Travelblog SA#20: Arequipa & the Colca Canyon – Peru

5th-12th October 2018

Two weeks spent in the desert and now here I was, back in the highlands again. And not only in the highlands but in yet another historic UNESCO city.

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And of all of them, this was probably the most charming so far. Its central plaza was a large space, filled with colourful gardens and surrounded by colonial buildings made of sillar (earning Arequipa its name, ‘The White City’) which comes from volcanic mountains nearby.

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Admittedly, the city itself didn’t have too many attractions which called out to me. There are a few small museums, but none of them seemed interesting enough to pay the entrance fee, but I did enjoy the atmosphere and the cool mountain air as I spent time wandering its streets, filled with cafes, artisan shops, churches, and the market, which was one of the oldest in the country. Even the place I was staying at was a rickety building which had been converted into backpacker digs.

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The reason that I had come here – like many others before – was mainly because what lies just outside. So, after a couple of days, I took just a small bag of possessions with me and headed out for the Colca Canyon.

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The bus left at the ungodly hour of 3am and it was mostly full of daytrippers who were on a tour. I wasn’t paying full price though as I was just along for the first part of the journey. By the time the sun came up, we were entering the valley and I watched it through the window.

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The bus made a few stops before dropping me off in Cabanaconde, but I didn’t mind. One of them was to see ancient terraces which had been built by the Incas and the valley’s earlier inhabitants, the Collaguas and Cabanas, for farming.

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We also called at the ‘Cruz del Condor’, but unfortunately, I didn’t see any condors in the ten minutes I was given before asked to get on the bus again. Just a lot of tourists taking selfies. Apparently, we were there at the wrong time of the year.

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When I was dropped off in Cabanaconde, I thought it quite a charming town and made a mental note to make sure I spend a bit of time there when I passed through again. An American guy called Sam got off the bus too and together we began the hike to Llahuar.

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The first day was harder than I was expecting, considering it was mostly downhill. The views were great as we plunged into the canyon though. A few hours in, we reached the river at the bottom where there were a series of geysers. I have videos of them here.

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We stopped there for lunch. The area smelled of sulphur and I could feel the earth beneath my feet humming as I ate. It was a strange place. The ground was white, covered in ash, and warm. When I went to the river to refill my water I had to be careful as parts of it were scolding hot.

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After lunch, it only took another hour to reach Llahuar. On our way in a dog tried to bite me, which took me completely by surprise. You get a lot of bother from dogs in rural parts of South America – especially if you are white – because they don’t recognise you and are being territorial. Usually, you just need to slowly back away, wave a stick, or pretend to throw rocks at them to get them to leave you alone, but this dog didn’t give me any warning or make a sound. He sneaked up on me while I was walking and I only realised when I became aware of something pulling upon my trousers. I snatched my leg away just in time and luckily, he didn’t break my skin. It was very odd behaviour though.

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Most people who stay in Llahuar stay at Llahuar Lodge, and there are several reasons for that. It visually stands out as you approach the village and has a wonderfully placed restaurant area over-looking the canyon.

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The main reason, however, is the hot spring pools they have built by the side of the river. They are at an almost perfect temperature of 39 degrees, and a perfect way to unwind after a hike. I spent a good couple of hours relaxing in them while enjoying the view.

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One thing I will say about Llahuar Lodge though is that the food is not great. The dinner option is quite cheap but not very tasty and definitely not what I would deem to be a ‘hiker’s portion’. I was glad I brought some of my own supplies with me to supplement their meals.

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The following morning, Sam went off in a different direction as he wanted to hike to Huaruro – a side-trek which can be added on to the canyon trail – but I decided to leave it out as I had heard it was an arduous journey and only a mediocre waterfall. I began walking towards San Juan de Chucho, my destination that day.

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For the first half of the walk, I shared my path with some other people who had also stayed at Llahuar, but most of them were heading to Sangalle – also known as ‘The Oasis’ – so later on I was mostly alone. I had heard Sangalle was a little touristy and I wanted to see some of the other side of the canyon too.

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I passed through several villages, including Belen, Matala, and Cosñirhua. By the time I reached San Juan, it was around noon. I was surprised it was that early in the day. I could have happily stayed there, as it looked quite scenic – and Gloria Hostel, in particular, looked inviting with its pretty gardens – but eventually, I decided that I might as well just finish the trek. The hike back to Cabanaconde was said to only take three hours from there.

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I greatly underestimated how difficult the climb back up would be. In the past few months, I have done many treks – most of them have been much higher in altitude than this – and I therefore believed I was prepared. The truth is when climbing out of the Colca Canyon you are ascending over a thousand metres in altitude in just a few miles. It is so steep that most of the trail is a relentless zigzag up the mountain and there is very little relief. I actually think the lower-attitude may have made it harder because it was very hot and a lost a lot a water through sweating. I carried 1.5 litres with me and it was not enough.

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By the time I reached the top, over three hours later, I was dehydrated and every part of my body was aching. I had climbed out of the canyon, but I was still on the outskirts and about a mile away from Cabanaconde. Luckily, a bus was passing by and I managed to get a ride. When I did finally reach Cabanaconde, the first thing I did was go into a shop to buy two drinks full of electrolytes.

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I had a well-deserved beer that night and even treated myself to a pizza at Pachamama Hostel which had a wood-fired stone oven. The owner also told me that even though it is more difficult to see condors at this time of the year, if I headed back to Cruz del Condor in the morning and stayed for an hour or so I was guaranteed to see at least one, so I got up early and went back. It seemed luck was on my side because I didn’t just see just one but several this time (videos here).

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Originally I had planned to head to another village called Yungay that day so I could experience Colca Canyon life at a more relaxed pace, but during my time looking for condors I began to feel ill.

It started with cramps in my stomach and waves of nausea. I was feeling drained and my limbs were in pain too, but I didn’t know if that was just because I had overdone it the previous day. By the time the bus arrived, I realised that I was coming down with something and it was best to get back to Arequipa.

The bus ride was hell. It should have taken three hours but ended up taking five. It was one of those coaches with no air conditioning and the few windows it had were tiny. The sun was out and every seat was taken, so it was unbearably hot and there was no air circulation. My seat didn’t recline and I was in the aisle so I couldn’t get comfortable no matter how tired I was. During the journey, my temperature rose. It was one of the most unbearable few hours I have ever been through in all my years of travelling.

When we finally arrived into Arequipa, I was very weak. I caught a bus straight to my guesthouse and claimed a bed in their dorm. They only had top bunks left, so I had to make do. I had a full-blown fever by then and I didn’t sleep much that night. I tossed and turned and kept having to get up to use the toilet. My body was aching so much that climbing in and out of that bunk was an ordeal.

By the next day, I was feeling a bit better. My temperature dropped a little and a lower-bunk became free so I changed beds. The hostel’s resident cat became my companion and was almost constantly curled up with me throughout the next few days which followed, as I rested. Recovery took a while. I am still not quite sure what was wrong with me, but it seemed most likely either a flu bug or water poisoning.

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I originally planned to climb El Misti (a nearby summit of 5900 meters) but it seemed I was going to have to give that a miss. I was booked to do the Salkantay trek in a week’s time, and I wanted to make sure I was fully recovered by then.

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When I was feeling well enough to walk again I went to see the Convento de Santa Catalina. Known as Arequipa’s ‘city within a city’, it is over four hundred years old and has been the home to hundreds of cloistered nuns over the years. Most notably Ana de Los Angeles, who was sent to the convent as a child by her parents to be educated before they found a husband for her, but she defied her parents’ wishes and instead devoted her entire adult life to the order. She was said to have performed miracles and made many prophesies which came true. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1985.

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Once recovered, I said goodbye to Arequipa and booked a night bus heading to Cuzco.

 

For more photos and videos, click here.

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Travelblog SA#19: Paracas, Huacachina & Nazca – Peru

30th September-4th October 2018

After my week spent exploring ruins in the north I was forced to return to Lima to see a dentist because one of my fillings had fallen out. I initially tried to get it sorted in Huanchaco, but I didn’t do my research and ended up with a dodgy dentist who did a really bad job. The experience was almost a parody and there were several warning signs which should have sent me running. First, I was told to meet him at a dimly-lit street in Huacachina at night – that should have been the first giveaway. He greeted me by getting out of a car, and there was someone else inside of it whose face I never saw and who just sat there throughout the whole procedure – which was rather ominous. The ‘dentist’ escorted me into a house, where a family was currently eating dinner and through to a ‘clinic’ at the back, which was just some dingy room. The equipment looked passable, but a little old. He did wear gloves and apply all the correct cleaning agents, but he kept texting someone on his phone between drilling at my tooth, which wasn’t very hygienic. By the time I realised he was not fit for purpose it was already too late – he had drilled further into my tooth and I needed him to fill it so that the nerves were at least covered till I could get a proper job done. I suspect that the ‘filling’ was done with bad ceramic as it was coarse and he didn’t bother to shape it out properly. It fell out a couple of days later.

I was told by a friend to go to Lima where the dentists are more professional, and I was passing through there any way on my way to the south, so it just meant spending an extra night. The lady recommended to me was very meticulous and did a great job.

So, lesson learned. Always do some research if you need to get dental work done in Peru as some of the smaller, older clinics – especially in the more rural areas – can be a little sketchy.

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The following morning I was back on the road again on a bus heading south, to one of the driest deserts in the world. Throughout the next few days, I would be passing through one of Peru’s busiest tourist trails and visiting places mostly frequented by those on a short holiday. I noticed the difference in the atmosphere immediately. There were not as many local restaurants, instead lots of pizzerias and steakhouses. Streets were lined with travel agencies selling tours at laughably inflated prices. The people were different too. The locals were pushier, and the tourists a different demographic. One thing I have noticed in South America is that whenever I go off the beaten track and do something a little adventurous most of my companions are German, French, and other backpackers from the mainland of the European continent. As a Brit, I am a minority. But, as soon as enter the tourist trail, I suddenly find myself swarmed with other Brits (as well as Americans and Aussies). I am not mentioning this in a judgemental way but rather as matter-of-fact, as I do find it interesting that people from different nationalities tend to be more drawn to different places and activities.

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My first stop along my route through the desert was Paracas, a seaside town which is a launching point to the nearby Ballestas Islands, known for their birdlife. I was loaded up onto a boat with a dozen or so others and taken to the islands the next morning. As we approached, I was already seeing lots Peruvian boobies soaring through the sky. By the time we actually reached the island, there were so many species it was impossible to register them all. Cormorants, pelicans, Turkey vultures, snowy plovers, and many others, as well as sea lions.

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But my attention was mostly drawn to the Humboldt penguins (video here).

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It wasn’t just about the wildlife though. There were some interesting rock formations too, and we passed by a mysterious geoglyph whose origins remain unclear to historians.

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When the tour was over, I packed my bags and left. There wasn’t really anything else in Paracas which interested me now that I had seen the islands. There were some other lighter attractions, but they were all quite expensive and none of them seemed worth the money nor the time. I felt like I had seen the best of this area and it was time to move on. I got onto a bus heading to Huacachina.

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Huacachina is an oasis. I arrived around noon and took some time to wander. The oasis is quite pretty, even if it looks like it is being strangled by the collection of hotels, shops and restaurants competing for space around it.

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I wanted to go on a ride in a sand buggy – which seems to be the main activity here – but most of the touts by the side of the water tried to sell me tours heavily-loaded with gringo tax, so I walked away and I climbed one of the nearby sand dunes to admire the view.

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On my way down, I happened to get chatting to one of the dune-buggy drivers themselves, and he gave me an offer which was much more reasonable.

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The ride through the dunes was thrilling if a little terrifying. The drivers purposefully accelerate across bumpy ridges and plunge down the slopes to make it exciting. They seem to know what they are doing and enjoy their job. I have a video here.

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We were also taken sandboarding, of which I have another video.

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And then, after another ride through the desert, we were taken to see the sunset.

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It was only later on, once I had returned to my hostel, I found out there was a controversy surrounding these trips not too long ago. Apparently, there was an incident where some tourists died and all the dune-buggy rides were halted for a while as the authorities performed an investigation. They have since introduced some regulations to make it safer, but it is something to bear in mind if you are considering taking one of these trips.

I had a good time in Huacachina but, just like Paracas, I found it a little soulless and once I had finished my tour I didn’t feel any need to stay. I moved on the next morning.

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In Nazca, I finally found somewhere in this desert I didn’t mind the idea of kicking back and spending some time relaxing as well as sightseeing. Unlike Paracas and Huacachina, it had personality and seemed to have other industries outside of tourism. I wandered around the town that first day and went to the local market to buy some groceries. I was staying at Nanasqa, a new hostel on the outskirts, which had a lovely atmosphere and a great range of tours run by their son, Roy.

They also sort out trips to fly over the Nazca Lines (and unlike most of the other hotels in Nazca they do not rip you off, they give you a reasonable price without any bargaining) which was what I did the next morning.

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It is an interesting experience. Not just seeing the lines themselves – of course, seeing one of the world’s greatest enigmas is memorable – but I have never been on a small aircraft before. It was tiny, with only four passenger seats, and it was a rocky journey as the pilot had to pivot to get the best angles for us to see the geoglyphs. I very rarely get motion sickness but even I was glad I had a small breakfast that morning.  I have taken a series of videos which can be viewed on these links (The Monkey, The Hummingbird, The Condor and The SpiderThe Condor and The Spider, and The Tree, The Hands and The Lizard).

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Later that afternoon, I and some of the other guests at Nanasqa were loaded up into a van and taken to see some of Nazca’s lesser-known sites.

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First up was Chauchilla Cemetary, which is the only place in South America one can glimpse ancient mummies still within their original graves.

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People of the Nazca civilisation were buried in the foetal position, facing towards the sunrise and surrounded by many of their possession. Some of the pottery found with them by the archaeologists even contained food. All of these factors suggest that the Nazca people believed in reincarnation. Curiously, most of them have very long dreadlocks. Historians surmise that the only time in their adult life they were permitted to cut their hair was if they got remarried after being widowed.

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Much of this site was actually trashed by graverobbers, who took many of the artefacts and left the skeletons behind. Archaeologists have done their best to repair the damage but, even now, the future of this site’s preservation seems questionable as everything is exposed. Let’s hope they come up with a more long-term plan one day. I think this is one of those occasions where more tourism might actually help, as paying visitors give the Peruvian government more incentive to ensure its longevity.

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Next, we were taken to Cahuachi which was the former capital of the Nazca civilisation. Excavations have revealed a series of chambers and pyramids, and it is believed that this place was mostly populated by intellectuals, artisans and priests during a time when the distinction between science and religion was blurred, and its people were the masterminds behind the geoglyphs and Nazca’s aqueduct system. Just like the Moche and Chimú peoples (whose relics I visited last week), the Nazca civilisation was at the mercy of the El Niño phenomenon, and it led to their demise.

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Roy brought out a bottle of locally-made pisco for us to try and we took a little break to drink some before we moved on to our final attraction; Cantalloc.

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Cantalloc is part of Nazca’s aqueduct system, which is the secret as to how they managed to exist in one of the driest deserts in the world. It very rarely rains here but once in a year water flows from the Andes through a series of rivers, and the Nazca people found an ingenious way to stem its flow so that they could use it to irrigate their land all year round. It has – unlike many over vestiges of their civilisation – withstood multiple earthquakes because they discovered a technique of using curved stones and still remains functional today which is very impressive.

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To finish off my time in Nazca, I made a visit to the Astronomical Observatory, which had a slightly blurry but informative presentation about the geoglyphs and the many interesting theories as to why they were created. The resident astronomer was very enthusiastic and took us outside to show us some of the constellations. We also got to peer into his telescope when he showed us Mars, Saturn’s rings, and Titan.

 

For more photos and videos, click on the following links: Paracas, Huacachina and Nazca.

 

Travelblog SA#18: Chavin de Hauntar, Chan Chan & Huaca de la Luna – Peru

23rd-27th September 2018

It had only been a night since I returned from my trek in the Cordillera Blanca, and already I was on a bus again. This time on a day trip Chavin de Hauntar, home to one of several pre-Inca ruins I would be visiting during the following week.

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We stopped at Laguna Querococha along the way, where there just so happened to be a shamanic ceremony going on. People were gathered at the edge of the lake with their arms raised to the sky, while men, sat at the back, played drums. I was curious as to what the occasion was but I also didn’t want to disturb them so I climbed back onto the bus.

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The road to Chavin climbed through a landscape of ice-capped mountains, more lakes, tunnels, and we even passed a large statue of Jesus before we arrived at the site around midday.

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Chavin was certainly an enigma. I had mixed feelings about the way the tours there operated though. Still yet to gain fluency in Spanish, a tour in English wasn’t an option so I had to make do. There were several other non-Spanish speakers on the tour and, shortly in, some of them walked away to explore the ruins by themselves, which led to an altercation between them and our guide who wished for us to all stay together. I could see both sides of the argument: our guide was responsible for us, and it can be annoying hunting everyone down when people stray too far, and yet if I didn’t know any Spanish I would have found it frustrating being forced to listen to lengthy speeches which made no sense to me.

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Luckily I was able to understand about 50% of what she was saying, and I made a Brazilian friend who filled me in on the rest.

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Dating from between 1200-5000 BC, Chavin was once the nucleus of a culture which flourished in the Andes for hundreds of years. It was a home to priests, shamans, and rulers, and a place of pilgrimage for farmers and other common people who would flock there for celebrations throughout the year.

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The central plaza, thought to have been the main gathering point during festivals, has astronomical correlations relating to constellations in the sky and the rising of the sun at certain times of the year. We were also permitted to wander around the labyrinth of chambers beneath the main temple, which are thought to have been where more exclusive ceremonies were held and where initiates – who had just imbibed San Pedro or Ayahuasca – were sent for religious experiences.

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My favourite moment was seeing the Lanzón, a huge stone pillar covered with engravings of a smiling god. It is the most sacred object within the whole complex and still rests today in the very same place down in the tunnels where people can only reach it after queuing and walking in single file. Above it, there is a small opening where archaeologists believe pilgrims dripped blood and libations as offerings. We were not allowed to take photos, but there is a reconstruction of it in the museum.

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I am still a bit confused as to why Huaraz is not learning from all the other significant attractions in Peru and offers tours in English. Several buses make the trawl there every day and, on each one, around 25% of the tourists within are people who would be better with English rendition, so the numbers are there to make it both obvious and viable, but for some reason no one from the tourism industry there have figured out the math yet. Until then – and despite this – I still think Chavin is a must-see for those passing through the area.

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After finally having a day to rest, I caught an overnight bus to the coast. The city of Trujillo, which was once the epicentre of two consecutive civilisations.

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I stayed in a village on the outskirts called Huanchaco. It was once a tiny hamlet populated primarily by fishermen until the gringos and surfers moved in. Now it is also a suburb of Trujillo which still retains a distinctly different energy to the centre and is a pleasant place to stay while exploring the area.

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Chan Chan was the first site I visited. Fragments of this ancient city can be found across a vast area and it is thought to be the biggest pre-Colombian city in all of the Americas, but much of it has been either eroded or buried beneath the sand due to the harsh desert winds.  The site people walk around when they come to visit ‘Chan Chan’ is the Tschudi complex which has been partially excavated and restored.

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There isn’t much information in neither the site itself nor the nearby museum, and the guides are hired on an individual commision basis, making them expensive if you are on a budget and travelling alone, so I had to make do with wandering around and seeing what I could discern for myself until I could find information elsewhere.

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It is very clear that the Chimú people who dwelled here were heavily invested in the sea from the nautical theme. The whole place is covered in friezes of waves, fish, and birds, and there is also a reoccurring net-like design dividing the rooms at the back of the ceremonial courtyard.

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The ticket for Chan Chan also allows entry to two other smaller sites around Trujillo. Huanca Esmerelda is not much to write home about but Huanca Arco Iris is covered with yet more very interesting friezes of rainbows (believed to be a symbol of fertility) and other strange creatures.

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For me though, the highlight of this area was Huaca de la Luna, which I went to visit on my final day. It is actually older than Chan Chan, and a relic of the Moche people.

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Although not as stand-out photographic as Chan Chan, Huaca de la Luna is a much more engaging experience to visit. The museum has a wealth of engaging information and visits come with a free tour. Huaca de la Luna is a living archaeological site which is still being excavated to this day, and it is interesting to see the process of all of its layers being discovered as you are guided through the different levels.

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For a site which is so old, they do actually know quite a lot about what occurred there. Human sacrifice was practised by the Moche. They existed within a harsh, desert environment and only managed to sustain themselves through fishing and the ingenuity of creating a system of canals to channel water from the Andes, allowing them to irrigate the land for farming, but they were constantly at the mercy of the El Niño phenomenon which occurred around once every twenty years and brought catastrophic disruption to their way of life. It was during these times they most felt the need to appease their gods, and the Moche held festivals where men from high-ranking families would duel each other to decide who would be sacrificed. During the tour, you enter via the back entrance and one of the first things you see are the chambers where these unfortunate – and yet also, to the Moche mentality, honoured – young boys would be taken to imbibe San Pedro and other narcotics before being escorted to the rocks where they would be mutilated. All in vain. El Niño ended up being the downfall of the Moche people, just as it would for their future Chimú descendants who rose shortly after them.

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All of the friezes at Huaca de la Luna are original (whereas much of Chan Chan is actually a reconstructed fibreglass representation) and it is interesting to see how the anamorphic features of their principal deity evolved over the years. With each generation, a new level of this temple was constructed, and the interior walls to all the previous levels were repainted, meaning archaeologists can go back in time by peeling back the layers.

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It is not till the very end of the tour that you see Huaca de la Luna’s most visually impressive feature; the outer wall, which is pyramid-shaped and covered in even more friezes, some of which have stunning detail. You can only begin to imagine what they would have looked like in their heyday.

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Another thing which adds to the allure of this place is the presence of its twin, Huaca del Sol, which is only a stone’s throw away and can be seen from peering over Huaca de la Luna’s walls. It is actually bigger and remains buried beneath the sand, yet to be unearthed. Who knows what they may find there one day.

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For more photos from Chavin check out the latter half of my Huaraz album. Photos of Chan Chan and Huaca de la Luna can be found here.