Off the Gringo Trail in Peru
by Irene Butler
the uncovering of over 1000 ceramic pots with food for the afterlife,
Archaeologist Walter Alva knew his 1987 discovery near the village of Sipán
was of major importance. I can only imagine his euphoria when under the pots
he unearthed a sarcophagus of a king in royal splendour, and deeper digs
revealed other kings and priests – the Lords of Sipán.
There are two ways to get to Sipán; the easy way is to fly from Lima to
Chiclayo (which is 30 km
from Sipán). Or for more adventurous travellers, such as my husband Rick and
myself, hop a bus heading north. A bonus of overland travel is being able to
take in the treasure trove of sites along the 760 km route from Lima to
Northern Peru is considered “off the gringo trail” since nine out of ten
travellers to the country isolate their visit to the south, the draw being
Machu Picchu and other Inca ruins. Our first bivouac north of Lima was to
the town of Trujillo (tra-hee-yo) - the absence of souvenir shops and
touristy restaurants speaks for itself – we were going against the grain.
The most prominent ruin in the Trujillo area is Huaca de la Luna, a
10-storey adobe pyramid of the Moche Empire, which ruled during pre-Inca
times. From the outside this temple, built in stages between 100-700AD,
appears to be a gigantic mound of clay.
entering our eyes widened at the sight of the mud walls curiously cut away,
revealing levels painted with elaborate mosaics of geometric figures and
mythological beings in shades of magenta, gold, green and black. Our guide
Juan explained that each new century the Moche sealed the bodies of the
deceased rulers into the pyramid by completely covering the tombs with a new
stepped platform, thus with archaeologists slicing through the eight-level
pyramid, we were awarded this amazing glimpse of 700 years of condensed
As gold was buried with the royals, the various levels were the target of
relentless plundering since colonial times. Juan, now in his 30’s said,
“When I was a young boy my parents told me to stay far away from this
pyramid because of grave robbers.”
Fortuitously, in 1997 an area with gold disks and textiles was found that
had been missed by thieves (the items now housed in a Chiclayo museum). A
year earlier excavations behind the pyramid revealed the skeletons of 40
men, aged 15-35, believed to have been sacrificed to stop the El Niño rains
which partially destroyed the temple circa 750AD.
From Huaca de la Luna our
route followed the chronology of the ancients. After the decline of the
Moche, the Chimú civilization emerged in 900AD. By 1300AD their adobe
domain Chan Chan covered 20 sq km (4940 acres), becoming one
of the largest pre-Inca empires. It was abandoned in the 1470’s when Chimús
were overrun by an Inca army.
its heyday this complex (a few km from Trujillo) was believed to have
sustained a population of 60,000. Dwellings are interspersed by storage bins
for food, huge walk in wells, workshops, and temples. In the centre of the
complex are 10 royal compounds built by the succession of rulers. El Niño
again veered its watery destruction in 1983 and then in 1998, badly eroding
the adobe, but each time uncovering bodies with gold masks.
As we walked around the
site, I found myself cringing at what I thought were diseased dogs, until
Juan pointed out they were fine specimens of the Peruvian Hairless (declared
in 1986 as a distinct breed by Kennel Club International). From
paintings on the ceramics and dog skeletons found in tombs, it is believed
these “naked” dogs have been around for nigh on 4000 years, thus deserving
mention with the relics of old. The locals tell of their legendary healing
properties. Contact with their
skin is said to cure asthma in children and with their unusually high body
temperature they are hauled off to bed like hot-water-bottles.
Our next highly anticipated stop was Chiclayo – the bustling hub of the
north with fine amenities, such as ice-cream shops and cappuccino cafés.
It was not long before we taxied out to Huaca Rajada (Cracked Pyramid) the
Moche culture ruins near the village of Sipán where the Lords were
discovered in a bizarre way. A police call at midnight alerted Archaeologist
Walter Alva to come to the site where the authorities had interrupted grave
robbers hauling out rice sacks stuffed with gold antiquities. Alas, it
became apparent that this was not the first visit from robbers, but
fortunately the looting had been confined to one chamber.
Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán (Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum), where these
treasures now rest, was like being time-warped back to the grandeur and
sophistication of this ancient civilization. The excavation details were
enthralling. Directly below the ceramics Alva came across the skeleton of a
sentry with feet cut off, believed to have symbolized eternal vigil – plus a
standard bearer, 3 young women, a child, 2 llamas and a dog buried with this
ruler. This funerary chamber (carbon dated 300AD), was followed by a series
of discoveries; the latest in 2007 was chamber #14.
we moved from display to display, I was awestruck by the craftsmanship of
the exquisite ornamental objects of gold and silver embedded with turquoise.
The final exhibition is a mausoleum to these ancient leaders. I stood
riveted at the sight of their bones arranged in wooden coffins. My parting
thought was, “King Tut had nothing over the Lords of Sipán”.
A brief look at a map had us rationalizing, “What’s another 7 hours when we
have come so far”, especially when the extra distance meant a week at
Mancora Beach. Upon encountering miles of fine sand backed by a riot of
palms and caramel coloured hills, we gleefully agreed it was a great
decision. Surfers abound, bragging they always catch a good wave here. There
is nary a high-rise hotel in sight; and most of the moderately sized
accommodations are owned by Peruvians.
readily slipped into a hedonistic existence of lying under a halogen sun by
our infinity pool, occasionally taking a dip, and walking up the beach to a
small fishing village dotted with seafood restaurants.
A perfect setting to ponder the wonders of the venerable empires we
had seen on our journey north - before bussing to the nearby coastal city of
Tumbes, and taking the easy way back to Lima by air.
For More Info:
Chan Chan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986
Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán - in Lambayeque - ll km N of Chiclayo
The Lords of Sipán excavation site – near Sipán village – 30 km E of Chiclayo.
If you go:
Panamerican Hwy from Lima to Trujillo
(approx 9 hours)
Panamerican Hwy from Trujillo to Chiclayo
(approx 3 hours)
Chiclayo to Mancora Beach – (approx 7 hours)
AeroCondor Flights leave regularly
- Lima to Chiclayo (approx 1 hour)
- Tumbes to Lima (approx 1 ½ hours)