Updated January 24, 2014.
The citizens of Tarapoto, Peru, have a good excuse for taking life at a relaxed pace. Quietly baking in the heat of the high-jungle sun, the town and its inhabitants go about their business with minimal fuss, buzzing around on motorbikes and mototaxis. The lack of in-your-face tourist promotion may leave new arrivals wondering what there is to do, but dig a little deeper and you will find a good mix of cultural and natural attractions.
Tarapoto is the largest settlement in the San Martin department of Peru. The town itself has a population of approximately 66,000, but the wider urban area includes the districts of Morales (22,500) and Banda de Shilcayo (27,200). Tarapoto is the main commercial and transport hub in San Martin – since the town’s foundation in 1782, the immediate surrounding area has undergone extensive clearing for agricultural use.
Tarapoto is certainly not the place for colonial architecture and pretty cobbled streets. The main square is large but lacks any real charm, and bare brick walls and tin roofs abound. There are a handful of attractions within the town, but most of the main draws are dotted throughout the surrounding area.
Museo Regional Universidad Nacional de San Martin – Tarapoto’s small and slightly peculiar museum is located just off the main square on Jr. Maynas 177 (underneath the Universidad Nacional building). The displays are eclectic and worth a visit, especially considering the S/.2 (nuevo sol) entrance fee.
Tabacalera del Oriente – A must-see destination for cigar aficionados, the Tabacalera del Oriente is arguably Tarapoto’s most overlooked jewel. Get there early in the morning to watch the 30 or so female workers hand rolling the region’s finest cigars (many of which are exported to the U.S. and Europe). Entrance is free, but it is customary to buy something in return for a relaxed guided tour. Ornate boxes of fine cigars are on sale for bargain prices (Jr. Martinez de Compagñon 1138).
Petroglyphs of Polish – The petroglyphs of Polish are located about five miles from Tarapoto. Tucked away at the side of a bumpy road, this fascinating archaeological site receives surprisingly few visitors. The site’s “caretaker” doubles as a guide of sorts; there is no entrance fee, but a tip is customary.
Cataratas del Ahuashiyacu – There are plenty of waterfalls in the hills surrounding Tarapoto, but none are as well-publicised as the Cataratas del Ahuashiyacu. A standard tourist destination, the impressive waterfall sits up in the hills above Tarapoto, a short ride from town. A picturesque jungle trail leads from the roadside to the fall – take a dip in the chilly plunge pool to cool down after the walk.
Cataratas de Huacamaillo – If you prefer trekking to your waterfalls, take a trip to the Cataratas de Huacamaillo from the village of San Antonio de Cumbaza (about 11 miles from Tarapoto). The scenic one-hour trail runs along the banks of the Rio Cumbaza before penetrating deeper into the jungle towards the cool and shady waterfall. You’ll need to find yourself a guide in San Antonio de Cumbaza.
The town of Lamas and the lakeside settlement of Sauce provide more attractions within easy reach of Tarapoto – these will be covered in separate posts.
Eating in Tarapoto
Budget backpackers will find plenty of cheap set-lunch menús in Tarapoto, but standards vary greatly. For a more reliable but more expensive feast, try one of the following:
El Pollo Marino – A good, central place for lunchtime ceviche, El Pollo Marino is a popular eatery with a wide variety of fish-based dishes (Jr. Grau 182 – a couple of blocks from the main square).
Caja Criolla – Superb pork and chicken (Jr. Rioja 328).
El Norteño – For truly awesome Cantonese chicken down in La Banda de Shilcayo district (Jr. Santa María N° 246, half a block from La Banda’s Plaza de Armas).
Real Grill – A tediously obvious choice right on the main square, Real Grill is nonetheless a good place to sit and watch the world go by. Food and service can be hit and miss, but the general standard is okay (the pork, at times, is exceptional – and the salads are immense). They also make good Pisco sours (Plaza de Armas a.k.a Plaza Mayor 237).
La Collpa – Not cheap, but one of the best places in town for regional fish dishes. The menu also includes some interesting meat dishes such as venison and picuro (a large rodent also known as the lowland paca). The views down into the valley below provide an atmospheric dining experience (Circunvalaciòn 164).
Drinking and Dancing in Tarapoto
The most central drinking strip in Tarapoto is along the calle de las piedras (block two of Jr. Lamas, a few blocks up from the main square), a cobbled street that’s home to an ever-increasing number of bars. Stonewasi (Lamas 222) is a popular institution and a good place to kick start your night. Then there’s Suchiche Cafe Cultural across the street, a relaxed place to eat and drink (but not really my kind of scene).
For my kind of scene — drinking, talking, music, more drinking — come to the Huascar Bar (Jr. Lamas 244, opposite Suchiche). This is my wife’s little bar, so I’m hugely biased, but it has good music, reasonably priced beer (as well as whisky, rum, tequila, Baileys…) and a mixed crowd of friendly locals and expats.
Later on you should think about taking a mototaxi down to the Morales district. Here lies disco-central, with a number of big and boisterous venues lining the side of the road. The Anaconda Discoteck (Jr. San Martin 580; anaconda.com.pe) is a good option with a mixed crowd and a lively atmosphere. If Anaconda doesn’t look too hot, check out the nearby Macumba Latin Grill (grill by day, classy dancing joint by night). The Bunker and Estación discos are also on hand – take your pick.
Tarapoto Hotels and Hostels
Tarapoto is short on typical backpacker hostels, but there are plenty of affordable guesthouses and hotels.
Hotel San Antonio – Simple and central, Hotel San Antonio is a decent option for budget backpackers. Despite the lack of dorm rooms and bunk beds, the place has a distinctly relaxed and hostel-like atmosphere. A single room costs S/.30 per night (approx. $11); double rooms and matrimonial rooms cost S/.40 per night (Jr. Jiménez Pimentel 126).
Totti Alojamiento – Located a couple of blocks from the main square, Totti Alojamiento is a friendly guesthouse staffed by young and helpful Tarapotinos (and a slightly stern female owner). Rooms range from S/.40 to S/.60 per night. The same street is home to four or five more guesthouses of similar quality, making it a good option if you are arriving in Tarapoto without a reservation (Jr. Alegría de Morey 251).
La Patarashca – Rustically sophisticated, La Patarashca is a comfortable and charming guesthouse/hotel in the town centre. A single room will set you back S/.50 per night (S/.90 for a double; S/.120 for a triple) but the extra cost is worth it if you want a more memorable accommodation experience (Jr. San Pablo de la Cruz 362; lapatarashca.com).
Getting to Tarapoto – Flights and Overland
There are three or four scheduled flights between Tarapoto and Lima each day, some of which go via Pucallpa. LAN and StarPeru also have regular flight to Iquitos. Tarapoto’s small airport lies just on the outskirts of town.
The bus trip to Lima is an epic 28-hour voyage (in good conditions). From Lima, buses head up the coast to Trujillo and onto Chiclayo before cutting inland to Pedro Ruiz (get out here for buses to Chachapoyas), Moyobamba and then Tarapoto. Movil Tours is the best bus company operating along the Chiclayo to Tarapoto route (they also have direct departures from Lima to Tarapoto). The road south from Tarapoto heads down to Tingo Maria – the buses along this route are not recommended, so consider going with a shared taxi company such as Pizana Express (daily departures, 12-14 hours).
If you want to head to Iquitos by boat (4 days approx), first make the two-hour trip by land to Yurimaguas. Here you can arrange passage along the Río Huallaga, which connects with the Río Marañón before heading all the way to Iquitos.
More Tarapoto Information
For more information about things to do in Tarapoto, accommodation options and general happenings, head over to my other blog, Tarapoto Life. As the name suggests, the site is all about Tarapoto, Peru (where I’ve been living for five years and counting…).