The 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.

Brief history

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.

The site

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.

Túcume Viejo

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.