Trujillo – Pyramids, Plazas and Playas
As we mentioned in our post on Caral, much of northern Peru is gloriously neglected by the country’s mass tourism. It’s a vast area filled with colonial towns, great food and the crumbling remnants of unknown ancient cultures. It’s an adventurer’s paradise waiting to be explored.
As we bused north on the paved Pan-American highway to Trujillo, the number of seductive dirt tracks luring travelers off the road to remote archaeological sites was almost too much to bear. We passed a number of remote ruins which I would have loved to visit including Paramonga, the fortress of Chanquillo, and Sechin. Thank god for visa limitations, or Thomas and I would be here for another six months combing the desert, side valleys and mountains for hidden treasures.
But it’s just a fact of life, there is no way to see everything in Peru because this country is overwhelmed with world-class attractions. We, like all travelers, have to pick and choose. Our first choice in the north: Trujillo. The largest city along the northern coast, Trujillo provides an excellent base to explore the region. We spent five days here (there’s a limit to how much we can rush) sampling a bit of what the area had to offer.
A cool colonial vibe
Trujillo is a real, functioning town rather than a fairytale enclave set aside exclusively for tourists. Having said that, there’s a palpable colonial vibe. A massive ring road and some traces of a once grand city wall attest to the importance (and size) of Trujillo during colonial times. The Plaza de Armas and the surrounding streets boast several impressive buildings including colorful casas, regal government palaces, and a beautiful, mustard-yellow cathedral. Trujillo is pretty, yet clearly real.
We wandered along the streets soaking up the northern vibe and hung out with the locals in the pretty plaza park. We were surprised how few foreigners we encountered; perhaps, that was because we were there late in the season. It’s a low-key place, other than the boisterous cross-dressing guy with MASSIVE balloon boobs who seemed to be quite the center of local attention. 😉
The primary reason the trickle of tourists we encountered were coming all the way to Trujillo (and northern Peru) was to visit Chan Chan, the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas and the largest known adobe city in the world. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most historically significant places in Peru, but few visitors make it here because it’s off the main trail leading from Lima to Cusco.
Center of the Chimu Empire, Chan Chan is believed to have once had a population of over 30,000. The sprawling “city” – if you can call it that – was really a series of 10 giant fortified compounds. As everything was constructed in adobe, many of the compounds have been eroded by wind or rain, or washed away during El Niño flooding; however, there is still quite a bit to see and the Tschudi Complex has been restored giving visitors an idea of what Chan Chan would have looked like in earlier centuries.
There is still a great deal to admire in the 700-year-old site today. Thomas and I were baffled by the bizarre, almost digital, wall art. It bore a strange resemblance to Space Invaders or Pac-Man characters. And several walls almost looked like mud imitations of metal grills complete with bolts. So weird! I’ve never been to any other site in the world that had me wondering more if the UFO conspiracy theorists might be right. The highlight was certainly the unique honeycomb adobe walls of the inner palaces, which were once a key destination for archeological photographers everywhere.
Unfortunately, in their attempts to preserve what is left of the site, including their own restorations, the government of Peru has installed some SERIOUSLY ugly shelters to preserve eroding walls. It might be necessary, but many would argue it has aesthetically ruined the site. Tin-roof shelters have even been placed over the famous and frequently photographed larger walls to protect their unique line decoration. Not surprisingly, all postcards show Chan Chan before the controversial covering.
Despite the protective architectural scars, we found the sprawling site extremely unique, mostly due to the thought-provoking artistic flourishes and the obsessive walls within walls within walls. At times, it felt like we were exploring some post-modern, mud labyrinth. There were also interesting details which reminded us of distant, unrelated cultures. For example, the Chan Chan reservoir looked eerily similar to those in India. Was this an American version of bathing ghats?
We chose to explore Chan Chan on our own and skip the organized guide. When we overheard some of the scarily stupid explanations coming out of some guides’ mouths, we felt like we had made the right choice. Having said that, there is not a huge amount of information available at the site, so a good guidebook or a little homework in advance will do wonders to explain the site. If you do take a guide, try to test them out a bit to see how knowledgeable they are.
The beach town of Huanchaco
Just a few kilometers down the road from Chan Chan is Huanchaco, a small beach town popular with vacationing Peruvians. It’s true, Peruvian beaches are never going to compete with those in northern South America or Brazil, but Huanchaco is definitely a reasonable place to take a dip to escape the desert heat or catch a wave if you’re a surfer.
More importantly, it’s the only place along the coast where locals still construct caballitos de totora, a traditional reed boat which has been used by fisherman for over 3,000 years. The beaches are lined with them. But before you grab one and make a beeline for the waves, we should mention that Huanchaco waters off the main beach are not for those who are obsessed with cleanliness.
We chose to skip the dip and grab a bite at one of the cheap ceviche restaurants that back the beach. Ten soles for a ceviche scared me, but it was good and we lived, so I guess I can recommend them. After that, we strolled along the sands and enjoyed a fantastic desert sunset.
Huaca Arco Iris and Huaca Esmeralda
Most people associate Egypt or Mexico with pyramids, it’s not the first thing one associates with Peru. But this South American nation has thousands of huacas, or ritual mounds, which are commonly referred to as pyramids in English. In reality, they are not really “pyramidal” in shape but rather wild, abstract constructions full of angled walls, cube-like yards, and ramps. Often the walls of the huacas were decorated with elaborate reliefs, some of which survive today. One of the coolest sights in Trujillo is the spectacular Huaca Arco Iris, the Rainbow Pyramid.
Decorated with spectacular reliefs of rainbows morphing into dragons, the pyramid is also referred to in some guidebooks as Huaca del Dragón. Spectacular Huaca Arco Iris often plays second fiddle to Chan Chan and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. In their rush to check off Peru’s most famous sites, some travelers skip Huaca Arco Iris. In reality, I suspect a lot of those visitors would find the ornate temple to be a Trujillo highlight. Even better, there are no ugly rain protections as of 2014. The temple is quite a fascinating and confusing construction. If you walk up the ramp to the second story and follow the narrow path out around the walls, you can see the odd cell-like yards which surround the main tower.
If, like us, you have an insatiable appetite for ruins, the Huaca Esmeralda also makes for an interesting visit. The broad, flat-topped pyramid, located in a neighborhood down the road from Chan Chan, has some interesting, eroded reliefs worth exploring. It’s also kind of fun to follow the path up and over the pyramid taking in the structure’s unusual design. But be warned that there have been reports of tourists being robbed in the neighborhood surrounding Huaca Esmeralda, so pay attention if you visit independently.
Need to refuel from all those ruins? Trujillo and the entire northern coast of Peru is known for its spectacular seafood. Of course, the dish of dishes here is ceviche and we have made it our mission to sample as much ceviche as possible. Our guidebook and several online sources recommended Mar Picante as a local favorite.
I ordered Ceviche Mar Picante, the house specialty featuring a martini glass filled with an extra helping of special black clam ceviche. Thomas ordered a sampler plate which included fish ceviche, fried seafood, arroz con mariscos, and aji de pescado, a fish dish in a yellow sauce made of peppers.
By the way, we had numerous recommendations for Big Ben, an upscale seafood restaurant in Huanchaco. Unfortunately, we got there right when they seemed to be closing, so we missed out. (Counterintuitively, Peruvian seafood restaurants often close around 5 or 6 PM, which continues to catch us off guard.) We would love to hear from people who have eaten there.
Huaca de la Luna and Huaca del Sol
A visit to the Huaca de la Luna was the unexpected highlight of our stay in Trujillo. We came here primarily for Chan Chan, but the Pyramid of the Moon is what really left us gasping in awe. Just one of hundreds of adobe pyramids scattered across the north, the Huaca de la Luna is unique because archaeologists have uncovered a massive multi-story wall covered in polychrome murals. It’s huge and totally unlike anything we’ve ever seen in other parts of the world. But how did an adobe wall covered in painted murals survive for more than a thousand years?
In reality, the Moche culture didn’t construct the pyramid in one go, but rather continually expanded and enlarged this ritual site over centuries building newer, larger pyramids on top of older pyramids. Like a Russian nesting doll, the Huaca de la Luna is a pyramid in a pyramid in a pyramid. Over time, rains and wind did severely erode the outer shell, but the layered design protected earlier pyramids within. When archaeologists started digging in the melted mass of mud, they found some surprisingly well preserved art as well as many tombs.
Guided tours lead visitors through a hodgepodge of excavations revealing many of the spectacular discoveries that have been uncovered. Deep within the layers, bits of wall art representing different eras are amazingly well preserved. In one pit, a wall lined with huge diamond-shaped frames enclose bold monster masks, their bulbous eyes and fangs sculpted into the mud. On another wall, a checkerboard pattern decorated with mythical octopus men, tentacles sprouting out of their heads.
But nothing prepares you for the enormous back wall covered in human and mythical figures. It’s an extraordinary sight which evokes images of ancient cities covered in color, a spectacle filled with history and fantasy. A row of warriors armed with heavy stone battle maces, a row of citizens holding hands, a row of crab men(?)… but I noticed that sections at the top of the wall had fallen away. In the land of earthquakes, I can’t help but wonder if it would have been better to leave all this buried. For now, it’s a miracle of survival.
If all the excavations and protective shelters blur the overall form of the pyramid, never fear. There’s a deck on the Huaca de la Luna where you can gaze out over the neighboring Huaca Del Sol, the largest pre-Columbian structure in Peru. The Pyramid of the Sun is so big, it is thought to be composed of well over a hundred million adobe bricks!!! (Just think, somebody had to make each one of those by hand.) It’s a phenomenal sight which begs the question, why do most people not even know these monuments exist? For now, they remain the exclusive domain of Peruvians and travelers-in-the-know.
If by some miracle that’s not enough ruins for you, there is plenty more to discover in the region around Trujillo. Head north to explore the Moche site of Huaca El Brujo where the Lady of Cao was discovered. Head south to discover an endless number of the remote sites we passed on the bus north. The only limit is your interest in archaeology and your tolerance for desert landscapes.
Thanks to Casa Andina Private Collection Trujillo
We would like to thank Casa Andina Trujillo for hosting us while we were exploring the area. Our beautiful room was the perfect place to chill after a hot day out in the ruins. And we could relax and reflect on what we had seen with all the sensational photography of Chan Chan and the pyramids decorating the rooms and public areas of the hotel. The beds were perfect with PLENTY of pillows; sleeping was an absolute dream. And the super-fast Internet made our work a breeze. We also really loved that Direct TV for kicking back and having a movie night. Yay! Best of all, the hotel had a great pool and exercise room, something we haven’t had for quite some time.
We really needed those exercise facilities after Casa Andina’s breakfast buffet: eggs made to order, freshly squeezed juices, a nice selection of cheeses and breakfast meats, a yogurt and fruit bar, great breads… what more could a traveler ask for? We especially loved the little quiches. Yum. And the outdoor breakfast seating was a nice touch which lets guest enjoy the warm weather. Additional thanks to the staff which really helped us out with local directions and went way out of their way to accommodate us on our early arrival. Thanks again!