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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.