Things to Do in North Coast
The ancient city of Chan Chan, in Peru’s Moche Valley, was once the largest city in the Americas. For nearly 600 years, this metropolis of adobe buildings was the seat of the Chimú Kingdom (1000–1471 AD) and home to around 60,000 people. Today, the ruins constitute one of the world’s most important archaeological sites.
When comparing the ancient ruins of the world, Túcume might be the most fascinating site that most people have never heard of. Located 21 miles to the north of Chiclayo, Túcume is home to 26 pyramids that were built over 1,000 years ago. One of these pyramids—Huaca Larga—has a base that is over 2,000 ft. in length and was the largest pyramid in the world.
Due to heavy rains, however, these dusty, sand-carved, ancient pyramids have been reduced to eroded mounds, although archeological discoveries continue to be made in the burial chambers below. At Huaca Larga, 119 bodies were discovered deep beneath the pyramid, and evidence suggests that the bodies were part of a mass human sacrifice to the gods. Other findings are less grotesque, such as the murals and carvings of the Lambayeque god Naymlap, a revered deity who emerged from the sea and gave rise to the powerful city.
As the ancient people of the Lambayeque Valley constructed these towering pyramids, they subsequently abandoned the massive structures when they felt it would please the gods. Today, the area around Túcume is still largely abandoned, the main reason being that local villagers are wary of the spiritual past; only healers and traditional shamans will visit Túcume by night, and there is a palpable sense of power and history when touring Túcume today.
The Temples de Moche (Huacas de Moche), are Trujillo’s two most important sites that date to the Moche Empire. It’s hard to enough to fathom that civilizations existed here over 2,000 years ago, and even harder to fathom how some of their artwork has miraculously managed to remain.
At the Huaca de la Luna—Temple of the Moon—archaeologists are still uncovering frescoes which were thankfully missed by looters. Many of the paintings depict the deity Ayapec, whose snarling face and animated teeth are found on everything from ceramics to walls. It’s also believed that Huaca de Luna was a site of human sacrifice, and diggers have unearthed dozens of remains that suggest torture, warfare, and sacrifice. Given the murals and the human remains, it’s highly likely that the Huaca de Luna was a site of religious importance, and walking the corridors of the temple today is as enchanting as it is surreal.
Across the dusty Moche Valley, the Huaca del Sol—Temple of the Sun—rises 135 feet from the desert and is comprised of over 50 million bricks. It’s officially classified as the world’s largest adobe structure, although due to heavy looting by the Spanish and damage from El Niño rains, the temple hasn’t been excavated as heavily and is closed to the general public.
To archaeologists, the Lord of Sipan was a Moche noble now known as the “King Tut of Peru.” To centuries of Peruvian grave robbers (huaqueros), he was one grave they wished they’d found. To visitors traveling to the town of Chiclayo, he is the reason why you can walk through a room that is dripping in jewels and gold. Of all the museums you can visit in Chiclayo, the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum is one that you absolutely must see.
Buried in a tomb beneath the desert sands to the south of modern day Chiclayo, the Lord of Sipan lay undisturbed for over 1,700 years. In 1987, however, a team of archaeologists unearthed a tomb at the remote Huaca Rajada, and what they found inside is considered to be one of the greatest finds of the last 50 years. Lying inside a wooded sarcophagus were the remains of a king, a warrior, three concubines, two dogs, a llama, a priest and a guard with no feet. Also, there were jewels—lots of gold and jewels.
Today the tomb site and many of its findings are on display at the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum, a building with a strikingly modern appearance that is modeled after the Moche pyramids. Gaze at headdresses and armored plates made entirely from silver and gold while inwardly contemplating how such valuable pieces remained buried and hidden for so long.
Temple of the Dragon (Huaco el Dragon) is an immaculately preserved Chimú temple just outside Trujillo. The pyramid-shaped adobe structure features intricate frieze murals depicting rainbows, dragons, and figures that have valiantly stood the test of time. Less known than other Chimú sites, this anti-seismic temple is an engineering marvel.
Not many visitors to Peru are aware that it may have been the birthplace of surfing. Here in Huanchaco, however—a coastal suburb of bustling Trujillo that drifts at a much slower pace—the traditional reed boats known as caballitos de totora are considered to be the world’s first surf craft. When strolling along the oceanfront promenade that runs through Huanchaco’s downtown, you’re sure to see plenty of the pointy reed boats scattered about the sand. Rather than simply taking a picture, however, get the firsthand experience by hiring a guide to paddle you out in the surf. With the cool water splashing your legs as you rest firmly on the boat made of reeds, you get the feeling of how Huanchaco’s fisherman have been riding these waves for centuries.
Back in town after your session on the water, grab a table at an ocean view restaurant for the perfect plate of ceviche. With just the right amount of aji spice, Huanchaco is considered by many travelers to have the best ceviche in Peru, and it’s the perfect complement to a mellow evening of watching the sun set over the Pacific.
Huanchaco is also Surf City, Peru, and this is one of the best places on the Peruvian coastline for learning to ride a wave. For those who prefer to stay land based, the archeological sights of Trujillo are only a short taxi ride away, although there are a few sights in Huanchaco itself if you’d prefer to stroll about town. One such sight is the Santuario de la Virgen del Socorro, a white, Colonial, hilltop church which, having been constructed in 1535, is the second oldest church in Peru. Or, for an authentic Huanchaco experience, take a walk through the downtown market to watch local fishermen hawk their catch as fish flop around on the floor. Funky, laidback, and with the sweet smell of sea salt, Huanchaco is the perfect beachside suburb for basing yourself in Trujillo.
Every archaeologist dreams of finding a place like Huaca Rajada(Sipán). Forgotten in the desert for over 1,700 years, Huaca Rajada(Sipán) was a sacred burial site for Moche nobility and royalty. When local looters in 1987 were found with lavish gold artifacts, it tipped off police that a large discovery might be buried in the nearby desert. An archaeologist, Walter Alva, was called to the site to examine the possibility that other tombs might exist, and when his team unearthed the “Lord of Sipan” and his tomb of jewels and gold, it was heralded as the greatest discovery of the last 50 years of archaeology.
Today, travelers can visit the archaeological site where excavations are still taking place. Though many of the larger artifacts and displays have been moved to Chiclayo museums (notably the Royal Tombs Museum of Sipan and the Brüning National Archaeological Museum), there is still a small museum on site that displays some of the findings. Of particular interest are the re-created tombs that show the position the Lord of Sipan was found in after having been buried over 1,700 years ago.
In addition to the extravagant headdresses and jewelry, the tomb contained the remains of a priest, a child, a llama, two dogs, three concubines and a guard who was buried without feet. This, archaeologists say, is meant to symbolize the guard’s inability to ever flee from his post, and it’s just one of the many tales of lore which lay buried in the sands of Sipan.
Oh, what Batán Grande(Sicán Archaeological Complex) must have looked like in 1100 AD.
Located 20 miles north of Chiclayo, this sprawling remnant of the Sicán civilization is set amongst a grove of algorrobo trees that form the largest dryland forest on South America’s west coast. Poking out from the field of green, eroded brown pyramids are all that remain of Sicán tombs that, for hundreds of years, were packed to the brim with gold. In fact, archaeologists estimate that over 90 percent of Peru’s gold was sourced from this river valley, and much of the gold in private collections is from looters who pillaged the forest.
Visitors to Batán Grande(Sicán Archaeological Complex) today will find an interpretive center and small museum that tell the history of the surrounding forest, as well as a viewing platform for gazing above the groves of algorrobo. The tops of the huacas (pyramids) seem to float above the treetops like haunting, dusty relics, and one of the trees in the middle of the forest has been standing for over 1,000 years. Hand dug pits from hundreds of looters are evident as you walk the grounds, and from the top of a huaca gazing out over the forest, it’s a surreal feeling to stand in this complex so many years after its devastating fall.
After the fall of the Moche Empire around 700 AD, the inhabitants of the Lambayeque region formed a culture now known as Sicán. Exceptionally skilled in metallurgy as well as a unique form of ceramics, the Sicán metal workers are credited with bringing the Bronze Age to northern Peru. Though massive drought would eventually bring the Sicán civilization to its knees, the ceramics, metal work, and tombs they left behind are intriguingly displayed at the Sicán National Museum in the town of Ferreñafe.
When visiting the museum, not only will you find exquisite art pieces forged by Sicán craftsmen, but you will also find artifacts that point to the existence of trade with faraway neighbors. Blue stones, for example, exhibit trade with neighboring civilizations from as far away as Chile, and snails and shells found in Sicán tombs have been traced to the beaches of Ecuador.
Also of note when visiting the museum is the re-creation of a tomb where a man was found buried in the fetal position with his head facing down towards the floor. The position, it’s believed, was meant to mimic the process of being “birthed” into the afterlife, and is one of the many cultural curiosities on display in this modern museum.
Sitting in Trujillo’s Plaza de Armas—the large square that forms the heart of the city’s historical district—there is a surreal feeling knowing this is the spot from which modern Peru began. On the Spanishconquistadores’ push through the continent in search of silver and gold, the city of Trujillo was founded when this square was created in 1534. Nearly 300 years later, in 1820, it would be from right here in the Plaza de Armas that Trujillo would become the first city in Peru to announce its independence from Spain.
Despite the fact that modern day Trujillo is one of the largest cities in Peru, the historical center around the Plaza de Armas has retained its Colonial charm. The distinctive architecture of 17th century Spain forms a ring around the square, and colors such as the pastel yellow of the Trujillo Cathedral and the deeply rich blue of the Archdiocese, infuse the square with a sense of life which seems to permeate everyone who visits.
In the center of the square, interspersed amongst the throngs of pedestrians and locals on a midday stroll, the Freedom Monument springs from the crowd in an artistic form of defiance. Set atop a granite base, the uppermost statue of a man with raised fist is an enduring symbol Trujillo’s quest for liberation and independence. By night, the Colonial buildings around the Plaza de Armas are bathed in hundreds of lights, and walking through the illuminated Plaza de Armas is one of Trujillo’s most romantic displays.
More Things to Do in North Coast
At the heart of activity in Chiclayo, one of Peru’s liveliest cities despite being only its fourth-largest is Parque Principal (Plaza de Armas). From sunup to well past sundown, this attractive green space is buzzing with activity, and it’s impossible to visit the city without spending at least some time here.
The relatively small park, like many Plazas de Armas in Peru, sits beneath the shadow of a cathedral, this one a neoclassical, white, double-domed structure with a history dating back to 1869. Across the way is the city hall.
Some of the best times to visit Parque Principal are on weekends or during the evenings, when locals come out to gather around park benches and snack on street foods, creating a festive atmosphere.
Shamans. Potions. Witchcraft. Elixir. None of these are words that many travelers equate with the coastline of northern Peru. Traditional healing, however, is a central part to the different subsets of traditional Peruvian society, and historically Chiclayo has been an instrumental city in the gathering of shamans and healers.
Located inside of the Mercado Modelo—a large central market by the Plaza de Armas that is frequented by everyday shoppers—the Witch's Market (Mercado de las Brujas) is a fascinating stop for those who can stomach the surroundings. In these cluttered, colorful, and odiferous alleyways, healers hawk everything from dried snakes and monkey skulls to pieces of Andean condors. A traditional drink made from San Pedro cactus is known for its hallucinogenic effects, and it is sometimes offered to market visitors who befriend a local merchant. For a variable fee, traditional shamans can also be hired to perform ceremonial readings and healings, although be forewarned the process might involve a guinea pig or vomit-inducing concoctions.
For archaeology and history buffs, Trujillo might be the most fascinating city along the entire coastline of Peru. This dry shoreline has been the historic site of thousands of years of civilizations, and empires in Trujillo have risen and fallen like the sand dunes along the coast. With each passing century, cultural artifacts and artistic relics have been preserved by the desert sands, many of which are on display today at the National University of Trujillo Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology, and History.
Inside of this small museum—which itself is housed in the 17th Century mansion known as La Casa Risco—visitors will find an astounding collection of Pre-Columbian art forms. Displays at the museum include pieces from the Chimu, Moche, and Inca Empires, and the jewelry, clothing, and ceramic artwork are windows into these ancient cultures. More than simply a display of artifacts, the multiple rooms of Casa Risco offer informative displays about the different civilizations that have existed along the coastline. Learn what caused the Empires to collapse and allowed others to rise, and get the latest updates on archaeological finds that are still being pulled from the Earth.
Located along the famous Plaza de Armas, Casa Urquiaga (Casa Calonge) offers a rare glimpse into the political history of Trujillo. Here, in this sprawling mansion with three courtyards and numerous rooms festooned in chandeliers, visitors can get a sense of the everyday life of the Colonial political elite. Aside from the architecture and the strikingly blue exterior, what makes Casa Urquiaga such an intriguing visit is how much history is under one roof.
First constructed in 1604 (and reconstructed after the 1619 earthquake), there is a small collection of gold and ceramics from the Chimu and Moche empires. The interior is decorated with period furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries, the most notable of which is the desk of Simón Bolivar, the legendary leader who led much of Latin America to its independence from Spain. Today, the Casa Urquiaga is owned by the Central Reserve Bank of Peru, though the public is still allowed to view the cultural and historical relics.
By Peruvian standards, the Chiclayo Cathedral(Iglesia Santa Maria) in the Plaza de Armas is comparatively very young. Not constructed until 1869 (versus the early 16th and 17th centuries for churches in nearby Trujillo), the cathedral and its adjoining public square weren't inaugurated until 1916. Despite its relative youth, however, the cathedral still exudes a sense of grandeur and is one of the most striking buildings in Chiclayo.
Rising along the eastern flank of the pedestrian-filled Plaza de Armas, the white columns and pale yellow façade exude a neoclassical style. Also known as “Catedrál Santa Maria,” the twin bell towers and their white cupolas gaze out over the city, and an exquisite altar and religious carvings grace the cathedral’s interior. From the cathedral’s steps looking out towards the plaza, visitors and locals walk and mingle through the always-happening square, and the area surrounding the Chiclayo Cathedral is one of the most popular parts of the city.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, German archaeologist Hans Heinrich Brüning Brookstedt devoted his life to Northern Peru. For decades, Brüning would toil tirelessly along the desert coastline in search of ceramics and cultural artifacts from the Moche, Chimu and Inca. Today, the Brüning National Archaeological Museum is where visitors can view the astounding finds of his years of digging in the dirt.
In addition to the rooms full of cultural treasures—including a room filled entirely with gold—the lower layer showcases Brüning’s photography from years of work in the field. Many credit Brüning with being a catalyst for the area’s archaeological study, and many of the sites that have been uncovered today could be in part to his dedicated work. Unlike the neighboring Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum, photography is allowed inside the Brüning Museum, and visitors should make an effort to visit both sites during a museum tour of Chiclayo.
Some might say that the city of Chiclayo is short on touristic sights, while others will claim that the comfortable city is a sight unto itself. Simply walking about town and experiencing everyday life is one of the best ways to experience Chiclayo, and the best place in the city for a casual stroll is the manicured Paseo de las Musas.
To enter this pedestrian thoroughfare, walk beneath a monument of four white columns that tower 20 feet over the park. The well-landscaped floral arrangements make this a romantic local escape, and the multiple plazas and wide walkways create a comfortable atmosphere for people watching. What makes the walkway so unique, however, are the nine statues of ancient muses that are found in Greek mythology. On a sunny day, while enjoying a picnic in the grassy, shaded promenade, the entire area takes on the feel of a classical European plaza, and the Paseo de las Musas becomes the perfect place for killing time in Chiclayo.
The fantastically ornate Municipal Palace is a Republican-style administrative building with a festive four-story clock tower and soaring parallel arches gracing the center of town. This elegant building is so lavish, it cost 30,000 pounds of gold to build in 1919.
Located in the heart of Trujillo’s historic center, this cathedral (aka the Cathedral Basilica of St. Mary), brightly painted yellow with white wedding-cake piping and twin bell towers, is a stalwart representation of the city’s colonial past. Highlights are its noteworthy altarpieces and religious paintings in the cathedral’s art museum.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating bits about Peru’s ancient Moche culture is that even though they ruled this coastline over 2,000 years ago, we just now today are beginning to unearth the secrets of their civilization. At no place is this more apparent than at the archaeological complex of El Brujo, a collection of temples in the Chicama Valley that depict gruesome scenes of torture and burial and date back over 4,000 years.
Of the three complexes at the El BrujoArchaeological Complex, the Huaca Cao Viejo offers the most for visitors to experience, see, and explore. Constructed by the Moche between 200-600 AD, the Huaca de Cao has interior artwork which is similar to the Huaca de la Luna, although unlike its famous Trujillo counterpart, the artwork here hasn’t been restored at all and exists in its original state. This area wasn’t excavated until 1990, and dry sands of the coastal desert have been preserving these colorful paintings and murals for well over 1,500 years.
Archaeologists also curiously unearthed a mummy that had been wrapped in 26 layers of cloth, only to discover it was a young woman who was wearing symbolic pieces of gold. Given the care taken to bury the body, it’s believed the woman was one of the few Governesses to exist within the Moche Empire. Next door, at the Huaca Prieta, the structure by the ocean is believed to date back to 2,500 BC, although excavations are still taking place and the site is closed to the public.
Sure, the Trujillo Cathedral is the most well-known building in town, but the city has more than a dozen Colonial churches that visitors can photograph and enjoy. One of these churches, El Carmen Church, is only four blocks from the Plaza de Armas and the famous Trujillo Cathedral, but is far enough away from the heart of the action that you can still find moments of reflection.
Stretched out over an entire block, this massive white church with its bright red trim defines Colonial architecture. Constructed in 1724, the main draw of this Colonial masterpiece isn’t the building itself, however, but rather the large collection of art that is on display within the church.
With over 150 original paintings, El Carmen Church has the largest collection of Colonial art in Trujillo. Both Baroque and Rococo styles are on marvelous display in the Cathedral, many of which are from the Quito School of the 17th and 18th centuries. In addition to the paintings, the hand carved altar and numerous murals round out the visual feast.
As you stand beneath the boughs of the “Millenial Tree,” with the sound of birdsong raining down from the branches, you know you've arrived in a special corner of the northern coastline of Peru. Historians say that this scraggly carob tree has been alive for over 1,000 years, making it about the same age as the ancient civilization that once inhabited this forest.
Here in the Pómac Forest Historic Sanctuary, 36 pyramids built by the ancient Sican people spread out over 23 square miles of green. Rising their heavily eroded peaks above the branches of the dryland forest, these pyramids have housed some of the greatest archaeological finds in the history of northern Peru. Over 90% of the area’s gold, it’s said, was found at the forest’s huacas (temples), and at places such as the Huaca Las Ventanas, you can actually climb to the top of a pyramid that was constructed over 1,000 years ago.
In addition to the ruins and the serenity of the forest, the Pómac Forest Historic Sanctuary is also known for its birds. Over 70 different species of birds can be sighted within the park, and this is an emerging hot spot for birdwatching enthusiasts looking to couple their trip with some culture.
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