Dear beaches in Northern Peru,
I hate you!
Traveling 400 miles looking for some sunshine, seafood, sparse playas, cocktails under palm trees and sunset horse rides on the beach, all I got was a London fog, a Bay Area drizzle and Cape Horn winds!
After weeks of crisscrossing the sun-burnt Andean peaks and swatting the mosquitos of the Amazon jungle, I think I deserved better!
The nerves it cost me trying to find in local stores a pair of stylish tankinis, or a more or less matching swimsuit, or, when really desperate, a flattering bathing suit for senior women!
All that for nothing!
Really, is this what the Pacific Ocean coast looks like – an ashy sea of hissing waves breaking up on the beach, a flat rocky desert with an occasional tree, a sky so faded it’s blending into earth’s surface, cement houses with no paint and plastic garbage dumped in dry riverbeds?
Being a European, going to the beach is a big deal. A real passion, if you want, like watching soccer or eating one of the 100 most popular local cheeses. Every summer, the continent goes through a migration of people relocating from countries north of the Alps to the picturesque beaches south of the Alps.
Purely and simply, I expected Spain but got Huanchaco, Chiclayo and Cabo Blanco.
They’re some of the small towns of northern Peru’s coastline known for surf breaks and beaches.
Perhaps Mancora, at the coast’s northernmost tip near the border with Ecuador where the Panama current keeps waters warmer and temperatures in their low 70s, will be more accommodating.
Never mind the ruins we actually came here for.
My mood reflecting the weather, it takes me a while to notice rows of bulky boats, lining the town’s beachfront that I drag my butt along. They have prows curving up like fancy slippers.
Used by local fishermen for thousands of years to transport their nets and catch, these caballitos de totora, “little reed horses,” are made from bundles of the same totora reed the Uros people of Lake Titicaca build their islands from. Said to be the world’s first surfboards, it seems it’s Peru, not Polynesia, that is the birthplace of surfing.
I look over the grey mass of water stretching out before me. A gust of wind smelling of fish blows into my face, followed by a spray of drizzle.
Bobbing up and down on the waves are two surfers, oars in their hands.
Trying to hitch a ride to Lima?
My mood lifts a bit when a big wave with a long face comes in and shuts down on them. The surfers disappear underwater, rolling in long somersaults and getting eventually sucked back out by a whitewater that slams hard into the beach.
“They’re absolutely unmaneuverable!“ cry out the two demasculated surfers, holding onto the 15 feet long and 80 pounds heavy beasts for dear life. Chewing sand, they hastily reposition their swimming trunks halfway down, and initiate a speedy retreat back to the safety of terra firma.
I laugh out loud – nothing improves your mood like other people’s misfortunes!
The day doesn’t seem so dreary any more.
The real reason we’ve travelled the 800 miles of the Peruvian desert coast between Lima and Ecuador are the half-eroded, crumbly mounds of indistinct shapes scattered around, the only things disrupting the drab monotony of the local landscape. If Mad Max jumped out from around the corner and blasted me, I wouldn’t be surprised!
Getting here takes nine hours on an overnight bus and another ten hours to get to the Ecuadorian border. There are flights, too, but why fly if you can go by bus and admire the least impressive landscape in the world?
Several grand civilizations much older than the Inca thrived here. Sea civilizations long gone, buried under 10 feet of sand.
The capital city of Chan Chan is one of them. Advertised as the largest mud city in the world and the largest city in pre-Inca South America, it is an example of the monumental adobe architecture, typical for this area.
What looks like half-crumbled, blurry ruins melted by flash downpours, turn out to be mighty walls of 60 feet height encircling an area of 12 square miles. Protected by clay statues of life-size guardians, what is now a quiet, abandoned city buried under the desert, was – 1,500 years ago – a metropolis full of activity, generated by 60,000 people.
The vast size of the complex is mind-blowing, as is the extent of how underrated and undiscovered this archaeological zone is.
Most of Peru’s signature places, like Cusco, Machu Picchu, Nazca or Lake Titicaca are situated south of Lima. Therefore, the only people who ever make it to these clay cities built in the middle of a northern desert are backpackers on their way to Ecuador or high surfers catching a wave.
We basically have the place all to ourselves – it’s just us and a local school field trip.
The first of ciudadelas, large walled compounds consisting of temples, burial chambers, reservoirs and residences for the Chimú kings, the ancient rulers of this area, is a maze of open corridors, vast unobstructed spaces and courts with ramps.
Adorning the walls are extravagant carvings of fish, fishing nets, shells and birds that would, by the way, look great as bathroom tiles. Symmetrical friezes and wall openings for air to breeze through make the whole site look graceful and lightweight.
And that’s just one of Chan Chan’s 10 ciudadelas in total! There’s no telling what lays underneath the rest of the unexcavated land.
What lays on top of it is pretty evident – a naked, freckled pooch sporting an incredible mohawk. Showing one hell of a skin, let me tell you, rolling on its back and rubbing its shoulders on the sand au naturel like that!
Not the most attractive bod in the world, to tell the truth, but a bod that is warm, free of fleas and hypoallergic!
The Peruvian hairless viringos have been kept as pets, bed warmers for people with arthritis and – until the Inca put a quick end to the practice – as a source of meat.
(Wouldn’t definitely recommend them as pets to anyone with nudity issues.)
The next archaeological site, Huaca de la Luna, is a large platform structure created of millions of adobe bricks. Built by the Moche people, a powerful culture 2,000 years old, the Huaca is one of two vast centers that once formed their capital city.
The Temple of the Moon is not an ordinary ancient ruin. Erected over six centuries, it was expanded into an even larger and higher pyramid with every next generation adding a new layer.
Shrouded in haze and mystery, the complex contains some of the most beautiful polychrome murals in Peru, uncovered with their 1,500 years old, original, brilliant colors.
Some of them reveal a pair of large, angry eyes and a mouth of ferocious fangs, staring back from the walls of the richly decorated entrance.
Ai Apaec, the menacing half-man, half-jaguar Decapitator God, was the most feared of the Moche deities. In return for providing water, food, protection and military victories, he demanded human sacrifices.
And he received them.
Decapitated bodies of 40 men were found at the Huaca’s foot.
The marks on the victims’ necks and spines indicate that their throats had been cut and the heads removed. Limbs were ripped out of their sockets, jaws torn from severed skulls. As if that wasn’t enough, bones were left for vultures and craniums made into drinking mugs.
(Turning green with envy, aren’t you, the creators of Game of Thrones?)
Shocking as it is, it’s only this find that makes the entire Moche Empire, an empire I’ve never heard of before, finally come to life!
The Moche people were no prudes, either.
Out of a 100,000 pieces of pottery, sculpted more than 1,500 years ago and depicting in a very graphic way all kinds of sexual acts, only 500 survived the destruction frenzy of the Spanish colonizers.
Shaken to their very catholic core by detailed scenes of fellatio, sodomy and masturbation between humans, animals and goofy skeletons (with an occasional infant hanging off his mother’s boob during the act), they smashed the pottery to pieces.
A couple hundred years later, history repeats itself. Except, no one is smashing anything as it’s too valuable, and it’s the modern scientists and not some illiterate Spaniards, staring in disbelief at what’s currently beyond anyone’s comprehension.
The question that comes up is – did the Moche people make their pottery to:
A) Demonstrate unorthodox methods of contraception
B) Demonstrate scenes of everyday life
C) Demonstrate cosmological relationships among the mountains and the coast, the water and the soil?
And if so, what about the pieces portraying child birth in action, and skeletons masturbated by living women, their limbs limp?!
Some people just have to depict everything on their pots!