Tarapoto Travel Guide
Located on the eastern slope of a wide river valley, the high-jungle city of Tarapoto was a sleepy backwater town until the completion of the Carretera Marginal de la Selva (Jungle Highway) in the late-1960s. By the mid-1970s, this overland connection through Moyobamba and onto the coast had turned Tarapoto into a thriving settlement, and one that would soon become one of the key agricultural regions in Peru.
Tarapoto is now the dominant city in the San Martín Region of northern Peru, both economically and in terms of tourism. But don’t expect the jungle to be right on top of you in this sweltering city: Decades of agricultural development have seen rice fields and other plantations dominate the areas immediately surrounding the city. That said, it doesn’t take long at all to get away from the concrete walls, tin roofs and mototaxi buzz of Tarapoto and into beautiful landscapes of rolling hills and jungle-covered mountains spilling out their silvery waterfalls.
Note: I’ve been living in Tarapoto since 2009.
Things to Do in Tarapoto
Despite its position as the main tourist hub in San Martín, Tarapoto is still well off the typical tourist radar. And, to be honest, local authorities have done a lazy job — at best — of promoting all that Tarapoto has to offer. That, however, has its benefits for more adventurous travelers, who can come to Tarapoto and explore attractions independently (or with small local tour operators) without the annoyances — and crowds — associated with far more well-trodden attractions in more popular cities.
The city itself harbors few tourist attractions, apart from restaurants and a nationally-renowned nightlife. There’s the tiny Museo Regional de la Universidad Nacional de San Martín, which houses a few oddities both natural and manmade. But for me, Tarapoto’s most interesting urban attraction is the Tabacalera del Oriente, quite possibly the finest cigar “factory” in Peru. It’s all hand-rolled, and watching the process — and inhaling the sometimes overpowering vapors spilling off the tobacco — is fascinating. If you like cigars, the Tabacalera is a must-see; and if you don’t, it’s still an interesting one-hour tour.
Heading out of town is where Tarapoto really shines as a tourist destination. Numerous waterfalls tumble down through the surrounding jungle landscapes, most famously Ahuashiyacu Waterfall, a short ride out of town. Other waterfalls include Huacamaillo, Pucayaquillo and Pishurayacu, a bit further away from the city and sometimes requiring hour-long hikes through beautiful scenery.
For more hiking, head to the Cordillera Escalera Conservation Area, which sits right on Tarapoto’s doorstep. The entrance to this lush jungle park is just a 15-minute mototaxi ride from the city center. Pay the S/10 entrance fee and head on in to explore miles of different trails, enchanting swimming spots and numerous waterfalls. Go early so you don’t run out of daylight and be careful if the river is high. One of the main trails involves crossing the river more than 15 times, and the trail itself is hard to follow. Alternatively, take a few beers and just swim in the first major pool — a great way to pass a few hours.
On the way to the park you’ll pass Centro URKU (facebook.com/CentroURKU), an excellent animal rescue center that’s well worth a visit. The S/10 entrance fee includes a guided walk to see the various birds and animals, all of which will eventually be released back into the wild.
Another popular natural attraction typically visited as a day-trip from Tarapoto is Laguna Azul. This extensive lake (roughly three miles in length) is a popular spot for boating, and the lakeside village of Sauce is easy to explore on foot. Accommodation options range from cheap and rustic to the more upscale El Sauce Resort. Allow an hour and a half to two hours for the trip from Tarapoto to Sauce, depending on your mode of transportation (car or combi/minibus) and the vehicle ferry to cross the Río Huallaga.
For a far closer natural swimming spot, head out to Laguna Venecia, a short ride outside of the city. This lagoon is a popular spot for families, with boats for the kids and a decent restaurant. Some weekends you can also watch motocross competitions at the nearby dirt track (as a side note, and if you’re interested in motorsports, try to catch a motokar cross competition near Tarapoto, in which a pilot and copilot race around dirt tracks driving modified mototaxis, the three-wheel rickshaws you see all around town).
If you’re interested in archaeology and the history of the region, head out to the Petroglyphs of Polish, about five miles from Tarapoto. It’s not an extensive site by any means, and there’s really no tourism infrastructure; sometimes you’ll find a man at the site to show you around, sometimes you’ll find a man at the site who seems incredibly hung over and totally uninterested. Either way, the petroglyphs remain something of a mystery — are they maps of the local area, or portals to the underworld? — and the whole site has a certain enigmatic vibe of long-lost history.
Nearby villages worth visiting include Lamas, a historically-significant hilltop settlement with its own indigenous community. Oh, and a massive replica castle built 10 or so years ago by an Italian expat (whether you love it or hate it, the views from the top are stunning). A small archaeological site lies out in Pamashto near Lamas; it’s a beautiful spot with a round stone structure that aligns with the winter solstice. As a side note, the fields around the site are a prime harvesting area for magic mushrooms.
Then there’s Chazuta, a small town to the south east of Tarapoto (about 18 miles as the crow flies, significantly further by road). Chazuta is known for its ceramics and old funerary urns, as well as more waterfalls.
Tarapoto is also a popular base for wildlife spotters and biologists. Researchers and amateur enthusiasts come to watch and study birds, butterflies and a huge variety of beautiful frogs.
Where to Stay in Tarapoto
The hostel scene is still slightly stunted in Tarapoto, at least in terms of modern hostels for international backpackers. There are, however, plenty of affordable guest-house-style hospedajes and alojamientos dotted around. The city’s hotels have improved in recent years, but not spectacularly so. Nondescript hotels still dominate, many of which are OK but nothing special.
Tambo Andina (www.tamboandinahostel.com) — This is probably the best cheap hostel in Tarapoto I’ve seen so far. Pretty communal areas, clean rooms and friendly owners. Good location, too. Rooms start at S/ 15 per person in the three-bed dorm with shared bathroom. Private rooms for around S/ 45.
Sol de Selva (www.soldeselvaperu.com) — A family-run hotel/guest house with a friendly atmosphere, comfortable rooms and central location.
La Patarashca (www.lapatarashca.com) — Room rates at La Patarashca have gone up in recent years, but it’s still a good option in the center of town with pretty communal spaces, plenty of greenery and a pool. Single S/ 90; matrimonial/double S/ 140.
Tucan Suites Aparthotel (www.tucansuites.com) — The first four-star accommodation in Tarapoto, Tucan Suites is a bright, modern and sophisticated hotel surrounding a central swimming pool. Located in the less hectic La Banda de Shilcayo district — but still just five minutes from the center — Tucan Suites is, quite probably, the best hotel in Tarapoto. And one of the most expensive. Standard suites S/ 329; panoramic suite S/ 499.
Restaurants in Tarapoto
The number of good restaurants in Tarapoto has increased greatly in the last few years, and visitors have a good amount of options to choose from.
Chifa Canton — My favorite chifa in Tarapoto. Try the tay pa especial con chaufa from the daytime menú (S/ 15.50 with wanton soup starter). Jr. Ramon Castilla 140.
Caja Criolla — Chunks of perfectly cooked crispy-crackling pork roasted in a caja china. Jr. Rioja 328.
Primer Puerto — Probably my favorite place to eat in Tarapoto, this cevicheria singlehandedly changed my opinion about generally not eating ceviche so far from the coast. Plenty of non-fishy options, too. Jr. Ramirez Hurtado 461.
El Rincón Sureño — The best place in Tarapoto for steaks and other slabs of meat. Jr. Augusto B. Leguia 458.
El Norteño — Good all round, especially for dishes from the north coast of Peru. But I go to El Norteño for just one dish: the pollo cantones con arroz chaufa (Cantonese chicken with fried rice). Seriously, it’s sublime. Jr. Santa María 246, La Banda de Shilcayo.
Street grills — Tarapoto is a great city for street grills, most of which open when the sun goes down. Typical options include large pieces of on-the-bone marinated chicken and Tarapoto classics such as chorizo, cecina (Peruvian-style smoked pork) and tacacho (a tasty ball of mashed-up green plantain).
Nightlife in Tarapoto
When I’m traveling around Peru and I say to a Peruvian guy that I live in Tarapoto, the ensuing conversation unfolds like this: 1) “Ah, I hear the women are beautiful in Tarapoto!” 2) “It’s a great city for a party, yeah?” 3) “But it’s really hot, right?” To all of these I respond in the affirmative.
Due to the sometimes oppressive heat, there’s never a bad time for a cold bottle of beer in Tarapoto, Peru. It’s a fun place for a night out, whether you stay in the bars or head out to the discotecas or, more likely, both.
The main bar strip in downtown Tarapoto is on and around block two of Jr. Lamas, just two blocks from the Plaza de Armas (main square). This street is known as the Calle de las Piedras. Here you’ll find popular bars like Stonewasi, La Montañita, and Huascar Bar. Huascar (co-owned by me) is the cheaper option, but Stonewasi and La Montañita are more elegant (I like my bars cheap and cheerful, so that budget backpackers and locals can drink without blowing the weekly budget).
At around 11 p.m., people who want to dance start heading down to the Morales district where nearly all of Tarapoto’s big discotecas are located. These include Pachanga, Anaconda, Aqua and more. Most charge an entrance fee (normally around $10 at the weekend, more for special events). It takes about 10 minutes by mototaxi to get from the center of Tarapoto to the nightclub strip.
The vibe within the discotecas is normally welcoming, fun and safe — although the music sometimes sucks. Be careful when choosing a mototaxi to return to your hostel or hotel after exiting a club, especially if you’re on your own. Mototaxi drivers sometimes pray on drunk revelers leaving the clubs in Morales, taking them a short distance before turning down a side road to meet up with awaiting accomplices. Then you get robbed. Best tactic: when you leave a club, don’t let a mototaxi driver choose you (some can be very enthusiastic); instead, always select a driver who isn’t trying too hard to get your attention.
Getting to and Around Tarapoto
Travel to Tarapoto by air:
Tarapoto’s Guillermo del Castillo Paredes Airport has multiple daily flights to and from Lima (LAN, Star Peru, Peruvian Airlines), as well as flights to Iquitos, both starting at around $100. A mototaxi from Tarapoto’s airport to the city center costs S/ 7 or S/ 8.
In 2016, the regional SAETA airline began subsidized flights between Tarapoto and Chachapoyas, which is excellent news for travelers. Peruvians and legal residents of Peru can fly between Tarapoto and Chachapoyas (home to Kuelap Fortress, Gocta Waterfall and more) for just S/ 60. Foreign tourists, however, have to pay S/ 220, which is quite expensive for a 25-minute flight. You might have to book a few days in advance as the seats fill up quickly; there are daily departures, but the Piper Cheyenne III prop planes used by SAETA only hold nine passengers.
Travel to Tarapoto by bus or car:
It’s a long ride from Lima to Tarapoto, with two options available. You can take a bus up the north coast of Peru to Chiclayo and then cut inland through to Moyobamba and then to Tarapoto. This is the standard route currently used by most of the major bus companies, including Movil Tours and Civa. This route takes about 28 hours.
Alternatively, you can head directly from Lima to Tingo Maria (passing through Huánuco), avoiding the north coast altogether. From Tingo Maria, you can take a shared car (I recommend Pizana Express) north to Tarapoto, taking about eight hours if the road is in good condition. In theory, this route should be quicker, let’s say 22 hours. But you’ll probably have to do it in at least two stages, which could slow things down. The TEPSA bus company was running nonstop along this route — all the way from Lima to Tarapoto via Tingo Maria — advertised at 24 hours duration. Always check to see if this is available, as it’s a great alternative option.
Other overland destinations near Tarapoto include Moyobamba (about two hours by colectivo taxi or bus) and Yurimaguas. Yurimaguas is the embarkation point for boats to Iquitos. The road from Tarapoto to Yurimaguas is spectacular in parts, but the twists and turns through the mountains can easily make you queasy. The trip takes about an hour and a half and costs between S/ 10 and S/ 20 (minibus or colectivo taxi).
Getting around in Tarapoto:
You’ll see mototaxis buzzing around everywhere in Tarapoto — you’ll hear them, too, as they account for much of the city’s noise pollution. Like them or loathe them, they’ll take you anywhere in the city for between S/ 2 to S/ 6 (more at night).
For places further away, such as Lamas or Sauce, you can hop in to a colectivo taxi. You’ll need to find the correct paradero, or taxi terminal, that serves each destination — locals, especially, mototaxi drivers, can tell you where these are.
Safety in Tarapoto
Tarapoto is a safe city. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it’s one of the safest cities in Peru.
Snatch theft is a problem as it is anywhere in Peru, so never leave your stuff lying around on table tops or bar tops, especially bags, wallets, laptops, smart phones etc.
And, as mentioned above in the nightlife section, be a little careful when exiting clubs in the Morales district, especially if you’re alone. Dodgy mototaxi drivers can easily take a drunk passenger down a side street to be robbed by awaiting accomplices. This isn’t common, but it does occur occasionally.
Internet connections in Tarapoto are surprisingly good, especially for what is quite a geographically isolated city. Internet cafes are dotted all over the place, and many cafes, bars and restaurants have free WiFi. You can read more about internet access in Peru here.
You’ll find banks and ATMs dotted around the Plaza de Armas and immediately surrounding streets. Reliable money changers sit outside the BCP just off the square on Jr. Maynas.
Hot. Sweaty. And hot. The annual average high is around 32 °C with an average low of 19 °C, with a mean average temperature of 25 °C. Moderate precipitation occurs on an annual basis, with a rainy season running from February through May, although this can sway from year to year.
Festivals and Events
June through August is the liveliest period of year in Tarapoto. The biggest event of the year is the Festival of San Juan, a huge party celebrated throughout most of the Peruvian jungle on June 24. Tarapoto celebrates its Fiestas Patronales and tourist week in the first half of July. More parties take place on and around August 20 to mark the foundation of the city.
All photos in this post belong to Tony Dunnell and New Peruvian.