The northern desert remains one of the least-visited areas of Peru, mainly because of its distance from Lima and Cusco, the traditional hubs of Peru’s tourist trail, but it is still an invaluable destination for its distinctive landscape, wildlife, archeology and history.
Northern Peru has some excellent museums, besides the breathtaking coastal beauty of its desert environment, which itself contains the largest dry forest in the Americas, almost entirely consisting of algarrobo (carob) trees. The main cities of Chiclayo and Piura (the first Spanish settlement in Peru) are lively commercial centres, serving not only the desert coast but large areas of the Andes as well. If, like a lot of travellers, you decide to bus straight through from Trujillo to the Ecuadorian border beyond Tumbes (or vice versa) in a single journey, you’ll be missing out on some unique attractions.
The coastal resorts, such as the very trendy Máncora and Punta Sal, but also Cabo Blanco and, further south La Pimentel, the beach serving Chiclayo’s population, are among the best reasons for stopping: though small, they usually have at least basic facilities for travellers, and, most importantly, the ocean is warmer here than anywhere else in the country. The real jewels of the region, however, are the archeological remains, particularly the Valley of the Pyramids at Túcume and the older pyramid complex of Batán Grande, two immense pre-Inca ceremonial centres within easy reach of Chiclayo. Equally alluring is the Temple of Sipán, where some of Peru’s finest gold and silver grave-goods were found within the last fifteen years.Read More
Batán GrandeThe site at BATÁN GRANDE, 57km northeast of Chiclayo, incorporates over twenty pre-Inca temple pyramids within one corner of what extends to the largest dry forest in the Americas, the Bosque de Pomac. There’s an interpretative centre at the main entrance, which has a small archeological museum with a scale model of the site.
Part of the beauty of this site comes from its sitting at the heart of an ancient forest, dominated by algarrobo trees, spreading out over some 13,400 hectares, a veritable oasis in the middle of the desert landscape. Over ninety percent of Peru’s ancient gold artefacts are estimated to have come from here – you’ll notice there are thousands of holes, dug over the centuries by treasure hunters. Batán Grande is also known to have developed its own copper-smelting works, which produced large quantities of flat copper plates – naipes – that were between 5 and 10cm long. These were believed to have been used and exported to Ecuador as a kind of monetary system.
The Sicán culture arose to fill the void left by the demise of the Mochica culture around 700 AD, and were the driving force in the region from 800 to 1100 AD, based here at Batán Grande. Known to archeologists as the Initial Lambayeque Period, judging by the beauty and extent of the pyramids here, this era was clearly a flourishing one. Nevertheless, Batán Grande was abandoned in the twelfth century and the Sicán moved across the valley to Túcume, probably following a deluge of rains (El Niño) causing devastation, epidemics and a lack of faith in the power of the ruling elite. This fits neatly with the legend of the Sicán leader Naymlap’s descendants, who evidently brought this on themselves by sacrilegious behaviour. There is also some evidence that the pyramids were deliberately burnt, supporting the latter theory.
The main part of the site that you visit today was mostly built between 750 and 1250 AD, and comprises the Huaca del Oro, Huaca Rodillona, Huaca Corte and the Huaca Las Ventanas, where the famous Tumi de Oro was uncovered in 1936. The tomb of El Señor de Sicán (not to be confused with the tomb of El Señor de Sipán), on the north side of the Huaca El Loro, contained a noble with two women, two children and five golden crowns; these are exhibited in the excellent museum in nearby Ferreñafe. From the top of these pyramids you can just about make out the form of the ancient ceremonial plaza on the ground below.
Bosque de Pomac
The National Sanctuary of the Pomac Forest is the largest dry forest in western South America. A kilometre or so in from the interpretative centre you’ll find the oldest algarrobo tree in the forest, the árbol milenario; over a thousand years old, its spreading, gnarled mass is still the site for pagan rituals, judging from the offerings hanging from its twisted boughs, but it’s also the focus of the Fiesta de las Cruces on May 3. In the heart of the reserve lies the Bosque de Pomac, where over forty species of bird such as mockingbirds, cardinals, burrowing owls and hummingbirds have been identified, and most visitors at least see some iguanas and lizards scuttling into the undergrowth. Rarer, but still present, are wild foxes, deer and anteaters. There’s also a mirador (viewing platform) in the heart of the forest, from where it’s possible to make out many of the larger huacas. Although there is hostel accommodation at the interpretative centre, it’s rarely available or open: you’ll have to turn up and chance it; there is a camping area outside, however. The café here, selling basic snacks, is not always functioning, so bring a picnic.
TúcumeThe site of TÚCUME, also known as the Valley of the Pyramids, contains 26 adobe pyramids, many clustered around the hill of El Purgatorio (197m), also known as Cerro La Raya (after a ray fish that lives within it, according to legend), and is located some 33km north from Chiclayo. Although the ticket office closes at 4.30pm and the museum shortly after this, the site is accessible after these hours (being part of the local landscape and dissected by small paths connecting villages and homesteads), with the main sectors clearly marked by good interpretative signs.
Túcume’s modern settlement, based alongside the old Panamerican Highway, lies just a couple of kilometres west of the Valley of the Pyramids, and doesn’t have much to offer visitors except a handful of accommodation and eating options.
Covering more than two hundred hectares, Túcume was occupied initially by the Sicán culture, which began building here around 1100 AD after abandoning Batán Grande. During this time, known as the Second Lambayeque Period, the focus of construction moved to Túcume where an elite controlled a complex administrative system and cleared large areas of algarrobo forest (as is still the case today in the immediate vicinity of the Valley of the Pyramids and Cerro El Purgatorio at Túcume). Reed seafaring vessels were also essential for the development of this new, powerful elite. The Sicán people were clearly expert seamen and traded along the coast as far as Ecuador, Colombia and quite probably Central America; to the east, they traded with the sierra and the jungle regions beyond. They were also expert metallurgists working with gold, silver, copper and precious stones, and their elaborate funerary masks are astonishingly vivid and beautiful.
At Túcume’s peak, in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, it was probably a focus of annual pilgrimage for a large section of the coastal population, whose Sicán leaders were high priests with great agro-astrological understanding, adept administrators, a warrior elite, and expert artisans.
It wasn’t long, however, before things changed, and around 1375 AD the Chimu invaded from the south. Within another hundred years the Inca had arrived, though they took some twenty years to conquer the Chimu, during which time it appears that Túcume played an important role in the ensuing military, magical and diplomatic intrigues. Afterwards, the Inca transported many Chimu warriors to remote outposts in the Andes, in order to maximize the Incas’ political control and minimize the chances of rebellion. By the time the Spanish arrived, just over half a century later, Túcume’s time had already passed. When the Spanish chronicler, Pedro Cieza de León, stopped by here in 1547, it was already in ruins and abandoned.
Today, Túcume remains an extensive site with the labyrinthine ruins of walls and courtyards still quite visible, if slightly rain-washed by the impact of heavy El Niño weather cycles, and you can easily spend two or three hours exploring. The site has two clearly defined sectors: North is characterized by the large monumental structures; while the South has predominantly simpler structures and common graveyards. The adobe bricks utilized were loaf-shaped, each with their maker’s mark, indicating control and accounting for labour and tribute to the elite. Some of the pyramids have up to seven phases of construction, showing that building went on more or less continuously.
El Purgatorio hill
There’s a viewing point, reached by a twisting path that leads up El Purgatorio hill, from where you can get a good view of the whole city. This hill, circular and cone-shaped, at the very centre of the occupied area, was and still is considered by locals to be a sacred mountain. Access to it was restricted originally, though there is evidence of later Inca constructions, for example an altar site. It is still visited these days by the local curanderos, healing wizards who utilize shamanic techniques and the psychoactive San Pedro cactus in their weekly rituals, which researchers believe are similar to those of their ancestors and which could be one possible explanation for the name El Purgatorio (the place of the purge).
Museo di Sitio
The Museo de Sitio, at the entrance to the site, has exhibits relating to the work of Thor Heyerdahl, who found in Túcume the inspiration for his Kon Tiki expedition in 1946 when he sailed a raft built in the style of ancient Peruvian boats from Callao, near Lima, right across the Pacific Ocean to Polynesia, as he tried to prove a link between civilizations on either side of the Pacific. The museum also covers the work of archeologist Wendell Bennett, who in the late 1930s was the first person to scientifically excavate at the site. More esoterically, Túcume has a local reputation for magical power, and a section of the museum has been devoted to a display of local curanderismo. There’s also an attractive picnic area, and a ceramic workshop where they use 2500-year-old techniques. The museum was constructed to reflect the style – known as la ramada – of colonial chapels in this region, built by local indigenous craftsmen centuries ago and using much the same materials.
Although there are no tourist facilities as such, the Túcume ruins in the village of Túcume Viejo, less than 2km from Lambayeque, make for an interesting walk. Although an ancient site, check out the crumbling colonial adobe walls and a once-painted adobe brick gateway as well as the church, all of which have an elegant and rather grandiose feel, suggesting perhaps that the early colonists were trying to compete for attention with the Valley of the Pyramids.
The city of PIURA feels very distinct from the rest of the country, cut off to the south by the formidable Sechura Desert, and to the east by the Huancabamba mountains. Francisco Pizarro spent ten days in Piura in 1532 en route to his fateful meeting with the Inca overlord, Atahualpa, at Cajamarca. By 1534 the city, then known as San Miguel de Piura, had well over two hundred Spanish inhabitants, including the first Spanish women to arrive in Peru. As early as the 1560s, there was a flourishing trade in the excellent indigenous Tanguis cotton, and Piura today still produces a third of the nation’s cotton.
The city has a strong oasis atmosphere, entirely dependent on the vagaries of the Río Piura – known colloquially since Pizarro’s time as the Río Loco, or Crazy River. At only 29m above sea level, modern Piura is divided by a sometimes dry riverbed. Most of the action and all the main sights are on the west bank. With temperatures of up to 38°C (100°F) from January to March, the region is known for its particularly wide-brimmed straw sombreros, worn by everyone from the mayor to local goat-herders. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to see these in Semana de Piura (first two weeks of Oct), when the town is in high spirits.
MáncoraOnce just an attractive roadside fishing port, MÁNCORA is now the most fashionable beach in Peru, attracting a surf crowd from Ecuador and Brazil. It’s a highly welcome and very enjoyable stopover when travelling along the north coast, well served by public transport, and spread out along the Panamerican Highway, parallel to a beautiful sandy beach.
At the north end of the main drag, there’s a plaza and just beyond this there’s sometimes a street market, though only the usual clothing, shoes and food. Between here and the south end you’ll find most of the town’s hotels and restaurants, and a promenade with hippie artesanía stalls, selling sea-inspired crafts and jewellery.
About 30km from the Ecuadorian border and 287km north of Piura, TUMBES is usually considered a mere pit-stop for overland travellers, offering decent restaurants and better money-changing options than at the Ecuadorian frontier. However, the city has a significant history and, unlike most border settlements, is a surprisingly warm and friendly place. On top of that, it’s close to many of Peru’s finest beaches and two very distinct and unique forests and protected areas: the Santuario Nacional los Manglares de Tumbes and the Zona Reservado de Tumbes. The settlement of Zorritos is strung out along the seafront and Panamerican Highway some 28km south of Tumbes; as well as a long beach, this town is the point of access to some ancient, still-working natural mud baths.
The area can get very hot and humid between December and March, while the rest of the year it offers a pleasant heat, compared with much of Peru’s southern coast. The sea is warm and while mosquitoes can be bothersome between September and January, they rarely make their presence felt on the beaches. Locals tend to be laidback and spontaneous, a trait reflected in the local traditions such as las cumananas, an expression in popular verse, often by song with a guitar. The verse is expected to be sparky, romantic, comical and even sad, but most importantly, spur of the moment and rap-like.
Pizarro didn’t actually set foot in Tumbes when it was first discovered by the Spanish in 1527. He preferred to cast his eyes along the Inca city’s adobe walls, its carefully irrigated fields and its shining temple, from the comfort and safety of his ship. However, with the help of translators he set about learning as much as he could about Peru and the Incas during this initial contact.
The Spaniards who did go ashore made reports of such grandeur that Pizarro at first refused to believe them, sending instead the more reliable Greek cavalier, Pedro de Candia. Dubious descriptions of the temple, lined with gold and silver sheets, were confirmed by Candia, who also gave the people of Tumbes their first taste of European technological might – firing his musket to smash a wooden board to pieces. Pizarro had all the evidence he needed; he returned to Spain to obtain royal consent and support for his projected conquest.
The Tumbes people hadn’t always been controlled by the Incas. The area was originally inhabited by the Tallanes, related to coastal tribes from Ecuador who are still known for their unusual lip and nose ornaments. In 1450 they were conquered for the first time – by the Chimu. Thirteen years later came the Incas, organized by Tupac Inca, who bulldozed the locals into religious, economic and even architectural conformity in order to create their most northerly coastal terminus. A fortress, temple and sun convent were built, and the town was colonized with loyal subjects from other regions – a typical Inca ploy, which they called the mitimaes system. The valley had an efficient irrigation programme, allowing them to grow, among other things, bananas, corn and squash.
Pizarro longed to add his name to the list of Tumbes’ conquerors, yet after landing on the coast of Ecuador in 1532 with a royal warrant to conquer and convert, and despite the previous friendly contact, some of the Spanish were killed by natives as they tried to beach. Moreover, when they reached the city it was completely deserted with many buildings destroyed, and, more painfully for Pizarro, no sign of gold. It seems likely that Tumbes’ destruction prior to Pizarro’s arrival was the result of inter-tribal warfare directly related to the Inca Civil War. This, a war of succession between Atahualpa and his half-brother, the legitimate heir, Huascar, was to make Pizarro’s role as conqueror a great deal easier, and he took the town of Tumbes without a struggle.
The Sicán culture
The Sicán culture
The Sicán culture, thought to descend from the Mochica, is associated with the Naymlap dynasty, based on a wide-reaching political confederacy emanating from the Lambayeque Valley between around 800 and 1300 AD. These people produced alloys of gold, silver and arsenic-copper in unprecedented scales in pre-Hispanic America. The name Sicán actually means “House of the Moon” in the Mochica language. Legend has it that a leader called Naymlap arrived by sea with a fleet of balsa boats, his own royal retinue and a green female stone idol. Naymlap set about building temples and palaces near the sea in the Lambayeque Valley. The region was then successfully governed by Naymlap’s twelve grandsons, until one of them was tempted by a witch to move the green stone idol. Legend has it that this provoked a month of heavy rains and flash floods, rather like the effects of El Niño today, bringing great disease and death in its wake. Indeed, glacial ice cores analyzed in the Andes above here have indicated the likelihood of a powerful El Niño current around 1100 AD.
The Sicán civilization, like the Mochica, depended on a high level of irrigation technology. The civilization also had its own copper money and sophisticated ceramics, many of which featured an image of the flying Lord of Sicán. The main thrust of the Lord of Sicán designs is a well-dressed man, possibly Naymlap himself, with small wings, a nose like a bird’s beak and, sometimes, talons rather than feet. The Sicán culture showed a marked change in its burial practices from that of the Mochica, almost certainly signifying a change in the prevalent belief in an afterlife. While the Mochica people were buried in a lying position – like the Mochica warrior in his splendid tomb at Sipán – the new Sicán style was to inter its dead in a sitting position. Excavations of Sicán sites in the last decade have also revealed such rare artefacts as 22 “tumis” (semicircular bladed ceremonial knives with an anthropomorphic figure stabbing where a handle should be).
The Sicán monetary system, the flying Lord of Sicán image and much of the culture’s religious and political infrastructures were all abandoned after the dramatic environmental disasters caused by El Niño in 1100 AD. Batán Grande, the culture’s largest and most impressive city, was partly washed away and a fabulous new centre, a massive city of over twenty adobe pyramids at Túcume, was constructed in the Leche Valley. This relatively short-lived culture was taken over by Chimu warriors from the south around 1370 AD, who absorbed the Lambayeque Valley, some of the Piura Valley area and about two-thirds of the Peruvian desert coast into their empire.