Despite an absolutely phenomenal boost in tourism in Peru over the last few decades, one part of the country that has remained more or less untouched by international tourists is Northern Peru. Sure, backpacking Northern Peru isn’t completely unheard of, but how many people have you heard boasting about that llama selfie they took in Chan Chan compared to Machu Picchu? I bet you my entire life savings (all £45 of it) that the answer is a big fat zero.
Looking for more tips for your trip to Peru? Check out these posts:
• The Ultimate 2 Week Peru Itinerary
• Top 12 Things to do in Arequipa
• Huayna Picchu vs. Machu Picchu Mountain: Which one is for you?
You know why that is? Because nobody goes to Northern Peru! A 2017 report actually stated that the southern areas of Peru see a whopping 85% of the country’s foreign tourists each year. Northern Peru is so off the gringo trail that by simply stepping foot on its soil you’ve earned Northern Peru citizenship (that’s a joke).
The relatively low number of international visitors that Northern Peru sees compared to its southern counterpart actually shocks me, as Northern Peru is so beautiful and has so much historical and archaeological importance, not just for the country but the entire continent. I think a lot of the time people don’t add it to their itinerary simply because they just don’t realise how much there is to see and do in Northern Peru. And we’re not just talking beautiful beaches and surfing here.
From ancient ruins outdating Machu Picchu to one of South America’s highest waterfalls, Northern Peru is a treasure trove of unexpected wonders and delights.
So whether you’re already set on backpacking Northern Peru, you’re umming and aahing about whether or not to venture further north than Lima, or you haven’t even considered it yet, I hope these 12 places will give you some inspiration for your Northern Peru itinerary. And hey, maybe next year I’ll see you at the annual “We love Northern Peru”* reunion?
Oh, Trujillo. If I didn’t have such a strong affinity with Arequipa, I would definitely nominate Trujillo as my favourite city in Peru. With the colourful facades of the colonial buildings in the Plaza de Armas and the lively music pumping from many of the surrounding streets, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in Colombia. But you’re not; you’re here in Trujillo, the largest city in Northern Peru and the first city to proclaim its independence from Spain back in the early 1800s.
Aptly nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring, the sky really is blue all the time in Trujillo! It also never rains. Like, ever. Rain was forecast for 2 out of the 7 days I was there but do you think one single drop of water fell from the sky? Absolutely not. Although there’s not much to do in Trujillo itself beyond the historic centre, a few museums and, of course, all the delicious Peruvian food, it’s the perfect base for you to discover the many archaeological sites nearby. Also, if you time your visit right you may get to witness one of Trujillo’s famous festivals, like the Marinera Festival.
2. Chan Chan
Chan Chan is the largest pre-Columbian era city in all of South America or, as the little girl on my day tour put it: “Es como un laberinto de castillos de arena! Que increible!” (it’s like a maze of sandcastles, it’s incredible!). This same little girl made her mother buy the only gringa on the tour an ice cream, so you can totally trust her judgement.
Chan Chan was actually the capital city of the Chimor Empire, so pre-dates the Inca Empire by hundreds and hundreds of years. Have that, Machu Picchu! Throughout the years the complex housed at least ten royal adobes The adobe clay walls are intricately carved with designs that many believe were an imitation of those patterns found on textiles. However, my guide explained that some historians believe the carvings had purpose at the time, to tell a story, most notably the importance of water (there are lot of carvings of fish!).
3. Huacas del Sol y de la Luna
Believe it or not, there was life before the Inca in Peru! This rings especially true for Northern Peru, where the Chimor empire and Moche culture reigned long before any Inca emperor got his hands on it.
The Huaca del Sol and Huaca del Luna are two huge adobe structures located just outside of Trujillo, built by the Moche people between 100-800 A.D. It’s thought that the larger of the two, Huaca del Sol (or Temple of the Sun), was administrative centre of the Moche capital while Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) acted as the religious centre.
Although Huaca del Sol is closed to visitors, you can appreciate its enormous size from afar. Even though around a third of the original structure has been washed away, it’s still an absolutely colossal construction! It’s estimated that at least 140,000,000 adobe bricks were used to build Huaca del Sol.
Unlike its larger neighbour, Huaca de la Luna can be visited with a guide – and if you get the chance, I’d highly recommend you do! My guide was a local man who’d grown up just down the road from the huacas, and you could tell he had an intense passion for sharing their story. Huaca de la Luna is absolutely covered with intricately decorated motifs, each depicting different animals and Moche Gods, and learning about the likely significance of each figure, and the reasons for each symbol being used where they were is extremely fascinating. One of the most interesting and informative things to do in Northern Peru!