The clouds and deserts of northern Peru

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May 15th 2008
Published: June 7th 2008
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Pre-Columbian ArtPre-Columbian ArtPre-Columbian Art

Cute exhibit in Trujillo archaeological museum.
Peru's ancient civilisations: More than just the Incas
Cloudy skies and desert landscapes are the memories I will take from our time in northern Peru. This region is much less popular with tourists than the south of the country, but, with sights such as the stunning mountains around Huaraz and the pre-Columbian ruins at Trujillo, there are plenty of reasons to visit. We left the mountains of Huaraz behind and descended to Trujillo on the coast via overnight bus. I remember waking up early on the bus and looking out to the contrasting scenes of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the arid desert on the other. Despite being in a desert, I don't think we saw the sun between Huaraz and the Ecuadorian border - the skies were always covered by thick clouds but, strangely, it never felt like it would rain.

Most people when they think of Peru's history think of the Incas. The Incas are the best known of Peru's pre-Columbian civilisations, but they were just one of many civilisations that flourished in ancient Peru. And a short lived one at that. While the Incas lasted from about 1200 AD to 1532 AD, the Moche civilisation,

The bright colours of the cathedral provided a nice contrast to Trujillo's cloudy skies.
for example, lasted twice as long from 100 AD to 700 AD. We knew little about any of the pre-Columbian civilisations (other than the Incas) before we visited Peru, but, as we travelled around and learned more about the country, it quickly became apparent that the Incas were just the last in a long line of cultures to leave their mark on this area.

Trujillo is the largest city in northern Peru and is a good place to learn about these other civilisations as there are many ruins close to the city. Our first stop was the archaeological museum which contained many exhibits related to the more important civilisations in the area: Moche, Chimu and Inca, and which was a good place to visit before seeing the ruins. I was very surprised at how ornate and advanced the Moche artwork appeared - it was a good deal more impressive than any Inca art we encountered.

The Chimu and the Moche
Chan Chan is the most impressive of the ruins near Trujillo. It belonged to the Chimu civilisation, who lived in this area from 1100 until 1400 AD, when they were defeated by the Incas. Chan Chan is huge
Colonial Houses, TrujilloColonial Houses, TrujilloColonial Houses, Trujillo

More colour on Trujillo's main square.
- we saw less than 10% of the ruins and it still took a good hour and a half to walk around the site. Though the Chimu were a less important and earlier civilisation than the Incas, Chan Chan remains the biggest of all Peru's pre-Columbian ruins. Much of Chan Chan has been reconstructed, though it's fairly easy to spot which parts are original and which are new. Our guide disagreed with all this reconstruction as she felt it would be better pouring the money into protecting the existing ruins rather than making the site look prettier - probably a futile effort as rains from the next El Nino will no doubt destroy much of the reconstruction work.

Our tour also included a visit to Huanchacho, a beach side village, best known for the traditional reed boats which have been used by local fishermen for centuries. We saw plenty of hotels and restaurants in Huanchacho, which seems to be a popular spot with tourists, though under cloudy skies it had all the appeal of Brighton on a wet day in January.

We noticed all the guides finished their tours by enthusiastically promoting Trujillo and northern Peru, telling us
Plaza de ArmasPlaza de ArmasPlaza de Armas

The large Plaza de Armas was Trujillo's main square, and contained impressive colonial and religious buildings.
to be sure to spread the word about Chan Chan and Huaraz and the other parts that of the north. However, I have to add, none of these sites quite capture the imagination in the way that Machu Picchu, Choquequirao and the other Inca sites near Cusco did.

Unfortunately we did seem to rush through northern Peru. After Trujillo, we decided we had to move on to Ecuador as we were already behind schedule, having spent six weeks in the country, so Chacapoyas, Cajamarca and Chiclayo will remain unseen until my next visit to Peru. Our final night in Peru was spent in Piura, a moderately large city about 6 hrs bus journey north of Trujillo. There wasn't so much to see in Piura, and our main reason for choosing to stop here was the onward, direct connections to Loja in Peru. It was nowhere near the highlight of Peru but still a pleasant enough town to spend an evening.

Speaking of highlights of Peru, here were some of ours from the past six weeks:

Most memorable sight: Machu Picchu. Plenty of fascinating sights in Peru, but Machu Picchu can't be topped.
Best hike: The 4
Huacas del Arco IrisHuacas del Arco IrisHuacas del Arco Iris

Close-up of designs on the Rainbow Temple near Trujillo.
day trek to Choquequirao. Choiquequirao is an Inca ruined city, almost as impressive as Machu Picchu.
Favourite city: Cusco. It may be touristy but it can't be missed.
Recommended restaurant: Two Nations, Cusco. We ate here about six times during our time in Cusco. Excellent value, good menu with a mixture of Peruvian and international dishes.
Best Museum: Museo de Inca, Cusco
Nicest view: The Cordillera Blanca mountains on day 3 of the Santa Cruz trek after the sun finally came out.

Another new country
The journey from Piura to Loja in Ecuador was a long 9 hour bus journey, though there the border crossing formalities were quick, and there was occasionally good scenery when the clouds lifted. We had a brief stop in the Ecuadorian border town of Macara, a typical border town though not without its quirks; such as the bright pastel coloured church, which seemed to be missing one of sits sides, and the main square whose eastern side backs on to an airstrip!

We arrived in Loja that evening, if not bruised and battered, then certainly tired and weary. Loja is not really a tourist town, but there were plenty of churches, squares and historical buildings, plus a good selection of cafes and restaurants, so we enjoyed our day and a half there. Perhaps the most impressive sight was the street of Lourdes, containing bright coloured colonial houses and shops.

My first impressions of Ecuador were very favourable. For the first time on our trip, the prices for hotels, restaurants and transport actually corresponded to our guidebook (which itself was 2 years old). Adopting the US dollar as official currency seems to have spared Ecuador the rampant inflation see in other South American countries. Even the taxi prices were fair! And after having had to end every taxi journey in Peru with protracted negotiations over the fare, this was something of a nice surprise. I have a feeling I'm going to like Ecuador...

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23


Artwork in Chan ChanArtwork in Chan Chan
Artwork in Chan Chan

Most of it has been reconstructed.
Traditional ReedboatsTraditional Reedboats
Traditional Reedboats

For hundreds of years, these boats have been used by the fishermen of Huanchacho. They sit at one end of the boats and paddle using their feet.
Huacas de la LunaHuacas de la Luna
Huacas de la Luna

Artwork in one of the temples belonging to the Moche civilisation.
Huacas del SolHuacas del Sol
Huacas del Sol

Closed to the public as it's still being excavated, the Sun Temple was a place of worship for the Moches.
Last supper in PeruLast supper in Peru
Last supper in Peru

Dinner in Romana Cafe in Piura.
Peru-Ecuador borderPeru-Ecuador border
Peru-Ecuador border

A last glimpse of Peru before we crossed to Macara in Ecuador.
Arriving in EcuadorArriving in Ecuador
Arriving in Ecuador

A quick crossing from Peru to the town of Macara in Ecuador.
Macara's ChurchMacara's Church
Macara's Church

We were given 10 minutes to wander around Macara, so had a quick look at the church and the main square.
Macara main squareMacara main square
Macara main square

Behind the main square was what appeared to be an airstrip!
Statue in Plaza Bolivar, LojaStatue in Plaza Bolivar, Loja
Statue in Plaza Bolivar, Loja

Statue of the liberator, with six columns representing the six countries he helped gain independence (Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru)
Bolivar Mural, LojaBolivar Mural, Loja
Bolivar Mural, Loja

The liberator, Simon Bolivar, is a popular man in these parts.
House on Lourdes StreetHouse on Lourdes Street
House on Lourdes Street

Nicest street in Loja with well preserved colonial houses.

9th June 2008

Hi Barry...great blog you've got there...enjoy Peru, I love the place, was there something like 12 times between 2002 and food ever!!

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