Introduction to Northern Peru (Peru is not only the Inca!)
The northern part of Peru has always been overshadowed by the southern part with Cusco, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, though several grand civilizations much older than the Inca thrived here. The largest city in pre-Inca South America, for example; or unearthed here were some of the world’s richest tombs that gained the area the nickname ‘Peru’s Valley of the Kings.’
Travelers who would like to spend some time on the Peruvian beaches, or are on their way up to Ecuador, often travel by road – the Pan-American Highway covers the whole coast. It’s a long journey that can be split into smaller sections with stops at several pre-Inca ruins (the town of Chimbote for the Sicán culture, the towns of Chiclayo or Trujillo for the Moche and Chimú cultures), or surf beaches (Huanchaco, Capo Blanco, Mancora).
The gateway to most archaeological sites in the area is the city of Trujillo, that has a regular air service with Lima. The flight time is 1 hour.
The city of Trujillo and the coastal civilizations
Trujillo is the third largest city in Peru ( after Lima and Arequipa) with a population of almost 1,000,000 people.
It is named after the home city of Francisco Pizarro, one of the most hated Spaniards in the world. To show him, it is also the first city in the country to gain independence from Spain (December 1820).
The city is situated on the Pacific Ocean in the Moche Valley, home to two great pre-Columbian cultures of Chimú and Moche, and their capitals Chan Chan, the largest adobe city in the world, and the temples of the Sun and Moon, the largest adobe pyramids in Peru.
These two must-visit sites can be visited together on one-day guided tours (signage at the sites is very limited). If traveling independently, the Moche archaeological site is situated 4 miles from Trujillo, the archaeological site of Chan Chan 3 miles; taxis should cost about S/15 one way. Guides can be hired at the entrance. A really cheap way to go is to take a local colectivo (van); they cost about S/2 one way.
What were the ancient cultures of Northern Peru?
The ancient cultures of Northern Peru had a lot in common – they were located in coastal fluvial valleys, they were highly developed societies with monumental architecture, effective irrigation systems, agriculture and fishing, and produced very elaborate metal and gold work, pottery and textiles. (And have been extensively looted since the conquest, a problem, that persists in many locations up to today.)
The oldest of these cultures was the Moche civilization with its Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon that flourished in the valley from about AD 50 to 800. It left behind some of the world’s richest tombs.
Succeeding the Moche culture was the Chimú civilization. Preceding the Inca by some 1,000 years, it arose about 850 AD, and was for two centuries the chief state in Peru.
Then come the Sicán culture, the Chavín culture and the Chachapoyas, called the Warriors of the Clouds. These lived in the cloud forests in the neighboring Andean region until the 15th century, when they were incorporated into the expanding Inca empire.
Attributed to the Chachapoyas culture is the fortress of Kuelap, situated on a 10,000 feet high ridge that overlooks the Utcubamba valley. Measuring about 2,000 by 360 feet, the ruined citadel is surrounded by enormous walls, towering up to 66 feet high and constructed from gigantic limestone slabs.
Within the walls are hundreds of round stone houses, decorated with zigzag or diamond patterns, small carved animal heads, condor designs and intricate serpent figures.
One house would have held up to 8 people.
The Moche culture, their gold treasure and erotic pottery
The Moche culture was a mysterious, highly-sophisticated civilization that controlled the northern coast of Peru 2000 years ago, from about 100 to 800 AD.
The Moche built huge pyramids made of millions of mud bricks, and created an extensive network of aqueducts.
They were expert weavers and pioneers of metal-working techniques like gilding and soldering, that enabled to work gold, silver and copper, and to create extraordinary jewelry and artifacts.
The Moche capital was founded at the foothills of the pyramid-shaped hill of Cerro Blanco it partially copied.
It covered an area of 300 hectares, and took 600 years to complete. Two huge stepped huacas – the Pyramid of the Sun, or Huaca del Sol, and the Temple of the Moon, or Huaca de la Luna, were situated at its center. On the wide open plain between them, under a 10-foot layer of sediments, plazas, storehouses, canals, aqueducts, houses, workshop and graves were found, most of them looted.
These huacas are large platform structures that tower hundreds of feet above the valley floor, and are built of millions of adobe bricks.
They consisted of several levels that were connected by steep stairs, huge ramps and sloping walls, and served as temples, palaces and administrative centers. Most of Moche cities had two pyramids, one larger than the other.
Huaca del Sol measures 1,250 feet (380 m) in length and stands 135 feet (41 m) high, which makes it the tallest adobe structure of the Americas. It is composed of four levels, that were originally 160 feet (49 m) in height.
It is calculated that around 140 million sun-dried mud bricks were used in its construction, many of them retaining their maker’s mark, such as imprints of hands, feet, dots, crosses, etc.
There is an enormous cut on its west side made in 1602 by Spaniards looking for treasure. They diverted the small Moche river with the intention to break down the pyramid and loot the tombs inside. More than half the Huaca was washed away.
The chief deity of the Moche pantheon was Ai Apaec, worshipped as the creator god, protector of the Moche and provider of water, food and military triumphs.
Ai Apaec is represented in several ways – as a gigantic spider, ready to suck the blood from his victims; as a face with ferocious fangs, a jaguar headdress and snake earrings; or as a half-man/half-jaguar with one arm holding a sacrificial knife tumi and the other a severed head by the hair, a representation that earned him the nickname ‘Decapitator.’ Human sacrifices, especially of war prisoners, were offered to appease him.
Si, the moon goddess, was another supreme deity that controlled seasons and storms.
Overlooking the Pyramid of the Sun is the better-preserved Pyramid of the Moon. It measures 950 by 690 feet, and was built using some 50 million adobe bricks.
It is a large complex of three platforms and four open courts, that were built on top of one another every 100 years. The interior façade has exquisite murals along the length of it, with each successive layer having a frieze motif of its own.
When the Huaca was first constructed, these murals were painted in vibrant colors of black, bright red, sky blue, white and yellow, that despite roofing, have largely faded now.
Part of the murals were destroyed by looters who dug tunnels into its side, exposing these beautiful polychrome reliefs in the process.
The eastern platform was the site of human sacrifice rituals.
Dismembered bodies of 40 men under 30 years of age were found at the foot of the Huaca with marks on neck vertebrae, suggesting they had their throats cut.
Their limbs were ripped out, jaw bones missing from severed skulls.
Violence seems to have been a significant part of Moche society, as suggested by images on Moche ceramics of warriors in battles, decapitations and sacrifices.
The sacrifices may have been part of a ritual, that celebrated the rare occurrence of rain (probably associated with the El Niño weather pattern).
At about 550 AD, the Moche population resettled further north at the sites of Sipán and Pampa Grande. This sudden decline of Moche Empire and the abandonment of the capital are attributed to a season of torrential rains, provoked by an extreme case of El Niño.
Only Huaca de la Luna is accessible to visitors; Huaca del Sol is closed due to ongoing excavation work. The entrance fee is S/10.
Situated 900 feet away from the site is the Moche Temples Museum, that contains artifacts and pottery recovered from the site. The museum shows aspects of life, city and environment of the Moche culture. The entrance fee is S/5.
The erotic pottery
The Moche people are most known for their erotic ceramics, displayed in museums all over the world. The best collection is housed at the private Museo Larco in Lima.
Of the thousands of ceramic vessels that have been recovered, at least 500 display sexually explicit scenes of deities, skeletons, humans and animals, engaged in graphic sex.
The rest are left to everybody’s imagination.
The purpose of these erotic ceramics remains unknown.
The Lord of Sipán
The Moche culture is also closely associated with one of the world’s richest and most important archaeological discoveries in recent decades.
In 1987, a spectacular gold treasure ever found in the western hemisphere was unearthed inside the enormous complex of tombs in Sipán, Lambayeque Valley. Intact and untouched by thieves, the royal tombs, 14 in total, were filled with such a grandiose amount of gold, silver and semi-precious objects, that they gained Sipán the nickname ‘Peru’s Valley of the Kings.’
Two museums had to be built to accommodate all the uncovered artefacts.
The Museo de Sitio Huaca Rajada is the new, on-site museum opened in 2009, that displays items from the last unearthed burial. The entrance fee is S/8.
The items found during the 1987-2000 excavations, that represent the greatest discovery of gold artifacts in the Americas, are held in the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán, the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum.
This three-story, six-million-dollar building is shaped like a dark red Moche pyramid, under which the tombs were discovered. It was inaugurated in 2002, and is located in the nearby city of Lambayeque. The entrance fee is S/10. No pictures are allowed inside as the rights are owned by National Geographic.
The Chimú Empire and the biggest adobe city in the world
Succeeding the Moche culture was the Chimú Empire that arose about 850 AD and was for two centuries the chief state in Peru, until conquered by the Inca around 1470, fifty years before the arrival of the Spanish.
The empire stretched for 600 miles south of Ecuador down to central Peru, and it controlled about two-thirds of all agricultural land ever irrigated along the Pacific coast.
The Chimú built one of the most impressive cities in Pre-Columbian America called Chan Chan. It is the world’s largest mud-brick settlement.
Chan Chan covered an area of 12 square miles, and had a city center of 3 square miles. The city consisted of ten large, rectangular enclosures, or ciudadelas, surrounded by high, thick walls of 60 feet that give the complex the appearance of a fortress.
Within these units, various buildings were arranged in an open space, including pyramidal temples, funerary platforms, gardens, reservoirs, storage buildings and symmetrically arranged rooms. The rooms are U-shaped, and consist of three walls, a raised floor and a courtyard.
Beyond the 10 citadels were 32 compounds and 4 production sectors, that served for activities like textile weaving, metalworking and woodworking. Further north were extensive agricultural lands and irrigation systems.
Almost 100,000 people resided in Chan Chan in the 15th century. They were mostly workers who lived outside in quarters of less-durable construction, and served the monarch and privileged classes of craftsmen and priests.
The high friezes of the walled complex ‘Nik An’ are particularly well preserved – they represent fish swimming towards the north and the south, interpreted as the two currents that affect the Peruvian coast: that of Humboldt, cold and coming from the south, and that of El Niño, hot and coming from the north.
Although the city was established in one of the world’s bleakest coastal deserts where the average annual rainfall is less than a tenth of an inch, Chan Chan’s fields and gardens flourished. That was because of a network of inter-valley irrigation canals, and 50 feet deep, walk-in-wells that diverted water from the Moche river. Today, they are completely dried out.
After the Inca conquered the Chimú, Chan Chan fell into decline. By the time the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived around 1532, the city had been largely abandoned.
Both the Spaniards and the huaqueros, modern-day grave robbers, looted the place. An indication of the great Chimú wealth is seen in a 16th century list of looted items, worth the equivalent of nearly $5 million in gold today. Just a doorway melted down produced 1,100 pounds of gold.
Offerings played an important role in Chimú rites. A common object for offerings was the shell of the Spondylus shellfish (thorny oyster), that originates in the warm waters of Ecuador.
The shell was associated with sea, rainfall and fertility, and was highly valued. Because of its shape and red blood-like color, it represented death, sacrifice and ritual practices, as well as female reproductive body parts.
Gathering the shell was a difficult process, requiring divers to free-dive to depths of up to 160 feet and pry the shells off of rocks. The task is captured in many artifacts, such as bowls, earspools and textiles, that show a boat with sailors holding cords attached to divers in the water, who have stone weights suspended from them.
History’s largest child sacrifice
The Chimú practiced human and animal sacrifices that were probably related to the el Niño phenomena.
In 2011, another huge sacrificial site 500 years old was found, containing the bodies of over 269 children and 466 llamas. The children were between 5 and 14 years old, and included boys and girls.
Cut marks on their sternums and displaced ribs suggest that their chests were cut open, their ribs dislocated and their hearts removed.
The sacrificial llamas met the same fate.
It is believed that they were killed during a time, when a mega El Niño event was wreaking havoc on the Peruvian coast and the Inca were moving in on the Chimú.
Facing an agricultural and political collapse, the Chimú probably saw children as the most valuable sacrifice that could be made to appease the gods.
Llamas were a high form of offering as well because they were sources of transportation, food and fur.
A couple years earlier, in 1997, a grave of 200 bodies was discovered on the beach at Punta Lobos. It was concluded that the bodies belonged to a group of ancient fishermen, who – with their hands and ankles tied with rope behind their backs – were blindfolded and knifed straight into the heart. This giant human sacrifice ceremony was probably performed as a sign of gratitude of the Chimú to their sea god for helping them conquer the fishermen’s fertile valley in 1350 AD.
Located 1 mile away in the town of Huancacho is the Chan Chan museum, the Museo de Sitio Chan Chan.
The Chan Chan museum displays instruments, irrigation techniques and crops grown in the Moche Valley, as well as replicas of artifacts found at the archeological site and a maquette of Chan Chan. The entrance fee is S/10.
The Peruvian hairless dog
Lying around the sand by the sites keeping their bellies warm can be seen strange-looking, naked dogs.
The Viringo, also known as the Inca dog or the Peruvian Inca Orchid, is a breed of hairless hounds. They have an ancient history – they were kept as pets by the Chimú, Moche and Inca cultures as far back as 750 AD. Nowadays, they are a symbol of Peru and part of its national heritage.
Lacking the normal dog coat, and having warm skin, the Viringos were used as bed warmers for people with arthritis and respiratory problems; in some rural areas, people still tuck their feet under their hairless dogs.
Apart from that, the Viringos have a reputation for being clean and parasite-free, and for not causing allergic reactions in people.