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.
El Mural (www.elmuralhostel.com) — I’ve met a lot of people who’ve stayed here, including friends, and they generally seem to love the place. It’s a sociable place to stay but without being a party hostel. It’s located in a quiet street about a mile from the Plaza de Armas.
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.
Kiru Sushi — If you’re craving makis, then give this place a go. Sushi snobs might find it not quite up to standard, but I thought it was pretty good. Jr. San Martin 937.
Primer Puerto — 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.
Pescados & Ajíes — Smaller than Primer Puerto, but quite possibly better. Right now, this is perhaps my favorite cevicheria in Tarapoto. Prices are pretty good, too. Jr. San Martin 624.
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, Warmi (good for live music, just round the corner from Montañita) and Huascar Bar. Huascar is where my friends and I hang out, so feel free to join us at the weekend (ask for Tony). It’s a more affordable option than Stonewasi and La Montañita, so good for backpackers and locals who want to drink without blowing the weekly budget. For a more romantic drinking experience, try nearby El Artesano (Manco Capac 532) which has great views across La Banda de Shilcayo (the district below Tarapoto).
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. Anaconda is arguably the most popular these days, and it’s safe and reasonably fun. One spot that gets lively and has a nice atmosphere is Bechilinos, which is a short walk from Anaconda. If you’re looking for something a bit more rough and ready, try Mega Estación, which gets very lively but attracts a few dodgy characters, so be a little more careful. These places are normally free to enter unless there’s a special event taking place. 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 and coming back from somewhere like Mega. 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.
Car rental in Tarapoto:
I’ve never rented a car in Tarapoto, but a friend of mine recommends Amazon Car Rental. You can contact them through their Facebook page.
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.
Hi Tony, great guide. I am tryingto find out how I can get form Tarapoto to the Yambrasbamba district. I think there is a bus that goes to Chachapoyas along the 5N, but its nit clear if a: I can get off along the route and b: if buses are currently running. Are you able to advise? Thanks in advance!
Just saw your page while searching to explore Northern Peru. I am from Australia and just came back from Amazon Boat trip. I am planing to go to Kuelap from Liam. I have about 5-6 days. Do you think it is enough time. I am thinking to fly to Tarapoto and take bus to Chachapoyas. Is this the only way? Any other recommendations ? Staying Chachapoyas 1 night is enough? I was thinking to take a 3-4 days tour but could not find it. Most of them 5 days including Amazon which I have been and do not have enough time. So I decided to myself. Any quick response will be appreciated because i am going book tomorrow flight to Tarapoto.
Hi Hannah. Sorry if this reply is too late. You can fly from Tarapoto to Chachapoyas, which will save you some time. I’d recommend staying at least two night in Chachapoyas so you have time to see Kuelap and Gocta (and there’s a lot more to see there, so maybe three of four days if possible). You can easily arrange tours in Chachapoyas, so you don’t need a three or four day package. Just go to one of the agencies on the main square and arrange your tour for that day (or the next day). Let me know if you have any more questions. Thanks, Tony.
The swimming spots mentioned inside the Cordillera Escalera Conservation Area, because of the jungle and so, are they any dangers – snakes, other predators-wise?
Snakes and spiders are potential hazards, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll have any problems while around the pools or swimming. You’re more likely to come close to a snake while walking along the trails, but they normally go away as soon as they hear you coming. So it’s not really something to worry about. Thanks, Tony.
I just came across this website and your wonderful travel tips for Tarapoto. I had no idea of its existence until I started researching the sites in the Chachapoyas area. We are interested in staying in the Gocta area for about 5f-6 days- perhaps at the Gocta Andes Lodge, but will likely fly into Tarapoto.
Although the Gocta Lodge offers tours which include airport pick-up, we are pretty independent travelers and would like to rent a car in Tarapoto, if it makes sense – i.e. it is safe and relatively easy to drive around this region. But I have not been able to find a car rental company at the airport or in Tarapoto. Can you recommend any? We would use it to drive from Tarapota to Gocta and to archaelogical sites like Kuelap and Leymebamba and Karajia. Now that we have read more about it, we might also do some exploring around Tarapoto too, if we can find a car at a reasonable rental rate. Does this make sense?
Can you help us?
Hi Christina. Car rental isn’t common in Tarapoto (or in Chachapoyas, as far as I know). You could try contacting these guys to see if they’re still in business: https://www.facebook.com/CarRentalTarapoto/ That’s the only car rental company I know of around here. If you do manage to rent a car in Tarapoto, then it’s safe enough to go exploring — although there is a lot of rain at the moment, which can lead to road blockages. If you then drive to Chachapoyas (7 or 8 hours I think) then youll probably have to drive back to Tarapoto to return the car. But yeah, the tricky part is actually finding a car to rent. I’ll ask around again and let you know if I can come up with some more options. Thanks, Tony.
Thanks so much, I have reached out to the car rental agency you suggested. Meanwhile, we are planning to visit the Kuelap-Chachapoyas, Lemebamba, Karajia, Gocta region in late June or ear;y July. Will it be dry season then? Are the roads in this area navigable then? Are roads paved between the main archaeological sites?
WE will return the car to Tarapoto and so may spend a couple of days there. I am a chocoholic and would love to visit a cacao plantation – any thoughts on that too.
Many thanks for your goldmine of information
The roads are paved and generally in pretty good condition between the sites you mention, and June/July is in the dry season, so you should be fine (watch out for occasional potholes). In Tarapoto, you can visit the Orquidea chocolate factory. It’s a fairly short tour and I don’t think you get a tour of the plantation, but it’s worth looking into. Otherwise it should be easy enough to arrange a tour of a plantation somewhere. I’ll ask around about that and let you know if I hear anything. Thanks, Tony.
Thanks again Tony> That’s so helpful!
Hello Tony. I recently visited eastern Peru for 2 weeks in search of species of reptiles and amphibians to photograph, and will be returning in January for 3 more weeks. I had communicated with Mark at Understory Enterprises on some good sites in the Tarapoto area that I visited and to which I plan on returning during my next trip. However, I am wondering more about access to and hiking trails in the Cordillera Escalera conservation area. During my first trip, I accessed it along various parts of the Tarapoto-Yurimaguas highway, but there were no hiking trails (aside from the short ones that provided access to the waterfalls). Is the road to which you are referring above with the trails the same one due north of Tarapoto along which the Alto Shilcayo conservation area is also located, and if so, does it too have hiking trails? Lastly, does the road just to the west that goes by Mirador Palmiche also have trails off of it, or does anyplace else in that general area have hiking trails? Thanks.
Hi John. The main trekking trails that I know of are in the Cordillera Escalera Conservation Area, and to the various waterfalls around Tarapoto. Then there are plenty of other trails leading all over the place, but they’re not signposted or anything, they’re just the trails that the local farmers use. I’ve no idea if the road that goes by Mirador Palmiche has trails off it. You’d really have to go take a look, or find a local guide who knows that area. If you need more info when you arrive, get in touch and I’ll see if I can put you in contact with someone. Thanks, Tony.
Hi Tony, i have been searching information for going to Laguna Azul from Tarapoto without a tour but only very limited info. Do you know where excatly in Tarapoto i can take the combi to Laguna Azul? We wish to head to take the combi once we land at Tarapoto airport.
Hi Louise. I think there are a few different paraderos where you can find combis to Sauce/Laguna Azul. I know for sure that there’s one on the edge of the Banda de Shilcayo district of Tarapoto as you head out on the Fernando Belaunde Terry road (a mototaxi can take you there for three or four soles). You’ll find a few companies at this paradero/terminal that go to Sauce. If you take a look at this map, it’s pretty next to the Mitsubishi Dealer marked on the map. https://www.google.com/maps/place/Tarapoto/@-6.4982304,-76.3547128,17.74z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x91b0a08d45de2063:0xdc027cb4043f446c!8m2!3d-6.4824784!4d-76.3726891
I’m now living in Moyobamba teaching English. I have visited Tarapoto, but I realize now that I will have to come back.
I just found your site and I’m enjoying exploring it.
Hi Amy. Let me know if you want to meet up next time you’re in Tarapoto. My friends and I hang out at my bar here; send me an email via the contact form (or message me on Facebook) if you want to have a drink when you’re in town. Cheers, Tony.
Plan to be in Tarapoto in July 2019, Whats the location of the bar ? thanks
Hi William. Huascar bar is at Lamas 244, a couple of blocks from the main square. Cheers, Tony.
Oh wow, I didn’t know you could teach English in the backcountry of Peru.