Seeing the world, one country at the time

Trujillo, Chan Chan and the Huacos



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Leaving Lima for the last time we headed to Trujillo, one of the most important cities in the north. It is home to the elegant Marinera dance, the distinctive totoro reed boats, the world’s best left-hand wave (ask the surfers), the Chimu and Moche cultures and the famous ruins of Chan Chan. Chan Chan was declared a UNESCO cultural heritage site in 1986. The village of Trujillo was founded in 1534 by Diego de Almagro, in honor of Trujillo de Extremadura, Francisco Pizarro’s birthplace. Little did he know what treasures he was building his city on top of; the ruins of one of Peru’s greatest cities.

The Moche culture ruled from the third to the seventh century AD and is known both for its fine ceramics and for its temples built like truncated pyramids. By the 12th century, the Chimu culture occupied the area and had Chan Chan as its capital. The Chimus are known for their excellent gold and silver work and for their advanced agricultural techniques. Their aqueducts are still used today for irrigation. After ruling the area for 200 years, the Chimus were finally conquered by the Incas in the15th century.

A grand old hostel, which in its heyday must have been the epitome of class, became our home. Our taxi driver tried to convince us it was too old and we should go elsewhere, but we assumed he had ulterior motives and therefore were more determined to stay where we had planned. We ended up with two large rooms with twenty-foot ceilings next to the courtyard. The bathroom was large but antiquated. It looked like it hadn’t been renovated since the 1950’s. Regardless, we loved it. We explored the 100 or so rooms and fantasized about buying and renovating it. It happened to be for sale. Then we realized that it would be a major undertaking we cannot afford. Never mind, Trujillo isn’t hopping enough to attract the right quantity of tourists to make it economically feasible.

Once checked in, it was time to see what we had come for. We walked to the local bus stop for Chan Chan. Walking through a market area we got the distinct impression that foreigners were a rare sight. After walking and getting lost, we asked a policeman for directions. His colleague came over smiling and said “don’t ask him, he’s just a drunk”. They continued joking with us before pointing us in the right direction. When we got to the main street, we couldn’t find the bus. The people we asked would point to the opposite side of the street where we would go, only to find that it wasn’t there. We would ask again and they would point to the other side of the street, where we had just been. Finally we found the bus, which was waiting to fill up. There is something to be said for joining a tour in South America, which often doesn’t facilitate the individual traveler.
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The bus driver missed our stop and we were dropped off past the ruins. All around us was sand, and piles of dirt, or so we thought. The road actually cuts right through part of Chan Chan. We mistook actual remnants of structures for sand hills, due to erosion over time. Cars honked as we walked to the site’s museum where I gasped when I spotted the ugliest dog I have ever laid eyes on. I felt sorry for it thinking it was dying of some strange skin disease. It turns out, however, that it is an ancient and rare breed of Peruvian dog and was once owned by those of high status.

The museum is small, but quite comprehensive. We learned a bit about Chan Chan, which means “Sun Sun” in English. This archaeological complex is situated in the Moche Valley. It was the religious and administrative capital of the Chimu kingdom and the largest adobe citadel of pre-Hispanic America. Its area was about 20 km squared and it is estimated that nearly 100,000 people lived there.

Trying to save money, we walked to the ruins a few kilometers away. The entrance was far down a dirt road, which was lined with more ancient structures. The citadel went on and on. Even with just these sand ruins you can imagine that it was huge. At the entrance, we found a guide, a kind, older woman who claimed she could speak English well. However, when she opened her mouth to explain anything we could hardly understand a word and it took her ages to get a sentence out. After five minutes we were going nuts and I asked her to please let me practice my Spanish so that at least one of us could benefit from the tour.

Chan Chan has thick outer walls for protection. Walkways lined with benches used for vendors back in the day lead to a huge square with raised platforms used for ceremonial purposes, whether religious or sacrificial. The large, solid walls are decorated with intricate designs, both geometrical, mythical and zoomorphic; often depicting pelicans, an important animal. Plastic models show us how it used to look, which aids the imagination, since many of the walls are half their original size and much of the citadel is now covered for archeological work. In Chan Chan there are labyrinths of stunted pyramid passages, plazas, houses, shops, stores, walls and trails.

Chan Chan has three types of buildings; popular, intermediate and monumental, showing that different people of different social classes lived there. There were nine palaces built for the Chimu-Capac governors, or heads. Each one had his own and when one died, it would be used for the burial and abandoned to build another for his successor. A vast system of underground aqueducts and ditches, were built with mastery to carry water long distances. A huge reservoir, filled now with reeds and birds, was discovered during excavations when a rectangular hole began to fill with water, a rare find in this desert area. It was probably used for ceremonies rather than drinking or irrigation, as tombs were found on its banks and sacrificed bodies on its ledges.
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A long hot walk led us to the road where we grabbed a bus to Huanchaco, a little fishing village and seaside resort known for its totora reed boats and good seafood restaurants. From the open balcony of our restaurant we could see the town’s long pier reaching into the ocean. Salsa music played as we watched the surfers and the reed boats coming in from fishing. A table of teenagers next to us played loud music from their own stereo to clash with the salsa. After a delicious seafood and fruit juice meal we returned to the city to visit other Moche and Chimu ruins.

We jumped off the bus in El Cortijo and tried to find the Esmeralda Huaco, or temple, but no one knew where it was. We finally found it and toured it without a guide, because there wasn’t much to see. Its overlapping sand terraces are accessed via ramps. After seeing elaborate Chan Chan, its simplicity detracted from the fact that it had been an important Chimu religious center.

The Huaca Del Dragon or Huaca del Arco Iris in the district of La Esperanza, was more impressive. We chose not to hire a guide and instead listened in a bit on our old guide from Chan Chan, who I found leading others around. I was happy not to pay for her again! The friezes covering its walls are decorated with anthropomorphic figures such as men and dragons, and styled representations of the rainbow. This Chimu ceremonial center, several stories high, was used for events related to religious activities. We reached the top via ramps and climbed all around the structure, since no fences stopped us from exploring its precarious thin ledges, which hid small rooms with no outlet. If we fell in, nobody would see us. Good thing we both rock climb and have good balance.

The next day we did a morning tour of the city. Our guide was nice, but she seemed rushed. I think she wanted to eat lunch early. The tour wasn’t really complete, but we still got a good overview and were able to see more on our own. Trujillo’s main square is surrounded by its Cathedral, palaces and large old Colonial and Republican houses.
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In the middle of the square is the monument dedicated to la Libertad, or the Freedom. This was where Peru’s independence was first proclaimed in 1820.

She took us to the Palacio Iturregui, built in the 19th century. It is the best example of the city’s neo-classical architecture. The window bars stand out and it is filled with Italian marble statues. It belonged to General Juan Manual Iturregui and it is currently the premises of the exclusive Club central, Trujillo’s main social center. Only men are members and families must be invited to join or visit. We were not allowed to enter and in our clothes, we wouldn’t have been welcome under any circumstances.

Our next stop was the Casa of Mariscal Orbegoso, a traditional colonial house, with stone floors and rooms arranged on a raised platform. Its collection of furniture, paintings, silver and mirrors, belonged to Mariscal Luis Jose de Orbegosos y Moncada, a hero of the independence war and former President of Peru. It hosts art exhibitions on a regular basis. We saw one, which had surprising entries such as one by a Swede which I would class as disturbing and risqué. But art is art, so whether at MOMA or in a colonial home, I guess anything goes.

The Casa Calonge or Casa Urquiaga, hosted the liberator Simon Bolivar and the mahogany desk he used is still preserved there. It also houses colonial and Republican furniture as well as Chimu gold ornaments. It currently houses the Central Reserve Bank, as is common in this age when individual families cannot afford these palaces. We were only allowed to enter after receiving permission, being searched and leaving all our belongings with the heavily armed and armored guards. Lines of people outside the gates looked at us enviously.

After our short tour ended, we went to a typical tourist restaurant for a good local meal. We continued our tour of the city after visiting the tourist information center for maps and tips on barbers. Lars needed a haircut. The Tourist bureau wasn’t equipped for those questions, so we asked a policeman outside who had the haircut Lars wanted. He was flattered, but at a loss, though he gave us some suggestions. We couldn’t find anything so instead, we saw the Cathedral and other colonial homes. The Cathedral, finished in 1666, features Baroque and Rococo style altars, and paintings from the Cusco School. A friendly guard let us into a beautiful palace nearby.
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With our choice of colonial houses exhausted, we resumed our search for a barber. We walked for ages and finally spotted a place hidden down an alley where a mulatta woman took him in for a dollar, then proceeded to dig into his scalp with a dull clipper, drawing blood. The whole place was filthy and could hardly fit two chairs. She stabbed the clippers so hard into his head that the trimmer guard fell onto the floor repeatedly. Beads of perspiration appeared on his head, caused by the pain inflicted by the metal clipper. Being a quiet Norwegian who hates confrontation, Lars sweated it out rather than run away with half his head shaved. She responded by complaining that his sweat was preventing her from cutting his hair properly. Suffice to say, it was an unforgettable experience and one he doesn’t want to repeat, although he can still recount it in vivid detail.

He finally escaped the Barber of Seville and we went to find dinner. On the way, as luck would have it, we found a road where row after row of sparkling large, clean and well-lit barber shops were filled with smiling customers. The signs outside the door offered a haircut and a free coke for one dollar. Lars was NOT happy. We found a restaurant that offered a typical food from Trujillo that is only made on Mondays, and lucky me, it was Monday. Everyone had insisted we try it, so I happily ordered it, only to find out that they only serve it at lunch (no one had bothered to tell us this small detail). Instead of choosing another dish, we left the restaurant and went to the movies theater to drown our sorrows in the latest romantic comedy “Must Love Dogs”. I gorged on one-dollar popcorn, which, as my father knows, is just as good as any other food.

The next morning we packed our bags for our evening departure and left to go see the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna. These ceremonial centers are located in the countryside of the District of Moche. The Huaca or Temple of the Sun is a scaled pyramid measuring approximately forty-three meters in height, which, legend claims was built in only three days by 250,000 men, using seventy million adobe bricks. It was used for ceremonial and perhaps administrative functions and as housing for the upper class. You cannot visit it currently due to ongoing excavations, but were duly impressed with its smaller neighbor, the Huaca or Temple of the Moon, located 500 meters away.

Our guide was very well-informed and explained how the monument is comprised of overlapping temples built during different periods. Each layer encompasses the one under it, creating an upside-down pyramid within, like half a Babushka doll. Each of the seven layers of the temple was built during a different leader’s rule, after which it was filled with garbage. Each layer has different relief figures and brightly colored friezes, which are preserved due to the construction style and which have left a rich record of the culture. Each layer was designed exactly identically, though just a little bigger than its predecessor. Only the murals changed in style and sometimes subject. One common theme was the face of the Moche god, Ai-Apaek.

Archaeologists have only excavated a few layers, but each layer is progressively better preserved, thanks to the garbage, which didn’t interest the “huaqueros”, or grave-robbers. They dug tunnels into parts of the structure but abandoned the task when they didn’t find what they coveted. The treasures were safe under piles of detritus. We climbed to the very top, where religious and ceremonial platforms remain and we got a great view of the surrounding valley and the small village below where the common people had lived.

We were the last visitors and the local bus waited on all the staff to get off work, as our bus waited to leave for Chiclayo, our next destination. We were running so late, I tried to flag another bus and created quite a scene. Granted, this is about the extent of the stress we face on this trip, so we can’t complain. When we reached the outskirts of town, we jumped off and took a cab back to hotel. When we got stuck in traffic, Lars got out of the cab and sprinted to the hotel to grab our bags. By the time we got there, the bags were lined up on the curb and the driver rushed us to the bus station. We got there just in time as usual. We were on our way to Chiclayo to see the famous Lord of Sipan, one of the greatest archeological finds in modern history.