An unplanned, unexpected - and hence thoroughly unwelcome - overnight bus journey whisks us westwards from Chachapoyas, dumping us most unceremoniously in the coastal city of Chiclayo at the ever-so-slightly-inconvenient hour of five in the morning. We've been given dire warnings by various people in our first few days in Peru about wandering around cities after dark - "you'll be robbed", said one lady outright - so feel rather uneasy stumbling out of the bus all bleary eyed into Chiclayo's morning fog. A quick phone call later and a sympathetic hotel owner has agreed to let us have what one might call an "early check-in". Disaster averted - it was that or wait, exhausted, in the bus terminal for several hours (with a distinctly unhappy Alex for company!)...
Peru's northern coast was, in centuries past, home to a number of highly-developed civilisations. Moche, Sicán, Chimú...The traces these cultures left behind is, without doubt, northern Peru's big drawcard - monumental adobe structures, fabulously rich tombs positively dripping in gold and silver and gorgeous pottery all abound in these parts. A vast number of archaeological sites are strung along the coast between the cities of Chiclayo and Trujillo, where the coastal cordillera
drops towards the sea. Much of the extraordinary archaeological wealth of this coastal strip has fallen prey to the dreaded huaqueros
, tomb plunderers who have left virtually no tomb or mud-brick pyramid unsacked in their quest for precious artifacts to sell to secretive collectors. Huaqueros
are not the only menace the remnants of north Peru's great civilisations have had to contend with: this small part of South America's Pacific coastline bears the brunt, every few decades, of terrifyingly destructive El Niño
events, cyclical changes in the temperature of the Pacific Ocean, bringing months of torrential rains which wreak havoc to this day. Despite the damage suffered at the hands of huaqueros
and centuries' worth of El Niño
events, many of the Moche, Sicán and Chimú archaeological sites remain immensely impressive and easily visited from Chiclayo or Trujillo.
Those items which miraculously escaped the attention of plunderers are housed in a number of wonderful museums dotted around the region. Perhaps the most impressive, the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán
, is rather incongruously located in the distinctly ropey town of Lambayeque, a half-hour taxi ride away from the city along the depressing, dusty and horrifyling rubbish-strewn Panamerican highway (Peruvian attitudes to
littering are simply jaw-dropping, on which more in a later entry). It's easy to think you're in the wrong place until the museum's vast brick-red structure - built to imitate a Moche funerary platform - looms at the end of a dirty side-street. The museum was built to house the contents of a number of royal tombs found buried deep within a monumental adobe-brick pyramid at Sipán, an archaeological site located on the other side of Chiclayo. The tombs, whose contents - vast quantities of gold and silver worked into the most astonishing designs - defy description and belief, were excavated only in 1987, having somehow evaded the spades of the huaqueros.
The tombs were discovered after a number of unusual and precious gold artifacts started appearing on the market in northern Peru: incredibly quick action by the Peruvian government allowed the huaqueros
to be stopped before they got to the real goodies. Such was the wealth of the tombs that it is assumed that they belonged to some sort of Moche nobility or royalty - the centrepiece of the museum is the cache of masks, jewellery and adornments found in the tomb of the so-called Señor de Sipán
Lord of Sipán. No photography is allowed in the museum, but a quick search of the web easily shows why people flock in their tens of thousands to the dingy suburbs of Chiclayo and come away gobsmacked. We did!
To the north of Chiclayo are a cluster of adobe-brick pyramids, the remnants of the Sicán (not to be confised with Sipán) culture which flourished near the coast after the Moche culture had vanished - a rather mysterious disappearance widely attributed to a succession of particularly vicious El Niños. While the Sicán adobe pyramids are a little bit of a sorry sight in places, having been eroded away by torrential El Niño rains into sandy-coloured hills often mistakeable for natural structures, they still make for a very atmospheric visit - this time on the back of some wonderful Peruvian pacing horses - scattered among a rare pocket of beautiful equatorial dry forest, the Bosque de Pómac. This scrubby forest, dominated by carob trees, brims with colourful and endemic bird life. As we ride through the forest, momumental mud pyramids rise above the trees, looking out to the cordillera inland. The Sicán left behind a wealth of beautiful metalwork behind -
who knows how much of it was plundered? - also housed, bizarrely, in an ultra-modern museum located in the equally dismal Chiclayo satellite town of Ferreñafe...
A couple of hours south of Chiclayo is the city of Trujillo, a dignified and smart town surrounded by yet more untold archaeological weath. Within a stone's throw of the city are the huge Moche pyramids of Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna, the latter decorated with beautiful, colourful friezes which, almost unbelievably, are still in their original state. Gradual enlargement of the pyramids in the days of the Moche hid the friezes behind adobe walls, keeping them safe from the eyes of the Spanish - who would surely have found them somehow un-Catholic (isn't everything...) and destroyed them. The pyramid of Huaca del Sol is actually the largest precolumbian structure of all, although much of it too has been washed away by countless El Niños. Again, accompanying the pyramids is a fabulous museum housing a vast collection of Moche pottery of stunning quality and detail - "Moche pottery" is definitely
worth an web search (be prepared - much of it is rather...racy).
On the other side of the city,
right on the coast, is one of the largest sites of them all: the remnants of a vast adobe-brick city built by the Chimú civilisation - Chan Chan. While - for the same reasons as mentioned above - rather little remains of the city, a small section has been restored, giving a tantalising glimpse of what this immense city must have looked like in its heyday. Geometric designs and stylised animal bas-reliefs adorn the adobe walls - it's really rather beautiful. As you wander the adobe-walled "streets" you can imagine them buzzing with activity as they doubtless did nine hundred years ago.
Gawping at gold jewellery and thousand-year-old buildings is hungry work - how fortunate for us that Chiclayo is one of Peru's culinary hotspots! We don't hold back during our few days there, tucking into delicious local specialities as ceviche
, an art form in these parts, and arroz con pato a la chiclayana,
an incredibly delicious concoction of duck simmered in beer and coriander leaves and served with rice. Months of food-boredom at the hands of Colombia and Ecuador - lands of starchy stodge by the plateful - are instantly swept away. Our tastebuds are going to love
Let's just hope the rest of our digestive systems does too...
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