10 things for falling in love with Cajamarca, Peru

When I hear people traveling through Peru, I mainly hear the same cities as Cuzco or Arequipa, but almost never visiting Cajamarca, a city in the northern highlights of Peru.

Cajamarca is by far my favorite Peruvian city. I have a very special bond with the city because of the nonprofit I used to work for. I also lived briefly there and, after Lima, is the city I visited the most, probably around 15 times.

Cajamarca breathes Peruvian culture, and most of the time it feels like the time passes differently in this Andean capital.

The area still didn’t experience a tourist boom like other cities in the country and is mainly visited by Peruvians, however not only the city deserves a visit, the surroundings are also worthy to spend some nights and explore.

It was hard just to find 10 things to experience and fall in love with Cajamarca, but these are my 10 must-do in Cajamarca, a bucket list for the city. After visiting, I’m sure you will become a fan of this emblematic place. 

1. Main Square & Cathedral

The main square of Cajamarca is where life happens, everyone crosses the square at some point of the day making it fun and colorful. There is a lot of greenery, but you cannot sit down on the grass, if you do, probably someone will show up and tell you to sit down somewhere else.

From the square you will have a perfect view of the cathedral and the San Francisco Church facing each other, you can also see the Apolonia hill and the arches of several streets.

Buy an ice-cream, and alfajor or any other treat, sit down and enjoy being in the heart of the city.

The cathedral is the smallest building on one side of the square, don’t be confused by the big one, that’s San Francisco. It is the one with the baroque façade unfinished even that it took almost 80 years to be built. On one of the sides, you will see a sundial that it used to be in the center of the main square.

Visit the square during the day, perfect if you want to book some tours of the surroundings since almost all the tour operators are here.

But don’t forget to visit the square at night too when the cathedral lights up and the local people meet in the square to catch up for the day.

2. The streets of Cajamarca

Cajamarca streets are mostly clean, opposite of the rest of the streets in Peru. You will walk mostly on cobblestone enjoying the tile roofs and unique facades, it is charming walking in these streets, especially around the city center.

The city hosts national painting contests annually, so it is really common to see painters in the streets.

Most of the time is always something happening, an artist painting, a group of young people dancing, sellers… it is hard to get bored just walking around.

If you are driven by curiosity don’t hesitate to ask permission to go inside if a door is open, there are a lot of hidden shops, restaurants and beautiful patios around the city. If you get tired of walking just sit down and check how Cajamarca passes by, it is a colorful and diverse life.

When the sun goes down, the main square gets light up and becomes a meeting point for the locals, in the evenings it’s a good place to have fun and feel the local vibe.

Looking for more travel tips for South America? Check out some of the other posts to help you plan your next trip!

3. Rosquitas & Manjar blanco

Cajamarca has two of my favorite foods in Peru. One of them is their famous rosquitas and manjar.

The rosquitas are cookies, not sweet neither salty, but really addictive and the perfect partners for the manjar blanco. If you have a sweet tooth, the manjar would taste delicious, but just be aware that it is sweet, really sweet! Having a rosquita dip in manjar is my favorite activity.

In the street Jr. Amazonas, close to the main square and the central market, you can find a bunch of stores that sell different sizes of rosquitas bags and manjar besides other local products like cheese or yogurt.

Ask to taste a sample of a rosquita or cheese before choosing the best, they always have some open bags for clients.

Some of the brands like Campos have been making these cookies since 1928, it wouldn’t last so long if it wasn’t great!

 
 
 
 
 
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4. Apolonia Hill

Did I mention that walking in the streets of Cajamarca is really cool? but what about having a complete view of the city from above? You can, and you should, because it is possible from the Santa Apolonia viewpoint.

Cajamarca is located in a valley, so if you look up from the main square you will see a big cross, it’s impossible to get lost.

You climb some stairs and walk up to get to this hill, it is basically two blocks away from the main square. However, the altitude will make it a little bit breathtaking, but of course, it is worth it.

On the way up, you will find some vendors and a little chapel dedicated to Virgen de Fátima, from here you will have to pay a small entrance fee (less than one dollar) to reach the viewpoint.

And after some gardens, you will be rewarded with the incredible city view and the mountain surrounding it.

Just imagine that in the old days they used to worship the rain and study the stars from the hill. If you have a problem imagining it, look around, it is always one or two guys dress as Incas for “tourist pictures”.

5. Caldo verde soup

We already cover dessert in number three, but what about a proper meal? Just order green soup (“Caldo Verde”).

Its name doesn’t sound really appealing but it is tasteful and really comforting. The soup is made of grind herbs, the principal one being parsley, that’s where the green color is from. The soup also includes potato, an egg and soft cheese.

The locals consider the soup to have medicinal properties and it is proving to be a great remedy if you are feeling altitude sick or just to adapt better.

The best soups are the ones served on the markets. Actually, a good tip in general, the best and cheapest food is always found in the local markets.

A good Caldo Verde will always be served with fresh local bread, some cancha (toasted corn), lime and aji (spicy sauce). It’s like being reborn after finishing this Cajamarca dish.

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6. Visit the markets

Visiting, eating and buying food in the Peruvian markets should be on your bucket list for every city in the country. Markets are colorful, dirty, crowded, smelly, aromatics and the best price value for food.

There you can always find local dishes handmade cook that same day, all the stands had menus that came with a drink (with tons of sugar) and a small dessert of some kind.

Sit down in an empty chair and enjoy a hot meal that will give you strength for the rest of the day.

I’m not going to elaborate a lot about Peruvian cuisine. My advice is that you should try the food by yourself and find your favorite one. Also, if you ask, they are happy to make you a vegetarian option, just try to be specific and really flexible.

Cajamarca is surrounded by a fertile valley, making it the center of agricultural goods and well-known for its dairy products. In the markets, you will find unique fruits and vegetables, as well as a lot of “superfoods” that are being eaten here forever.

7. San Francisco Convent

The big temple with its own square downtown is the San Francisco church, even if you just contemplate from outside it is already worthy, it is the oldest church in town.

The cool thing is that the church also includes a sanctuary and a convent that you can enter from one of the sides.

San Francisco Convent houses the Museum of Religious Art, a fine collection of colonial oil paintings and catacombs.

The visit to the museum and the catacombs it’s only 5 soles (less than 2 dollars) and you will discover a lot of hidden rooms, paintings and antique objects, you can check how the original monk rooms were and even discover the interior cloister. I’m not a religious person but I think it is still worth a visit.

8. Churches

Cajamarca has a total of six churches of Spanish colonial style: San Jose, La Recoleta, La Immaculada Concepcion, San Antonio, the Cathedral and El Belen.

The architecture of the churches in Cajamarca is different from other Peruvian cities because of the climatic and geographic conditions. Cajamarca is in the north with a temperate climate; the colonial builders used available stone rather than the clay used in the coastal desert cities. 

You will come across these buildings just walking around the city, the ornamentation of their facades deserves some admiration, some of them being Cultural Heritage.

But if you decide to visit one, I recommend the Belen Church. The complex includes the church, the men’s hospital now a medical museum, and the women’s hospital now an archeological and ethnographic museum.

All of them taking up one whole block of the city. Inside the church, you can get an entrance that includes the visit of 5 buildings including all the complex and the Ransom Room that I talk about in the next point. For less than 3 dollars you can visit this complex and the entrance is valid for two days.

9. Inca history

Cajamarca breathes Inca history since it was a major center of the Inca Empire.

It was the place where the Spanish capture the Inca Atahualpa, the last of the independent Inca monarchs. Although the Spanish destroyed most of the Inca buildings, the city still preserves some of the most important places in Peru’s history and beautiful colonial buildings.

The fountain in the main square is actually where Atahualpa was tied before being kill.

Close to the main square you can visit El Cuarto del Rescate (“The Ransom Room”) where Atahualpa offered his captors an offer for his freedom: filling the room twice with silver and one with gold, although having complied with the offering, the Inca was brought to trial and executed, this event unleash the destruction of Inca civilization.

The Inca Baths

15 minutes away from downtown you can visit the Inca baths, now a spa that uses the water from thermal springs. Walking around five blocks from the main square you will be on Atahualpa Avenue, where you can take a local van to get to the baths.

The place is said to have been the favorite resort of the Inca Atahualpa. Nowadays, you can pay an entrance fee and spend the day in the hot springs, they said the minerals in these 70ºC (158ºF) waters are miraculous and can heal a lot of illnesses.

The Incas use these waters to recover after battles, Atahualpa and Pizarro meet here before being enemies, and inside the complex, you can visit the original room where the Incas use to bathe.

Alameda de los Incas

Lastly, if you really want to imagine how the Incas look like, you can check the Inca Boulevard (Alameda de los Incas), also 15 minutes from downtown.

Take a van to the City Coliseum to find out 14 Inca statues representing each one of the Incas that rule.

The cool thing is that the sculptor made each statue according to the documents of different historians. The place is in a public square and it can be visited at any time of the day.

10. It's people

Cajamarca has a great mix of different cultures, they preserve a strong indigenous culture mixed with other ones.

Cajamarca is one of the safest cities in the country and I never felt unsafe walking in their streets, unlike other cities in the country. In fact, people will help you unconditionally and are always proud to tell you the history of the area.

Cajamarca people, or cajamarquinos, are really interested in cultural activities, the city has a lot of theaters and cinemas compare to the average in the country, they host painting contests and book fairs, every time that I go I always find a new exhibition or a new event to attend to.

But the thing that I loved the most is their kindness and welcoming spirit, they genuinely will try to help you.

I have two godchildren living here that I love unconditionally, so I cannot be partially talking about people in the city, because I only felt welcome every time I stay in Cajamarca.

The best way to find out is to visit the city by yourself and experience the friendliness of their people.

How to get to Cajamarca?

Cajamarca is well communicated with Lima and other northern cities.

I only went once by plane, the fastest way since it takes less than an hour. The only airport in Cajamarca is really small but has daily flights from Lima and other main cities.

Except for that one time I always arrived by bus. From Lima there are a lot of company options, it is an overnight ride of around 15 hours. It can get long but I’m used to traveling by bus a lot and it is definitely the cheapest option.

To choose the most suitable bus for you I will recommend going to Red Bus, they also have their web in English and you can find most of the transport companies here. If you don’t mind spending a little bit more, there are VIP options with more comfortable and spacious sits, and still cheaper than flying.

Most of the companies will include some meals, blankets and at least one movie, be aware that at some point in the ride the bus will become smelly and that’s part of every bus ride.

One hour before arriving in Cajamarca, the road becomes really curvy and it is time to take a pill if you get car sick fast, and also time to get your altitude pill if you need it. It is a narrow road too, but the only one to get to the city, so every size of transport drives here, don’t be surprised to get stuck on the edge by another bus or a truck.

Don’t get discouraged by all of this, it is part of the experience and it sounds worst than it is, just be prepared with these recommendations.

 

Have you been to Cajamarca? Do you have other things you love about the city? I would love to know, leave a comment.
 

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