The sweltering city of Tarapoto, located in the San Martin department of Northern Peru, sits in relative isolation surrounded by the densely vegetated hills of the high jungle.
Few foreign travelers stray this far off the classic Gringo Trail, despite the city’s growing popularity among vacationing Peruvians. The entire region lacks a modern tourist infrastructure, with many of Tarapoto’s potential tourist attractions falling well off the radar.
Tucked away in the densely vegetated hills above the city, the Ahuashiyacu Waterfall is Tarapoto’s most famous attraction. The towering waterfall plunges through the jungle into a chilly pool, accessible via a picturesque walkway that winds its way from the nearby road. Ahuashiyacu is located about eight miles from the city center -- mototaxis can take you there and back for anywhere between S/.10 to S/.20 per person (US$3.50 to $7).
The Huacamaillo Waterfall lies in the jungle near the village of San Antonio de Cumbaza, about 10.5 miles from Tarapoto. It’s a more adventurous option than Ahuashiyacu, requiring a one-hour trek from San Antonio. The trek isn’t too testing, but you will need to wade through a few stretches of river and walk up and down some steep valley-side steps.
The waterfall isn’t as impressive as Ahuashiyacu, but the isolated location and the lack of tourists makes it a memorable place for a swim in the plunge pool. You’ll need to find a guide in San Antonio’s main square (or you could get horribly lost).
Petroglyphs of Polish
History buffs will love the Petroglyphs of Polish. The site lacks any real infrastructure (and few locals or tourists seem to know about it), but the petroglyphs are an intriguing sight. Discovered in 1966, the designs include zoomorphic figures, strange patterns and what is believed to be a large map of the surrounding area. The precise origins of the petroglyphs remain a mystery, but they perhaps date to the Chanca and Pocra cultures, contemporaries of the Incas. The site is located about five miles from the city center.
Tabacalera del Oriente
Most of Tarapoto’s main attractions lie in the surrounding area. The Tabacalera del Oriente, however, is a real highlight found just a few blocks from the main square. The Tabacalera produces high quality hand-rolled cigars for domestic and foreign markets. Arrive early to watch the production process and take a tour of the storerooms. There is no entrance fee, but you should buy something before leaving -- the cigars are a bargain and the hand-painted cigar boxes make perfect souvenirs.
Tarapoto’s quirky little Museo Regional may not be overly sophisticated, but the museum has enough points of interest to warrant a short visit. Located at Jr. Maynas 177, just off the main square, the museum houses an eclectic mix of displays, covering everything from large jungle bugs to funerary urns. There’s enough on show for a leisurely hour of browsing, and the S/.2 (US$0.75) entrance fee leaves little room for disappointment.
Laguna Venecia is a small lagoon about four miles from Tarapoto. Despite being a regular feature on tour schedules and promotional pamphlets, there’s not much to see or do at the lake. There’s a basic restaurant with lakeside seating areas and small boats for hire, and it’s a decent spot for a stroll or a picnic. Beyond that, there’s little of note. If you like motocross, you might be able to watch a race at the nearby track (races take place every one or two months).
The town of Lamas, about 14 miles from Tarapoto, is a major attraction in its own right. The Pocras and Hanan Chancas first occupied the region following defeats against the Inca Empire to the west. The Spanish conquistadors later occupied the upper part of the hilltop settlement, forcing the native (and supposedly allied) inhabitants into a lower section. This section, called the Barrio Wayku, remains an indigenous, Quechua-speaking neighborhood. Lamas is one of the north’s cultural hotspots, well known for its religious festivals.
Chazuta is a small town with a big reputation for arts and crafts. The town’s small museum houses a good collection of ancient funerary urns, while the river port provides a good starting point for fishing expeditions. If you’re still yearning for more waterfalls, the three-leveled Tununtunumba falls are well worth a look. Chazuta is about a two-hour drive from Tarapoto on a clear road, but extensive (and protracted) roadworks continue to impede the route between the two towns.
The town of Sauce sits on the banks of Laguna Azul, one of the largest and most popular lakes in the region. It’s a relaxed place for taking a stroll along the lakeside, or you can hire a boat for an hour or two. Whether you swim or not is up to you; the locals don’t seem to mind the often murky, algae-ridden water. You can get to Sauce by shared taxi, minibus or tour. The scenic journey takes about one-and-a-half hours, including a vehicle-raft crossing of the wide Rio Huallaga.