Seeing the world, one country at the time

The Lord of Sipan in Chiclayo



We arrived in Chiclayo, north of Trujillo, in the evening. It was to be our last major stop before crossing into Ecuador. The Hostal Royal, right on the main plaza, became our home. We couldn’t have chosen a better location. Our big balcony was perfect for people watching. After staring for a while it was time to join the fray below, where we found a meal just as the city was falling asleep. The hostel was classy for our standards, but the bed wasn’t up to snuff and we didn’t sleep much.

Our goal was to visit the Royal Tombs Museum of Sipan so we set out to find a tour to take us to the famous Lord of Sipan, one of the greatest archeological finds in Peru in the past century. The “Inka and Viking Travel Service” beckoned us with its odd name. On the counter was a troll, which could only have come from Norway. It was Norwegian-owned, by the sister and brother-in-law of the current manager. Her Sican tour was cancelled, due to the museum workers being on strike. That seemed awfully strange for a city that lives on Chan Chan’s tourist appeal. However, she was kind enough to find another tour for us and get us the last two spots.

We did well, joining a small group of friendly people, most notably Luis, who lives in Washington DC. We had a lot to talk about over lunch and the course of the day. Our guide Orlando was full of trivia facts for me to absorb. The itinerary for the day was Tucume, the pyramids of Sican, the Sican National Museum in Ferrenafe and the Royal Tombs Museum of Sipan, in Lambayeque. Actually, Lambayeque is not only a city, but the “departamento”, or state that where all these places are located.

As we left the city Orlando explained that Chiclayo is a modern city and was never colonized by the Spaniards. It has a population of 750,000 and grew to its size due to its strategic position as a commercial area. Because its roads lead to the mountains, ocean and jungle, it became an important trade center. People here support ex-President Alberto Fujimori because they feel he supported them by building the Panamerican Highway, which connects the western seaboard of South America, from Colombia to Chile. Its construction meant communication and a better economy through trade. Since then Chiclayo has gained fame from the discovery of the Lord of Sipan, and added tourism to its list of industries.

The Lord of Sipan was the governor of the Moche era, the highest-ranking individual in the empire. His tombs were discovered in 1987 and the discovery was monumental because his tombs were practically untouched, due to the style of tombs the Sican built. The Sican culture thrived prior to that of the Chimus. Sican means “house, or temple of the moon”. They recycled their garbage in their pyramid tombs, like the Chimus did. Every time a governor died, they built another level on top of the current temple, but they’d fill the inside with garbage that didn’t interest the “huaqueros”, or grave robbers.

The governors were buried in deep tombs, up to fifteen meters down, which helped to preserve the patrimony of the Lord of Sipan. He and his royal entourage lived in their pyramids, since the Sican, like the Chimus, were scared of the common people. The Moches, however, lived down in the city and only used their pyramids for religious ceremonies. The Sican built their pyramids in a fifty-five square kilometer forest, which were destroyed by El Nino storms and abandoned. In 1933 the original Tumis were found in one of those pyramids called “Huaca de las Ventanas” in the forest of Lambayeque. Tumis were ceremonial knives once used for sacrifices. They are one of the iconic symbols of Peru and of its native cultures and were adopted by the Incas. The tumis were found by grave robbers and bought by Julio C. Tello, one of Peru’s top archaeologists and collectors of native artifacts. Sometime over the following years, however, the tumi originals were sold again and melted down for gold. What you see today are only photos of the originals or replicas.

When the discovery was made public, there was a lot of fighting between the people that lived in the area, who claimed ownership, and the authorities. In order to avoid violence and punish them for their greed, the museum was built in a neutral location. The artifacts had to be protected from the “huaqueros” and other thieves. The exhibit is housed in a huge red building in Lambayeque. Photography isn’t allowed, so I bought a book to remember the exquisite pieces of jewelry and metal and beadwork that were exhibited. The archaeologists found a treasure trove. The tombs were filled with gold, precious and semi-precious stones, as well as other artifacts. They are incredible pieces.

Ancient Peruvians don’t believe in death, but in reincarnation. Like the Egyptians, they buried their dead with all their worldly possessions so that they could live comfortably in the next life. They also wanted entry into that life to be smooth. That is why the governor’s tomb, found eleven meters down, had his body buried upside down to resemble the fetus at childbirth, presumably in order to make his rebirth into the next life easier. With him was a woman who had been sacrificed to become his “mother” and give birth to him in the next life.

The second tomb was discovered fifteen meters down, in 1995. The man found sitting cross-legged, wearing a gold funeral mask and llama leather gloves, and holding a cup, was probably the grandson of the governor, perhaps a priest. Unlike the other body, his was surrounded by twenty-three tombs of people sacrificed after his death. Twenty-two were his female cousins and one was a young man, perhaps a son. As usual, the women were sacrificed. Thanks a lot! Cook and clean for you and that’s what we get in return? Although of course it was considered a great honor back then.

The “huaqueros” must have been kicking themselves when they saw the loot they’d missed. However, they should be happy they didn’t spend much time in there. The Sican placed mercury sulfide in the tombs to protect the bodies and objects from worms. The red powder was put in the mouth and eyes and in strategic points around the tomb. It’s a poison, which will kill the huaqueros who touch it slowly but surely. Being “huaqueros”, they are not too delicate in their work and were not familiar with the substance they would get on their fingers.

After the museum, we visit Ferrenafe, which means “camino entre dos cerros”, or “path between two mountains”. It used to be “Firanof” in the Muchi language of the northern cultures. Ferrenafe is the Spanish version of the name. It was founded by the Spaniards in 1550. Santa Lucia is their patron saint. I can relate to this, as she is the only saint we honor in Sweden, though I still don’t know why. However, though the people claim to be catholic, they practice “doble fe”, which means they also believe in Apus, or the pagan gods of nature, the mountains. Walls we pass celebrate Ferrenafe’s greatness in blue poetry and our guide Orlando proudly announces that the current Miss World is from this city. While there we visit another museum, which deals with the culture of the Sican. We are greeted by a man blowing a conch shell. He is dressed in a colorful outfit and covered in gold armor and jewelry. He speaks to us in his ancient tongue of his life and culture. He is an imposing being and so good he makes you think you’re in the presence of the Lord of Sipan. Everyone is eager to have their picture taken with him afterward.

We drive to Tucume, which is the location of a large excavation project carried out by Thor Heyerdahl, who fell in love with the area and did some important studies of the cultures. He even bought land nearby, encompassing some archaeological sites in order to protect them, and the family still comes there to visit. His project lost funding from Norway after his death and now only tin roofs and loose canvas remain as a sad testimony to all the dedicated work he completed in Peru. We walked by some of the pyramids he excavated and climbed a mountain for the view of all the surrounding pyramids. A couple of young, fleet-footed boys followed us up the mountain carrying coolers half their size to sell us drinks in the hot weather. I had my own, unfortunately for them, but they were likeable and talkative and gave us lots of information about the place. After our dusty walk, we visited a small site museum that recounted the culture of the people who lived in the area and the adventures of Thor Heyerdahl. Lars is surprised and proud of how often his countryman is mentioned on our tours and how instrumental he was in anthropological and archeological studies of Bolivia and Peru.

We left Chiclayo that night with a good feeling, having visited something great, met a nice guy from DC and seen how Thor Heyerdahl is still remembered and respected in these places so far from his homeland. It was the last time we’d feel that good in a long time, as we were about to experience the first major blow to our travels, during our trip from Chiclayo to the border of Tumbes and on to Ecuador.