of the two churches, though, is directly across the plaza. The Iglesia de San Francisco, which once formed part of the San Francisco Convent, is entirely wrought from volcanic rock. Built in the first half of the 18th century, the parish church did not add the two bell towers until 1951. Covering every inch of the facade is terrific stone sculpting. Inside is a Museo de Arte Religioso Colonial, Jr. Dos de Mayo 435 (tel. 076/322-994); it's open Monday through Saturday from 3 to 6pm and admission is S/3. The collection of colonial art includes interesting icons and paintings. Beneath the museum are the church's catacombs, good for an eerie visit. Next door to the church is the small and beautiful Santuario de la Virgen de Dolores, or the chapel of La Dolorosa, named for the patron saint of Cajamarca. The 18th-century facade is one of the greatest examples of stone carving in the city.

Cajamarca's Colonial Mansions & Churches -- In the center of Cajamarca are several notable large houses that feature carved stone porticoes, slanted roofs, long wooden balconies, and the type of pretty garden courtyards favored by Spanish colonialists. Visitors with an interest in 17th- and 18th-century colonial and republican architecture should check out the following casonas and churches, in addition to those discussed elsewhere in greater detail.

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  • Casa Toribio Casanova, Jr. José Gálvez 938.
  • Casa Santiesteban, Junín 1123.
  • The house at Cruz de Piedra 613. Now the property of the municipal government, the house has another excellent carved portico. Also on Cruz de Piedra is a stone cross, which supposedly marks the spot where Simón Bolívar, the Great Libertador, swore to avenge the death of Atahualpa.
  • La Recoleta, a church about 6 blocks south of the Plaza de Armas, at the end of Amalia Puga.
  • Palacio de los Condes de Uceda (now the Banco de Crédito), Apurímac 717. A splendid yellowish-orange, well-restored noble house with a carved stone portico.
  • Palacio del Obispo, next to the Cathedral.
  • San Pedro, a church at the corner of Gálvez and Junín.

The Ruins of Kuélap

Everyone -- at least everyone on his or her way to Peru -- has heard of Machu Picchu. Very few have heard of Kuélap, though. Yet it's one of the archaeological wonders of Peru, a formerly lost city that stands as the true adventurer's alternative to Machu Picchu, which today is easily accessible and exceedingly popular. Tucked in highland cloud forest on top of an Andean mountain ridge at an altitude of 3,000m (9,840 ft.), Kuélap is a stupendous and titanic set of ruins that in fact predates the Incas -- it's more than 800 years old. Though ripe for discovery by a wider swath of visitors to Peru, Kuélap is still primarily a destination for independent travelers with plenty of time and a keen sense of adventure.

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Located northeast of Cajamarca, near the small town of Chachapoyas (itself something of a poor man's Cusco, given the assortment of ruins littered about it), and discovered in the mid-19th century, the site is said to have employed more stone during its 200-year construction than even the Great Pyramids of Egypt. A fortress complex of nearly 400 buildings, most of them round, and surrounded by a 30m-high (98-ft.) defensive wall, Kuélap was home to 2,000 people from A.D. 1100 to 1300. Very little is known about its builders and inhabitants, though. They were most likely the Chachapoyans or Sachupoyans, both groups that were later brought into the Inca fold that unified the highlands. Unlike other ruins in Peru, most of what exists at Kuélap is original, although some reconstruction has been initiated.

The ruins are open daily from 8am to 4pm; admission is S/10. Getting to Kuélap independently remains a laborious endeavor, involving buses to Chachapoyas and/or Tingo, plus a long and very difficult 5- to 6-hour hike. (It's a scenic but wearying 18- to 24-hour bus ride from Cajamarca, or a less exciting 9- to 10-hour journey from Chiclayo.) Organized visits from Cajamarca might not suit modern-day Hiram Binghams, but they are by far the most convenient way to get to what remains a very remote outpost. If you've got the time and money to spare, and a sense of adventure, check with Cumbe Mayo and Inca Baths Tours or Chachapoyas Tours, Jr. Grau 534, Chachapoyas (tel. 041/478-078, or 866/396-9582 in the U.S.; www.kuelapperu.com), which specializes in tours of Kuélap (from comfortable to rugged) leaving from Chachapoyas. There's a small Institute of National Culture albergue with dorm-style sleeping arrangements available.

Attractions Beyond Cajamarca 

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The countryside (campiña) around Cajamarca is extraordinary: a luxuriant expanse of rolling hills, eucalyptus trees, and meadows. If you're not staying at one of the country-style hacienda hotels outside of Cajamarca, a visit to the country is highly recommended to see this gorgeous, fertile region.

Among the standard organized campiña visits are excursions to several rural haciendas, including the worthwhile Granja Porcón (tel. 076/365-631), a huge cooperative farm and agrotourism experiment supported by the Peruvian government and the European Union. It's about 30km (19 miles) north of Cajamarca. The community runs entirely on hydroelectric power, and hilltop forests have been planted at an altitude of 3,700m (12,139 ft.) to provide paper and wood products without harming the area's natural forests. There is a small albergue (lodging) and a restaurant on the premises. In Lower Porcón, the Festival of the Crosses (on Palm Sunday at the beginning of Easter week) is a famous expression of local folklore. Huge wood and cane crosses, adorned with images of Jesus and saints, flowers, and palm fronds, are carried in devout processions.

Other area cooperatives have not been well maintained and are less worthy of a visit. They include La Colpa (no phone), a cattle ranch and manor house in a beautiful setting; Llacanora (no phone), a small mountain village with ancient cave paintings and hikes to a pretty waterfall; and Tres Molinos (no phone), an agricultural center and gardens, where dairy products are sold.

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The best way to visit one or more of the archaeological sites beyond Cajamarca is to sign on with one of the tour operators in town. Several of the sites are not accessible by public transportation; going with a guide in a small private colectivo is economical and convenient. Most agencies charge S/20 for standard day trips. Many combine visits (for example, to the Inca Baths, Colpa, and Llacanora; or to Otuzco and Tres Molinos).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.