11 April 2022

The Secluded Secrets of Northern Peru

Peru has many mysteries, from Machu Picchu to the Nazca Lines. One of the greatest mysteries, however, is why so few people travel to the north of the country. Only a fraction of those who visit Machu Picchu consider going up north, but this is where you will find some of the most remarkable geography, archeological sites and wonderful colonial towns from which to explore. Take a look at the Peruvian road less traveled.

Chan Chan
Chan Chan. The world’s largest adobe built city receives a tiny fraction of the visitors that Machu Picchu receives. Ten citadels, all walled, make up the site and within them are scores of temples, burial chamber and reservoirs. Triangular in shape the wall that surrounds it can reach sixty feet in height. You can easily get lost in this vast city, made up of a labyrinth of walkways. The surface of walls made from adobe brick were smoothed over and everywhere you will see highly detailed carvings, mostly of animals.

Built around CE 850, the city was built by the Chimor civilization. It was conquered by the Incas in 1470 and it is thought that at its height over thirty thousand people inhabited the city, close to the Pacific Ocean. The site covers around twenty square kilometers – its vastness will take your breath away. Although some parts of the city are off limits (there are still threats from looters as well as the ravages of earthquakes and our old friend El Niño) the Tschudi Complex, open to the public, will more than sate your appetite for history and archeology at this remarkable place. Talking of sating, where to eat – and indeed to stay, before and after your visit?

Chan Chan is only five kilometers away from Peru’s third largest city. Trujillo has close to a million inhabitants and was founded almost five hundred years ago by the Spanish. If you think you have heard the name before you are quite right – there is a town of the same name in the Extremadura region of Spain. Ironically as things go (another example of course is New York), the Peruvian city is many times more populous than its original namesake.

The architecture is very well preserved and beautifully colored. The city was the first in Peru to declare itself independent of Spanish rule, way back in 1820 and was even the country’s temporary capital for a number of years, hosting the famous Simón Bolívar, one of the most important figures in the struggle of Spanish America for independence from Spain. The average temperature of the city is 21 degrees but it can reach 32 centigrade. However, although that sounds hot Trujillo is revered locally as the city of eternal spring and indeed, if you can make it during that season you can, additionally enjoy the festival that takes place there during that time.

However, if you like a combination of archeology and beach lounging then the coastal town of Huanchaco may be more up your street. Although it is a little further away from Chan Chan than Trujillo, the beaches are wonderful, as is the surfing, and you will still be able to immerse yourself in Peruvian culture. The fishermen there still use paddling boats (Caballitos de Totora) built in the same manner for thousands of years. Some jokily call them the first ever surf boards.

Huaca de la Luna
A few miles away from Chan Chan you will find the remnants of an even older civilization. The Moche built two pyramids: each layer of the pyramids was built on top of the previous to provide a ruler with his final resting place. The one known as Huaca de la Luna (the resonantly named Temple of the Moon) is the one which most people tend to visit. The Moche, who built these pyramids between the first and eighth centuries were well known for their predilection for human sacrifices. If you have ever seen a certain Mel Gibson directed film you can imagine the shenanigans.

Huaca Del Sol
The Huaca Del Sol is the larger of the two pyramids and it too around one hundred million adobe bricks to build. Unfortunately only about a third of it is now extant because of erosion and, you guessed it, looting. As Chan Chan is the largest adobe city, so Huaca Del Sol is the largest single adobe structure in the Americas. Archeologists have studied the marks on the bricks and have ascertained that over one hundred different communities, from far and wide, contributed bricks to its construction.

The Royal Tombs of Sipán
You may be surprised to find such a beautifully stylized and contemporary museum among such ancient surroundings, but three hours drive from the pyramids the busy town of Chiclayo hosts the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipán. The museum was only opened in 2002 and is designed to look similar to the ancient mausoleums of the Moche people. It houses the discoveries of Doctor Walter Alva Alva and his first wife (who is buried on the front lawn), made in 1987. These discoveries are simply astounding and, astonishingly, do not seem to have become ingrained in the popular consciousness.

The museum houses a host of breath taking artifacts made from a variety of materials. They are from the tombs of two local Moche leaders, known now as the Lord and the Old Lord of Sipán. The tombs were discovered intact – no grave robbers had discovered their whereabouts and as such their amazing wealth and wonderful culture is there for us to see today. DNA analyses have been conducted and indeed, the two Lords are related, sowing that a single family probably ruled over the region in ancient times. Lord Sipán’s entourage of eight was buried with him – with no feet. No running away from their fate then.

If you drive six miles inland you will come across the beautiful town of Cajamarca. As well as stunning colonial architecture you will discover the Ventanillas de Otuzco (see below), which are where the Incas buried their dead. The tombs were excavated from the volcanic rock that predominates in the area. There is also an Incan medicinal hot springs in the city, which saw the downfall of the Incan leader Atahualpa at the hands of the Spaniard Pizarro.

Having seen the above you have to be a little more adventurous to get to possibly the prize of Northern Peruvian archeological history. Kuelap is a huge fortress which overlooks the Utcubabma valley. Built for defensive purposes by the Chachapoyas the enormous stone walls that surround the site hold inside them the remains of over four hundred structures. The site was begun at about the same time the Romans were leaving Britain.

At three thousand meters above sea level the fortress represented a real challenge for its builders and it is large. It is as large as or bigger than other archeological sites in Peru and is six hundred meters in length. The walls at their highest are nineteen meters and as such there are numerous layers within the fortress to be explored. This you can do at your leisure and peacefully. While Mach Picchu receives half a million visitors each year Kuelap hosts a paltry three thousand. If you love your archeology but want the road less traveled then this is the spot for you.

The structures are mostly cylindrical and some of them have been restored (if that is the right word) to bear a resemblance to how they would have looked in their heyday. As with many of the other sites in Northern Peru, friezes of animals are an important part of the ornate decorations of many of the structures.

Gocta Falls
There is a final secret of Northern Peru that should be visited if possible. That is the incredible and only recently discovered (by Westerners of course, the locals have known about it for as long as they have been there) Gocta Falls. This twin drop waterfall is said to be the third longest in the world (hotly debated), at seven hundred and seventy one meters. The ‘discovery’ was not made until 2005.

So, if you are considering Peru for a destination, perhaps you should consider forgoing the more popular (and populous) destinations and head for the north of the country. It is perhaps a more challenging place to visit but possibly a more satisfying one.