Far from the hubbub and predictability of Peru’s Gringo Trail (comprising the sights around Machu Picchu, Cuzco and Puno), the verdant and isolated Northern Highlands are home to many Inca and pre-Inca ruins, as well as some of the north’s most spectacular scenery -- making this a great alternative for an offbeat Andean adventure.
Most trips to
the region begin and end in Cajamarca, a friendly colonial town with access to
several archaeological sites and excellent hiking trails. Also known as the
City of Lightning, Cajamarca is the site of one of history's quickest and
wiliest military victories. It was here in 1532 that Francisco Pizarro, pig
farmer turned conquistador, and his meagre force of 160 Spaniards was able to
kill more than 6,000 Inca warriors and capture Atahualpa, the King of the Inca empire.
The story of Atahualpa's ransom begins in 1525, upon the death of his father
Inca Huayna Capac. The immense Inca Empire that stretched at that time from
southern Colombia to central Chile was divided between his two sons, Atahualpa
and Huascar. Atahualpa took control of the north, while his half-brother
Huascar took control of the south. Greed being just as potent then as it is
today, civil war soon broke out. Atahualpa, who controlled the army, won the
war and was returning to Cuzco to claim his throne when he stopped near
present-day Cajamarca. His regal entourage and 40,000-strong army set up camp
at the natural hot springs, now called the Baños
While you will be
pressed to conjure up the image of an emperor and his court when visiting the
springs today (with gaggles of local
children cannonballing into the run-down pools), this is where the Inca King dined
with Pizarro's right-hand man, Hernando de Soto, and a handful of Pizarro’s
horsemen on the evening of 15 November, 1532.
But war was in
the air, and the day after this first meeting with the Spanish, cocksure Atahualpa
marched out to meet them on the battlefield with only 6,000 men. The Spaniards, born above their horses, charged in
and slaughtered the bewildered Indians, the Inca’s slings and mallets no match
for the steel and armour of the Spaniards. Atahualpa was captured and almost
all of the 6,000 men died.
imprisoned in the city that would later be dubbed Cajamarca. Seeing the
Spaniards’ love for wealth, he offered to fill a room twice with silver and
once with gold as a ransom. The precious metal began to pour in, and about 6,000kg
of gold and 12,000kg of silver (worth around $60 million in today's market) was
melted down and turned into bullion. Only a few of the finely-worked ornaments
were saved, including Atahualpa's gold throne, which Pizarro claimed for
himself. Visiting this Ransom
Chamber is one of Cajamarca’s biggest draws today. Despite their booty, the
Spaniards never made good on their promise to release Atahualpa, and he was
eventually tried and sentenced to death by strangulation. Pizarro and his band
went on to conquer what remained of the Inca Empire, making this the decisive
battle of the entire conquest.
A land of infinite variety
valleys and high mountaintops that comprise the area around Cajamarca are a top
attraction for travellers, as are the Inca ruins in the surrounding hinterland.
You can spend days wandering through the verdant countryside, enjoying
interactions with local farmers or trekking the desolate mountains that box in
the evergreen valleys.
Just a short
jaunt out of town is one of the oldest cemeteries in Peru, the Ventanillas
de Otuzco (Otuzco
Windows), which dates back more than 3,500 years. The ancient necropolis is
comprised of several large burial niches carved into a rock cliff. The niches
from afar look like windows, hence the area's name. Sadly, the site is slowly
wasting away because of wind and rain erosion.
Also worth a
visit are other nearly cemeteries such as the Necrópolis de Combayo (Combayo
Necropolis), similar to the Ventanillas, but on a slightly larger scale, and
the Ventanillas de Combayo. The Capac Ñan, or Royal Inca Road, runs past many
of the archaeological sites, making hiking from site to site a possibility.
from Cajamarca through cloud forests and harrowing mountain turns takes you to
the village of Chachapoyas.
The capital of the Amazonas Department, Chacha (as is it known locally) is a
great stepping-off point for treks in the nearby mountains and adventures to
seldom-visited archaeological sites, including the impressive and austere stone
fortress at Kuélap.
The article 'Offbeat adventures in Peru’s Northern Highlands' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.