The small, modern town of CHACHAPOYAS, at 2334m high up in the Andes, is first and foremost a springboard for a wealth of nearby pre-Columbian remains. With the opening up of the road networks in these parts, Chachapoyas has developed into a thriving little market town (with a wide range of fruits and veggies, some craft goods, and some smaller woollen accessories such as straps and belts), supporting a mostly indigenous population of around ten thousand, themselves with a reputation for being among the most friendly and hospitable people in Peru.
The nearest ruins to Chachapoyas include the ruined city of Purunllacta – 40km south of the city and one of the likely capitals of the Chachapoyas people – while west are Pueblo de los Muertos and Carajía, two impressive cliff-face burial centres for the elite of this quite sophisticated culture. However, most famous and most worthwhile of all the Chachapoyan archeological remains is Kuelap, a fabulous, huge citadel complex. South of here lie Balsas and Leymebamba. To some extent, the ancient culture lives on in some of the remote, traditional communities like La Jalca, 76km south of Chachapoyas.
Much of the land in the Chachapoyas region is full of ravines and very steep sided valleys. All land over 3500m is considered jalca, or wild, and should be approached only with a guide. Spectacled bear, puma and white-tailed deer roam while hummingbirds flutter about in the remote highland plains. Less than 30km north of Chachapoyas Town gush the fabulous Cataratas de Gocta, reputedly the tallest in Peru.
In Aymara, Chachapoyas means “the cloud people”, perhaps a description of the fair-skinned tribes who used to dominate this region, living in one of at least seven major cities (like Kuelap, Magdalena and Purunllacta), each one located high up above the Utcubamba Valley or a tributary of this, on prominent, dramatic peaks and ridges. Many of the local inhabitants still have light-coloured hair and remarkably pale faces. The Chachapoyas people, despite building great fortifications, were eventually subdued by the empire-building Incas. Chachapoyas was once a colonial possession rich with gold and silver mines as well as extremely fertile alluvial soil, before falling into decline during the Republican era.