Peru // Trujillo and the north //

The Chan Chan complex

The ruined city of CHAN CHAN stretches across a large sector of the Moche Valley, beginning almost as soon as you leave Trujillo northwards on the Huanchaco road, and ending just a couple of kilometres from Huanchaco. A huge complex even today, its main focus and museum site is the Tschudi sector, which needs only a little imagination to raise its weathered mud walls to their original grandeur. Not far from Tschudi, Huaca La Esmeralda displays different features, being a ceremonial or ritual pyramid rather than a citadel. The third sector, the Huaca Arco Iris (or El Dragón), on the other side of this enormous ruined city, was similar in function to Esmeralda but has a unique design which has been restored with relish, if not historical perfection.

Brief history

Chan Chan was the capital city of the Chimu Empire, an urban civilization that appeared on the Peruvian coast around 1100 AD. Chimu cities and towns throughout the region stretched from Tumbes in the north to as far south as Paramonga. Their cities were always elaborately planned, with large, flat-topped buildings for the nobility and intricately decorated adobe pyramids serving as temples. Recognized as fine goldsmiths by the Incas, the Chimu panelled their temples with gold and cultivated palace gardens where even the plants and animals were made from precious metals. The city walls were brightly painted, and the style of architecture and relief decoration is sometimes ascribed to the fact that the Mochica (who predated the Chimu in this valley by several centuries) migrated from Central America into this area, bringing with them knowledge and ideas from a more advanced civilization, like the Maya.

Birth of a city

According to one legend, the city was founded by Taycanamu, who arrived by boat with his royal fleet; after establishing an empire, he left his son, Si-Um, in command and then disappeared over the western horizon. Another legend has it that Chan Chan’s construction was inspired by an original creator-deity of the same name, a dragon who made the sun and the moon and whose earthly manifestation is a rainbow. Whatever the impulse behind Chan Chan, it remains one of the world’s marvels and, in its heyday, was one of the largest pre-Columbian cities in the Americas.

The Chimu inherited ideas and techniques from a host of previous cultures along the coast, including the Mochica, and, most importantly, adapted the techniques from many generations of trial and error in irrigating the Moche Valley. In the desert, access to a regular water supply was critical in the development of an urban civilization like that of Chan Chan, whose very existence depended on extracting water not only from the Río Moche but also, via a complicated system of canals and aqueducts, from the neighbouring Chicama Valley.

By 1450, when the Chimu Empire stretched from the Río Zarumilla in the north to the Río Chancay in the south and covered around 40,000 square kilometres, Chan Chan was the centre of a chain of provincial capitals. These were gradually incorporated into the Inca Empire between 1460 and 1480.

Death of a city

The events leading to the city’s demise are better documented than those of its birth: in the 1470s Tupac Yupanqui led the Inca armies down from the mountains in the east and cut off the aqueducts supplying Chan Chan with its vital water supply. After lengthy discussions, the Chimu council managed to persuade its leader against going out to fight the Incas, knowing full well that resistance would be met with brutality, and surrender with peaceful takeover. The Chimu were quickly deprived of their chieftains, many of them taken to Cusco (along with the highly skilled metallurgists) to be indoctrinated into Inca ways. Sixty years later when the first Spaniards rode through Chan Chan they found only a ghost town full of dust and legend.

Museo di Sitio

The Museo de Sitio is a good place to start your visit to Chan Chan. It offers an interesting eight-minute multimedia show in Spanish, and uses scale replica models, ceramics and other archeological finds to reconstruct life in the hot but irrigated desert before modern Trujillo was built.

The Tschudi temple-citadel

The best place to get an idea of what Chan Chan must have been like is the Tschudi temple-citadel, even though it’s now stuck out in the desert among high ruined walls, dusty streets, gateways, decrepit dwellings and open graves.

Following the marked route around the citadel through a maze of corridors, chambers, and amazingly large plazas, you will begin to form your own picture of this highly organized, ancient civilization. For example, in the courtyard just past the entrance gateway, some twenty-five seats are set into niches at regular intervals along the walls. By sitting in one niche and whispering to someone in another, you can witness an unusual acoustic effect: how this simply designed council room amplifies all sounds, making the niches seem like they’re connected by adobe intercoms.

Fishing-net motifs are repeated throughout the citadel’s design, particularly in the sunken ceremonial patio (an antechamber before the entrance to the audiencias, or little temples area), and show how important the sea was to the Chimu people, both mythologically and as a major resource. Dedicated to divinities and designed to hold offerings and tributes, the audiencias lead to the main ceremonial courtyard and also to the corridor of fish and bird designs.

The westernmost open point of the site is the burial area, known as the Recinto Funerario, and was the most sacred part of Tschudi, where the tomb of El Señor Chimo and his wives was located. Beyond the citadel extend acres of untended ruins that are dangerous for foreigners – some, certainly, have been robbed after wandering off alone.

Huaca La Esmeralda

One of the most beautiful, and possibly the most venerated of Chimu temples, Huaca La Esmeralda (The Emerald Temple) lies in ruins a couple of kilometres before Tschudi, just off the main Trujillo-to-Huanchaco road. Unlike Tschudi, the huaca, or sacred temple, is on the very edge of town, stuck between the outer suburbs and the first cornfields. It was built in the twelfth or early thirteenth century – at about the same time as the Tschudi temple-citadel – and is one of the most important of the huacas scattered around Trujillo. Uncovered only in 1923, its adobe walls and decorations had already been severely damaged in the freak rains of 1925 and 1983. Now you can only just make out what must have been an impressive multicoloured facade. All the relief work on the adobe walls is original, and shows marine-related motifs including friezes of fishing nets containing fish, waves, a flying pelican, a sea otter, and frequent repetitive patterns of geometrical arabesques.

The huaca has an unusually complex structure, with two main platforms, a number of surrounding walls and several sloping pathways giving access to each section. From the top platform, which was obviously a place of worship and possibly the cover to a royal tomb, you can see west across the valley to the graveyards of Chan Chan, out to sea, over the cultivated fields around the site and into the primitive brick factory next door. Only some shells and chaquiras (stone and coral necklaces) were found when the huaca was officially dug out some years ago, long after centuries of huaqueros (treasure hunters) had exhausted its more valuable goods. These grave robbers nearly always precede the archeologists. In fact, archeologists are often drawn to the sites they eventually excavate by the trail of treasures that flow from the grave robbers through dealers’ hands into the market in Lima and beyond.

Huaca Arco Iris

The Huaca Arco Iris (Rainbow Temple) is the most fully restored ruin of the Chan Chan complex and one of the oldest sectors at 1100 years old, located just to the left of the Panamerican Highway, about 4km north of Trujillo in the middle of the urban district of La Esperanza. The huaca consists of two tiers: the first tier is made up of fourteen rectangular chambers, possibly used for storing corn and precious metals for ritual purposes, while a path slopes up to the second tier, a flat-topped platform used as a ceremonial area where sacrifices were held and the gods apparently spoke. From here, there is a wide view over the valley, towards the ocean, Trujillo, and the city of Chan Chan.

Several interpretations have been made of the central motif, which is repeated throughout the huaca – some consider it a dragon, some a centipede and some a rainbow. Most of the main temple inner walls have been restored, and they are covered with the re-created central motif. The outer walls are decorated in the same way, with identical friezes cut into the adobe, in a design that looks like a multi-legged serpent arching over two lizard-type beings.