On the Amazon a Canadian told us that the best ruins in Peru weren’t Machu Picchu, they were a place called Chan Chan, in the north. That was a bold proclamation and ultimately not true. However, whenever we hear such an iconoclastic declaration from fellow travelers, we feel it has some merit and is worth checking out.
Built between AD 850 until its conquest by the Inca Empire in AD 1470, Chan Chan is still considered the biggest adobe city in the world and the largest pre-Columbian city in South America. The Chimor people decorated the walls with elaborate homages to the sea, which they revered, and which crashes to the shore at the foot of the massive remains of the city. The adobe walls sprawl over 20 square kilometers, worn down over the centuries by occasional storms, wind and treasure hunters. A small citadel called the Tschudi Complex has been preserved and partially reconstructed to give an idea of the grandeur of the capital of the Chimu Kingdom.
We’d taken a bus and walked to the site, on the way passing high walls, their edges rounded, some still imposing, some with massive gaps. The whole city looked like it had been melted under a magnifying glass. The Tschudi Complex is an adobe labyrinth with narrow passages opening onto the occasional plaza. The walls were scored with diamond patterned reliefs evoking fishing nets. Schools of fish and flocks of pelicans swam and flew throughout. Strong horizontal lines dominated some areas, offset by more organic symbols resembling sea-squirrels. We’d arrived early enough that we had the maze almost to ourselves, but as we left a flood of school groups was poised to wash away the last standing walls.
The ruins are just outside the city of Trujillo, the first Spanish city in Peru and Francisco Pizarro’s jumping off point for the destruction of the Incan Empire. It was from here he “discovered” Chan Chan, and proceeded to loot it and the other set of pre-Incan ruins nearby, a Moche complex called the Temples of the Sun and Moon. Each of these are gigantic pyramids, but only the Temple of the Moon is currently being excavated. As archeologists peel off layers of temple, which was built in stages over hundreds of years, vibrant murals depicting Moche ceremonies and gods are revealed, including morbid images depicting a line of bound warriors being led to the sacrificial altar.
Our guide to the Temple of the Moon was a sarcastic young Peruvian archeologist who enjoyed demolishing the histories that visitors had been equipped with at home. It wasn’t difficult, these giant pyramids, built with seismic considerations in mind and painted with brilliant intricacy were well beyond the stereotype of the American Indian, a nomad not a builder; the savage, incapable of living in complex societies. The Incas are given some credit for their masterful stonemasonry, but pre-Incan cultures are largely ignored. Seeing the massive city of Chan Chan, and the equally impressive Moche pyramids, I understood how a person could come to the conclusion that the relatively small Machu Picchu was just a blip on the radar of important pre-Columbian sites.
From atop the Temple of the Moon, we gazed out across the desert plains to the Temple of the Sun, two kilometers away. Between the two great pyramids was a small section being excavated by our guide’s colleagues. Beneath the sand and gravel was another immense adobe city, the center of the Moche culture that had built and worshipped in the pyramids. Francisco Pizarro, never one to follow the delicacies of archeological exploration, diverted the nearby Rio Moche and washed the deserted city away in his unending search for gold. We stared at the workers below as they delicately removed debris from what they thought was an ancient chicharia.