CHICLAYO - MOYOBAMBA
If you're in Chiclayo, standing in awe at the Lord of Sipan Tomb, you're just at the beginning of a tale of treasurable sights.
Hop on the bus and head east to reach the trailhead to Peru's largest waterfalls (Catarata Gocta) in San Pablo (upper falls) and then to Cocachimba (lower falls).
Visit the ancient fortress of Kuelap in Chachapoyas, the largest stone structure in South America, using more brickwork than the Great Pyramid.
Get off in Rioja for the closest access to the spectacular Alto Mayo Forest with incredible valley and river hikes.
In and around Moyobamba, don't miss the orchid epicenter Jardin Botanico San Francisco inside the city itself and the Waqanki Center 2km outside of town; some of Peru's best hotsprings Termales de San Mateo, and two popular area waterfalls, Lahuarpía and Paccha.
The southern frontier of Ecuador is where I find my bliss! Most travelers stop going west from Loja at the airport town, Catamayo, just short of opening themselves to a beautiful journey by bus through the uplands.
After you get your fill of music, chocolate, and coffee in Loja, yes, go to Catamayo, but not for the airport, silly! The views around Catamayo are breathtaking, especially if you go up to the Mirador of the Cross to see the whole valley. There are some spooky cool places here too, full of legends, like the Chiriguana Cave where in the old days people came to make pacts with the devil, or the Chichaca tunnel, made by the Incas for traveling, but full of ghosts!
To take the Sucre to Yacuiba route is for the truly adventurous who don't mind bumps and dirt. The reward is stepping back into terrain similar to the American "wild west", even though in Bolivia it would be called the wild east, where modern civilization has not yet perturbed nature or culture.
There is only one company that will venture the route with you, Andes Bus Turismo, which leaves 6:30 pm daily, so don't miss it. You'll leave Sucre going first to Tarabuco, home of a great farmer's market selling everything from food to textiles and everything hand made, a very festive atmosphere. A side trip south from Tarabuco will take you to Icla, where you will be able to see an ancient fossilized area of dinosaurs, hike beautiful and prehistoric-looking canyons, and rushing rivers. Then go back to Tarabuco for the main route continuing east.
The road turns from paved to gravel or cobblestone from here, but that's what you came for, right? You head towards the picturesque Tomina (pictured here), forgotten by time in a beatiful Andean valley. Here is the perfect spot to get off the bus, put your backpack on, and just hike the country road from Tomina to Tarabuquillo
Surf's up, people! The Tumbes to Piura stretch is like a magnet for wave wanderlust, with wide expanses of pristine oceanfront and to-die-for sunsets, and the best ceviche you'll find anywhere!
Once you get over the border from Huaquillas or Mancora, Ecuador, Tumbes is the first major town just 30 minutes down the road and the beginning point of all Peruvian coastal journeys going south. If you're like me and love colorful architecture, make sure and check out one of my favorite cathedrals anywhere here in Tumbes I lovingly call "the clown's cathedral" for its happy painted lady face.
Splendid Caribbean sundowns are the trademark of Colombia's northern panhandle and a favorite for saltwater-minded backpackers. This is the route so many take for fun in the sun and all the way east to the Venezuelan border.
By far, the most popular destination is really the first one, Parque Nacional Tayrona, a verdant and easily walkable forest that takes you to unmolested beachfront that solely caters to walkers, horeseback riders, and no cars. By hiking you first come to a pretty ritzy set of cabanas and restaurant, but you can also just keep walking west on the beach where you will come to Cabo San Juan, which has hammocks, outdoor showers, camping area, lockers, and a rustic but well-run cafeteria.