14 Off-the-Beaten Path Adventures in Northern Peru

From famous surf breaks to ancient cities, the northern coast of Peru is heaven for adventurers. Our insider Amy shares her tips.

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The surfing is epic here, but there’s a lot more to discover along Peru’s northern coast: ancient cities rising out of lush rainforests, fertile valleys giving way to dusty colonial towns, and mangrove forests alive with wildlife.

Trujillo

Vast shopping malls and noisy sprawl are all the rage in Peru’s third largest city, but its glamourous colonial past is modestly preserved.

As you wander down bustling, pedestrian Pizarro street to the Plaza de Armas, poke your head into the courtyards of churches, restaurants, or political-party headquarters and you’ll discover fading frescos, white-gloved waiters, and other experiences of Trujillo’s former sugar-cane wealth.

If cities aren’t your thing, go sandboarding at the Laguna de Conache, which is about 40 minutes away. You can take a combi (public van) for a few dollars or join a day-tour for about S/. 65 (US $20).

Chan Chan

The largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas feels like a graphic designer’s desert fantasy. Sea-themed geometric patterns adorn symmetrical streets, walls, and plazas where 60,000 Chimú people once lived, among master ceramicists, gold and silversmiths.

What’s left from the relentless looting of conquistadors is on display in the on-site museum. It’s S/. 10 (US $3) to get in, or join a daylong tour in Trujillo that includes other ancient temples for around S/. 40 soles (US $12.30)

Chan Chan. Photo credit: iStock

Huanchaco

Credited as the 5,000-year-old birthplace of surfing, the easygoing vibe of Huanchaco makes it a comfortable base for exploring the area or learning to surf. Indulge in ceviche or a crushed-ice-with-fruit cremolada while watching Peruvian beach-goers and traveling surfers mingle amid the rhythms of an old fishing village. Prepare to stay here weeks longer than planned.

Dama de Cao

This stunning minimalist museum houses the mummified body, weapons, and sophisticated jewelery of a high priestess who ruled the Moche of the Chicama Valley. You can see her elaborately tattooed body through a trippy arrangement of mirrors. It’s worth the extra effort of a private taxi for around S/.150 soles (US $46) plus the S/. 10 (US $3) entrance fee, or join a tour from Huanchaco or Trujillo for S/. 50 soles (US $15.50).

Chicama

This town is famous for having the longest wave in the world, accessible to almost every level of surfer. There’s some splurge-worth accommodation and ceviche in this otherwise sleepy fishing village.

Pacasmayo

One of the best-preserved colonial town centers in Peru is off the radar of most travelers. Colorful, generously terraced buildings line the waterfront, which is a kite-surfer’s playground. An hour away there’s a worthwhile one-three hour hike through the Bosque de Cañoncillo, a desert oasis where you can go sandboarding. Ask at your hotel for a tour operator.

Lambayeque and Sipan

Most travelers miss out on the charming streets and famous King Kong cakes of Lambayeque on their way to the shamanistic mercado de brujos market in the city of Chiclayo.

Stay in a restored colonial hotel near the main square and walk to the museum of Sipan, a wealthy lord of the Moche people who was buried with his entire family, entourage of guards, and treasures beyond a grave-robbers wildest dreams.

Cajamarca

Nestled among pine-forested hills, this ancient city is best known for Peru’s finest cheeses, mushrooms, and dulce-de-leche, but it’s also where the Incan ruler Atahualpa was executed by conquistador Francisco Pizarro.

Visit the eerie funerary enclosures carved into cliffs at the Ventanillas de Otuzco and Combayo, and relax at the popular Baños del Inca hot springs, where you can rent a private pool by the half hour. 

Ventanillas de Combayo. Photo credit: iStock/figcaption>

Cataratas de Gocta

There are ample opportunities to get a cheeky pic of yourself eating a 2,529ft (771m) waterfall on the well-marked hike to Gocta falls. Join a tour from Chachapoyas or hike in yourself, starting in the village of San Pablo and continuing through pastures and cloud forests to Cocachimba.

Kuelap

Travelers seeking the mysterious beauty of Machu Picchu without the crowds head to this vast stone fortification perched atop a cliff in the cloud forest. It houses more than 450 structures built by the pre-Incan Chachapoya people.

You can hike for four hours and 4,921ft (1,500m) up from Tingo Viejo or take a cable car through 20 minutes of breathtaking Andean vistas for S/. 20 soles (US $6) plus another S/. 20 entrance fee. Alternatively, you can get a bus tour which includes the two-hour drive from Chachapoyas for about S/. 90 (US $27.75).

Kuelap. Photo credit: iStock

Tucume

These layered pyramids built up by several civilizations are known as “Purgatory” by the locals. You won’t find any night tours of this site thanks to a long history of creepy vibes, starting with conquistadors throwing non-believers to their deaths from the top.

Catacaos

This bustling market of regional goodies just outside of Piura is Northern Peru’s answer to the handicraft heaven of Cusco. Excellent hammocks, leather goods, straw hats, silver, and baskets will satisfy your artisanal shopping itch.

Lobitos

If you’re looking for a ghost town vibe a la an old Western film, this out-of-the-way surfer’s paradise will not disappoint. Dusty streets and battered army installations intermingle with humming oil wells, fishing boats, and crumbling wooden buildings from the turn of the 20th century, when it was a wealthy British Petroleum outpost.

Experienced surfers will find a variety of fast and barrelly lefts. Beginner lessons are also available.

Surfing at Lobitos. Photo credit: iStock

Mancora

Peru’s party-happy head to Mancora for the beaches, waves, and year-round sun. The mangroves of Tumbes are a short trip away and worth exploring with a qualified guide. If you’d prefer quiet relaxation and fresh seafood, the villages of Los Organos, El Ñuro, or El Colan are the prettiest beaches on the North Coast.

Want to know more about Peru? Check out our podcast. We chat about alternative treks to Machu Picchu, how Peru is the original home of surfing, and look at what vaccinations do you need when traveling to South America.

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