Just eight hours north of Lima along the Panamerican Highway, TRUJILLO looks every bit the oasis it is, standing in a relatively green, irrigated valley bounded by arid desert at the foot of the brown Andes mountains. Despite a long tradition of leftist politics, today Peru’s northern capital only sees the occasional street protest, and is more recognized by its lavish colonial architecture and colourful old mansions. Lively and cosmopolitan, it’s small enough to get to know in a couple of days, and is known for its friendly citizens. The coastal climate here is ideal, as it’s warm and dry without the fog you get around Lima, or the intense heat characteristic of the northern deserts.
The city may not have the international flavour of Lima or the diversity of culture or race, but its citizens are very proud of their history, and the local university La Libertad is well respected, especially when it comes to archeology. Founded by Bolívar in 1824, the picturesque school is surrounded by elegant, Spanish-style streets, lined with ancient green ficus trees and overhung by long, wooden-railed balconies. In addition to the city’s many churches, Trujillo is renowned for its colonial houses, most of which are in good repair and are still in use today. These should generally be visited in the mornings (Mon–Fri), since many of them have other uses at other times of day; some are commercial banks and some are simply closed in the afternoons.
One or two of the surrounding communities, which make their living from fishing or agriculture, are also celebrated across Peru for their traditional healing arts, usually based on curanderos who use the coastal hallucinogenic cactus, San Pedro, for diagnosing and sometimes curing their patients.
On his second voyage to Peru in 1528, Pizarro sailed by the site of ancient Chan Chan, at that point still a major city and an important regional centre of Inca rule. He returned to establish a Spanish colony in the same valley, naming it Trujillo in December 1534 after his birthplace in Extremadura.
In 1536, the town was besieged by the Inca Manco’s forces during the second rebellion against the conquistadors. Many thousands of Conchuco warriors, allied with the Incas, swarmed down to Trujillo, killing Spaniards and collaborators on the way and offering their victims to Catequil, the tribal deity.
After surviving this attack, Trujillo grew to become the main port of call for the Spanish treasure fleets, sailors wining and dining here on their way between Lima and Panama. By the seventeenth century it was a walled city of some three thousand houses covering three square miles. The only sections of those walls that remain are the Herrera rampart and a small piece of the facade on Avenida España.
With a restless past, Trujillo continued to be a centre of popular rebellion, declaring its independence from Spain in the Plaza de Armas in 1820, long before the Liberators arrived. The enigmatic leader of the APRA – American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (see The twentieth century) – Haya de la Torre, was born here in 1895, and ran for president in the elections of 1931. The dictator, Sánchez Cerro, however, counted the votes (unfairly, some believe), and declared himself the winner. APRA was outlawed and Haya de la Torre imprisoned, provoking Trujillo’s middle classes to stage an uprising. Over one thousand people died, many of them APRA supporters, who were taken out to the fields of Chan Chan by the truckload and shot. Even now, the 1932 massacre resonates among the people of Trujillo, particularly the old APRA members and the army, and you can still see each neighbourhood declaring its allegiance, in graffiti, to one side or the other.
APRA failed to attain political power in Peru for another 54 years, when Alan García was president for the first time; but it was the revolutionary military government in 1969 that truly unshackled this region from the tight grip of a few sugar barons, who owned the enormous haciendas in the Chicama Valley. The haciendas were then divided up among the worker co-operatives – the Casa Grande, a showcase example, is now one of the most profitable and well-organized agricultural ventures in Peru.