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.

Brief history

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.

Fiestas in Trujillo

Trujillo’s main fiestas turn the town into even more of a relaxed playground than it is normally, with the marinera dance featuring prominently in most celebrations. This regional dance originated in Trujillo and is accompanied by a combination of Andalucian, African and Aboriginal music played on the cajón (rhythm box) and guitar. Energetic and very sexual – this traditional dance represents the seduction of an elegant, upper-class woman by a male servant – the marinera involves dancers holding handkerchiefs above their heads and skillfully prancing around each other. You’ll see it performed in peñas all over the country but rarely with the same spirit and conviction as here in Trujillo. The last week in January, sometimes running into February (check with the tourist information office in Trujillo, for any particular year), is the main Festival de la Marinera. During this time there’s a National Marinera Competition – el Concurso Nacional de Marinera – taking place in the city over several weeks, with dance academies from all over Peru.

The main religious fiestas are in October and December, with October 17 seeing the procession of El Señor de los Milagros, and the first two weeks of December being devoted to the patron saint of Huanchaco – another good excuse for wild parties in this beach resort. February, as everywhere, is Carnival time, with even more marinera dancing evenings taking place throughout Trujillo.

Around Trujillo

The closest of the coastal resorts to Trujillo is the beachfront barrio of Buenos Aires, a five-kilometre stretch of sand southwest of Trujillo that’s very popular with locals and constantly pounded by surf. Like other coastal resorts, its seafood restaurants are an attraction, though it doesn’t have as much style or life as Huanchaco. For those in search of sand and seafood out of the city, the villages of Moche and Las Delicias are within easy reach.

Huacas del Moche

Five kilometres south of Trujillo, in a barren desert landscape beside the Río Moche, two temples really bring ancient Peru to life. Collectively known as the Huacas del Moche, these sites make a fine day’s outing and shouldn’t be missed even if you only have a passing interest in archeology or the ancient civilizations of Peru. The stunning Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun) is the largest adobe structure in the Americas, and easily the most impressive of the many pyramids on the Peruvian coast. Its twin, the Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), is smaller, but more complex and brilliantly frescoed.

Brief history

After more than 18 years of excavation, the Huaca de la Luna is now believed to have been developed in two main phases: platform I and three plazas (know collectively as the old temple) around 600AD; platform III by around 900AD.

The complex is believed to have been the capital, or most important ceremonial and urban centre, for the Moche culture, at its peak between 400 and 600 AD. Although very much associated with the Moche culture and nation (100–600 AD), however, there is evidence of earlier occupation at these sites, dating back two thousand years to the Salinar and Gallinazo cultures, indicated by constructions underlying the huacas. The area continued to be held in high regard after the collapse of the Moche culture, with signs of Wari, Chimu and Inca offerings here demonstrating a continued importance. The latest theory suggests that these huacas were mainly ceremonial centres, separated physically by a large graveyard and an associated urban settlement. Finds in this intermediate zone have so far revealed some fine structures, plus pottery workshops and storehouses.

Huaca del Sol

The Huaca del Sol is presently off limits to visitors, but it’s an amazing sight from the grounds below or even in the distance from the Huaca de la Luna, which is very much open to the public. Built by the Mochica around 500 AD, and extremely weathered, its pyramid edges still slope at a sharp 77 degrees to the horizon. Although still an enormous structure, what you see today is about thirty percent of the original construction. On top of the base platform is the demolished stump of a four-sided, stepped pyramid, surmounted about 50m above the desert by a ceremonial platform. From the top of this platform you can clearly see how the Río Moche was diverted by the Spanish in 1602, in order to erode the huaca and find treasure. They were quite successful at washing away a large section of the site, but found precious little except adobe bricks.

Estimates of the pyramid’s brickwork vary, but it is reckoned to contain somewhere between 50 million and 140 million adobe blocks, each of which was marked in any one of a hundred different ways – probably with the maker’s distinguishing signs. It must have required a massively well organized labour supply to put together – Calancha, a Spanish historian, wrote that 200,000 workers were required. How the Mochica priests and architects decided on the shape of the huaca is unknown, but if you look from the main road at its form against the silhouette of Cerro Blanco, there is a remarkable similarity between the two, and if you look at the huaca sideways from the vantage point of the Huaca de la Luna, it has the same general outline as the hills behind.

Huaca de la Luna

Clinging to the bottom of Cerro Blanco, just 500m from Huaca del Sol, is Huaca de la Luna, a ritual and ceremonial centre that was built around the same time as its neighbour. What you see today is only part of an older complex of interior rooms built over six centuries that included a maze of interconnected patios, some covered and lavishly adorned with painted friezes. The friezes are still the most striking feature of the site, rhomboid in shape and dominated by an anthropomorphic face surrounded by symbols representing nature spirits, such as the ray fish (symbol of water), pelicans (symbol of air) and serpent (symbol of earth). Its feline fangs and boggle-eyes are stylizations dating back to the early Chavín cult and it’s similar to an image known to the Moche as Ai-Apaec, master of life and death. The god that kept the human world in order, he has been frequently linked with human sacrifice, and in 1995, archeologists found 42 skeletons of sacrificial victims here. Sediment found in their graves indicates that these sacrifices took place during an El Niño weather phenomenon, something that would have threatened the economic and political stability of the nation. Ceramics dug up from the vast graveyard that extends between the two huacas and around the base of Cerro Blanco suggest that this might have also been a site for a cult of the dead. Cerro Blanco itself may have been considered a link to deity.

Behind the huaca are some frescoed rooms, discovered in the early 1990s, displaying multicoloured murals (mostly reds and blues). The most famous of these paintings has been called The Rebellion of the Artefacts because, as is fairly common on Mochica ceramics, all sorts of objects are depicted attacking human beings, getting their revenge, or rebelling. Over 6000 square metres of polychrome reliefs have been uncovered.

The new Museo Huacas de Moche, built in a pyramid style to look like Moche architecture, displays some fine ceramics – check out the warrior duck and the blind shaman – as well as a feline cat-cloak of gold and feathers. The museum combines exhibition rooms with an investigations centre, communal space and a theatre.

Sugar and the Trujillo region

Sugar cane was first brought to Peru from India by the Spaniards in the seventeenth century and quickly took root as the region’s main crop. Until early in the twentieth century, the haciendas were connected with Trujillo by a British-operated rail line, whose lumbering old wagons used to rumble down to Trujillo full of molasses and return loaded with crude oil; they were, incidentally, never washed between loads. Although the region still produces nearly half of Peru’s sugar, it has diversified as well. These days, Chicama is also well-known for the fine Cascas semi-seco wine it produces. The haciendas are also renowned for the breeding of caballos de paso – horses reared to compete in dressage and trotting contests – a long-established sport that’s still popular with Peruvian high society.

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.

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