By Danielle Lane
Cajamarca, now a small colonial city in the northern highlands of Peru, was once a major city along the Inca highway between Quito and Cusco. Much of the indigenous structures were destroyed by the Spanish, in order to re-use the massive stones to erect the domineering colonial architecture that remains today.
This city played a pivotal role in the fate of the Inca, the scene of the first contact between Pizarro’s conquistadors and the vast army of Inca Atahualpa. Thousands of Inca soldiers were slaughtered in that first fateful meeting, setting the scene for the long and bloody conquest that followed.
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Atahualpa was taken hostage after that battle in 1525 and eventually burned at the stake in the town’s central plaza. The only Inca structure still standing is the Ransom Chamber, where the unfortunate king spent his last days, just off the main plaza.
Cajamarca has excellent weather and is ideal for lovers of the great outdoors. One popular spot is Cerro Santa Apolonia, a hill that overlooks the city with a spectacular view of the northern highlands. It is said that the Atahualpa watched over his vast army from this spot, presumably unaware of the fate that awaited him.
The Plaza de Armas is also charming and a central part of local social life. The hedges are shaped in the form of local animals such as llamas and two pleasant churches sit on the plaza edges. In town, it is worth visiting the Archeological Museum, the Catacombs and the Religious Art Museum. Outside of town, Los Baños del Inca is the greatest attractions. These local hot springs were used by the Inca and his royal court and are located next to a recreational complex with children’s activities and waterslides for families looking for fun.
One of the best times of year to visit is during Carnival. This is one of the largest celebrations in the country and the locals spend months preparing for the festivities. If you are backpacking expect to pay between $9-$15 for a dormitory style, shared bathroom hostel. Be aware that budget traveling in this region may not guarantee a hot shower at all hours of the day.
The best in-town hotel option is the Hostal Portada del Sol which is moderately priced with great amenities. This clean and inviting property has a sister hacienda a few miles outside of town as well. This is a great choice if you also want to enjoy the tranquility of the countryside.
Another family option is the Hacienda San Antonio located about 5 kilometers from the town center. This renovated ranch style hotel is very kid friendly and has great amenities for the whole family to enjoy. There is only one high end hotel in town, the Costa del Sol, which meets the Peruvian chain’s standards of cleanliness, hospitalities. This hotel also hosts a sauna, pool, gym and posh restaurant for those seeking a luxury getaway. Hostal Laguna Seca, a four-star resort, is a fantastic property but is located outside of the city center. This is a great option if you want to enjoy the fresh countryside.
The most common way of getting to and from Cajamarca is by bus. Buses come east from the Pan-American highway. Travelers either venture the roughly 14 hours from Lima, 6 hours from Trujillo or 6 hours from Chiclayo. For those who are willing to pay more for a faster journey, there are daily flights to and from Lima with AeroCondor and LC Busre, two local airlines. Recently LAN Peru has also opened up a route but be aware that this international airline is more expensive than local carriers.