Things to Do in North Coast
There was once a time when a city in Peru was one of the largest known cities in the Americas. For nearly 600 years, the sprawling city was the seat of an Empire that extended for hundreds of miles, and its residents were masters of engineering techniques unknown to the rest of the world. No, we’re not talking about Machu Picchu, the ruin so often equated with Peru. Rather, this massive city was Chan Chan, a complex of adobe and sand.
Set on the outskirts of modern day Trujillo, Chan Chan was the seat of the Chimu Empire from 850-1470 AD. At its height, it’s believed to have housed up to 60,000 residents before being conquered by the infamous Inca. With its wide open courtyards, narrow alleyways, and walls which reach heights of over 30 feet, the city of Chan Chan once covered an area of nearly 8 square miles of desert. Today, the Tschudi Palace area is open to visitors to walk in the footsteps of the Chimu.
Every archaeologist dreams of finding a place like Huaca Rajada. Forgotten in the desert for over 1,700 years, Huaca Rajada was a sacred burial site for Moche nobility and royalty. When local looters in 1987 were found with lavish gold artifacts, it tipped off police that a large discovery might be buried in the nearby desert. An archaeologist, Walter Alva, was called to the site to examine the possibility that other tombs might exist, and when his team unearthed the “Lord of Sipan” and his tomb of jewels and gold, it was heralded as the greatest discovery of the last 50 years of archaeology.
Today, travelers can visit the archaeological site where excavations are still taking place. Though many of the larger artifacts and displays have been moved to Chiclayo museums (notably the Royal Tombs Museum of Sipan and the Brüning National Archaeological Museum), there is still a small museum on site that displays some of the findings.
Some might say that the city of Chiclayo is short on touristic sights, while others will claim that the comfortable city is a sight unto itself. Simply walking about town and experiencing everyday life is one of the best ways to experience Chiclayo, and the best place in the city for a casual stroll is the manicured Paseo de las Musas.
To enter this pedestrian thoroughfare, walk beneath a monument of four white columns that tower 20 feet over the park. The well-landscaped floral arrangements make this a romantic local escape, and the multiple plazas and wide walkways create a comfortable atmosphere for people watching. What makes the walkway so unique, however, are the nine statues of ancient muses that are found in Greek mythology. On a sunny day, while enjoying a picnic in the grassy, shaded promenade, the entire area takes on the feel of a classical European plaza, and the Paseo de las Musas becomes the perfect place for killing time in Chiclayo.
At the heart of activity in Chiclayo, one of Peru’s liveliest cities despite being only its fourth-largest is Parque Principal (Plaza de Armas). From sunup to well past sundown, this attractive green space is buzzing with activity, and it’s impossible to visit the city without spending at least some time here. The relatively small park, like many Plazas de Armas in Peru, sits beneath the shadow of a cathedral, this one a neoclassical, white, double-domed structure with a history dating back to 1869. Across the way is the city hall. Some of the best times to visit Parque Principal are on weekends or during the evenings, when locals come out to gather around park benches and snack on street foods, creating a festive atmosphere.
Even though Chiclayo was never a Colonial stronghold during the 17th and 18th centuries, the regal splendor of many of the buildings could lead you to initially think otherwise. One such example is the Municipal Palace, a soaring Republican style building that graces the center of town. This elegant building is so lavish and fantastically ornate, it’s estimated the bill to construct the building was paid in 30,000 pounds of gold.
The building was completed in 1919, although political protestors in 2006 caused a raging fire that nearly reduced the entire building to ashes. The structure has since been restored, however, to mimic its original style, and walking by the Municipal Palace today—its four-story clock tower and parallel arches rising high above the streets of the city—it manages to cast a fairy-tale atmosphere over an entire city block.
More Things to Do in North Coast
By Peruvian standards, the Chiclayo Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas is comparatively very young. Not constructed until 1869 (versus the early 16th and 17th centuries for churches in nearby Trujillo), the cathedral and its adjoining public square weren't inaugurated until 1916. Despite its relative youth, however, the cathedral still exudes a sense of grandeur and is one of the most striking buildings in Chiclayo.
Rising along the eastern flank of the pedestrian-filled Plaza de Armas, the white columns and pale yellow façade exude a neoclassical style. Also known as “Catedrál Santa Maria,” the twin bell towers and their white cupolas gaze out over the city, and an exquisite altar and religious carvings grace the cathedral’s interior. From the cathedral’s steps looking out towards the plaza, visitors and locals walk and mingle through the always-happening square, and the area surrounding the Chiclayo Cathedral is one of the most popular parts of the city.
Located 20 miles north of Chiclayo, this sprawling remnant of the Sicán civilization is set amongst a grove of algorrobo trees that form the largest dryland forest on South America’s west coast. Poking out from the field of green, eroded brown pyramids are all that remain of Sicán tombs that, for hundreds of years, were packed to the brim with gold. In fact, archaeologists estimate that over 90 percent of Peru’s gold was sourced from this river valley, and much of the gold in private collections is from looters who pillaged the forest.
Visitors to Batán Grande today will find an interpretive center and small museum that tell the history of the surrounding forest, as well as a viewing platform for gazing above the groves of algorrobo. The tops of the huacas (pyramids) seem to float above the treetops like haunting, dusty relics, and one of the trees in the middle of the forest has been standing for over 1,000 years.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating bits about Peru’s ancient Moche culture is that even though they ruled this coastline over 2,000 years ago, we just now today are beginning to unearth the secrets of their civilization. At no place is this more apparent than at the archaeological complex of El Brujo, a collection of temples in the Chicama Valley that depict gruesome scenes of torture and burial and date back over 4,000 years.
Of the three complexes at the El Brujo complex, the Huaca Cao Viejo offers the most for visitors to experience, see, and explore. Constructed by the Moche between 200-600 AD, the Huaca de Cao has interior artwork which is similar to the Huaca de la Luna, although unlike its famous Trujillo counterpart, the artwork here hasn’t been restored at all and exists in its original state. This area wasn’t excavated until 1990, and dry sands of the coastal desert have been preserving these colorful paintings and murals for well over 1,500 years.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, German archaeologist Hans Heinrich Brüning Brookstedt devoted his life to Northern Peru. For decades, Brüning would toil tirelessly along the desert coastline in search of ceramics and cultural artifacts from the Moche, Chimu and Inca. Today, the Brüning National Archaeological Museum is where visitors can view the astounding finds of his years of digging in the dirt.
In addition to the rooms full of cultural treasures—including a room filled entirely with gold—the lower layer showcases Brüning’s photography from years of work in the field. Many credit Brüning with being a catalyst for the area’s archaeological study, and many of the sites that have been uncovered today could be in part to his dedicated work. Unlike the neighboring Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum, photography is allowed inside the Brüning Museum, and visitors should make an effort to visit both sites during a museum tour of Chiclayo.
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