By Julia Henríquez
Photos: Demian Matías Colman, PromPerú
More than 10,000 years ago, one of the world’s oldest civilizations emerged in the cold Andean highlands of Perú. After 3,000 years, these first settlers descended to the western valleys, and later reached the coastal hills and finally the sea. Hundreds of years later, in the 1980s, Chiclayo, by then already a modern, bustling city, became the main gateway to this ancient route, the treasures of which were slowly resurfacing from the mountains of sand where they had remained hidden for centuries.
The Moche Route
The region between La Libertad and Lambayeque, resting in the middle of the vast desert and towering sea waves, was the birthplace of three great ancient cultures: the Sicán, the Lambayeque, and the Mochica, characterized by their gold craftsmanship, ceramics, and the irrigation systems that allowed them to expand their agricultural frontiers.
The Moche Route is a system of huacas (ruins), dating from 100 to 900 A.D. It invites you to explore the region’s rituals, religions, and social hierarchy. Museums, archeological sites, and nature parks open to the public complement this adventure route along which tourists and residents can relive the past in the middle of the desert sands.
This archeological site, discovered in 1987, sits in Lambayeque, about twenty-two miles from Chiclayo. The tomb of the Moche ruler offers clues about the funeral rituals of the great Lord of Sipán. Although this is the main attraction, the complex includes at least sixteen other tombs, the most recent one discovered in 2010. It contains the remains of a young man who, as the artifacts found around him and his dress indicate, belonged to the Moche elite. The discovery of these burials was a breakthrough in understanding the culture of Chiclayo, allowing us to more fully comprehend this great society.
The Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipán
To understand the Moche culture, it’s important to know that their burials took place in inverted pyramids; the higher an individual’s social status, the more deeply they were buried.
In an attempt at majestic realism, the Museum of the Royal Tombs receives a million tourists annually through a ramp that descends to the past. The museum tells the story of the archeologist Walter Alva, who led the excavation and promoted the museum. As one descends floor by floor, visitors experience a recreation of the excavation process. The museum is decorated by six hundred pieces of gold, silver, and precious stones that were found next to the Lord of Sipán, a ruler, priest and warrior who was buried in the company of seven guards, three women, a child, two llamas, and a dog.
Brüning National Archeological Museum
Hans Heinrich Brüning (1848-1928), who loved archeology, came to Perú in 1875 with the dream of dusting off the past. Befriending the locals, he studied the native language and published a dictionary. Thanks to his passion for Peruvian culture, during the fifty years that he was in Lambayeque, he bought and collected so many ceramics that in 1916 he was able to open the First Regional Museum of Perú, which five years later became the Brüning National Archeological Museum. A collection of 1,400 archeological pieces from the Vicús, Lambayeque, Mochica, Chavín, Chimú, and Inca cultures are exhibited throughout its four floors.
The Pyramids of Túcume
In the Valley of La Leche, 20.5 miles north of Chiclayo, there is a complex that consists of twenty-six adobe temples dating from 700 A.D. It is considered the axis of the Lambayeque culture, which later was occupied by the Chimú culture. On this site are the archeological complexes of Collud-Zarpán and Huaca Las Balsas. Judging from the evidence, the latter was the main warehouse, built between 1000 and 1375 A.D. Today, a walkway allows visitors to appreciate the complete ruin as well as an artificial lake, a small rural town, and a nursery with native plants.
In Túcume, the past coexists with the present, providing an intriguing perspective on the archeological complexes by combining them with the esoteric rituals, handicrafts, food, and religious festivals of those who live nearby today.
The Lady of Cao
In the department of La Libertad, approximately forty-three miles from the capital of Trujillo, one of Perú’s most groundbreaking findings was discovered in 2005. The discovery of the Lady of Cao marked a break with everything we thought we knew about the role of women in pre-Hispanic cultures. The mummy of the Lady of Cao was found in perfect condition. Her tattoos —a spider and serpent— were still visible on her arms, feet, and fingers, and the huaca built for her burial, which hid a full trousseau, are irrefutable evidence of the important role played by this royal personage. The details reveal information about the rituals and ceremonies over which she presided.
At the Cao Museum, which opened in 2009, the community gets involved to offer visitors an even more complete experience. Products that have been made for more than 5,000 years are offered by local artisans, providing an additional source of income for the local population.
The Sicán National Museum
This museum in Ferreñafe, about 12.5 miles from Chiclayo, exhibits a range of items, from burial objects and remarkable pre-Hispanic mummies to artifacts from the excavations of Batán Grande. Through replicas of objects and people, the museum explains different aspects of the Sicán culture. Items include the famous gold tumi (ceremonial knife) and the ceremonial mask with winged eyes.
Just under four and a half miles from Trujillo, a city of clay has emerged thanks to the efforts of archeologists, historians, and scientists. Chan Chan (Sun Sun), grand capital of the Chimú kingdom, covers more than 7.5 square miles. It is famous for its walls and temples made of clay and decorated with figures in relief depicting seabirds, fish, mythological beings, and other iconographic images. Chan Chan, after its restoration and upgrade, gives us an idea of what this important settlement once was.
Huacas del Sol y la Luna
Nearly four miles from Trujillo, camouflaged to look like a mountain of sand, visitors will find this complex that made up one of the most important ceremonial centers of the Moche culture 1,500 years ago. Built of adobe, its walls preserve the history and culture of an entire civilization.
Legend has it that the Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun) was built in just three days, thanks to the labor of 250,000 men! And in fact, had it taken one day to build or one hundred, the Temple of the Sun, an administrative and political center, makes any visitor’s jaw drop with its height of 141 feet.
In front of this temple lies the Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), formed by the overlapping platforms of six ceremonial temples, the polychromatic walls of which are decorated with depictions of, among others, Ai Apaec, the Moche throat-cutting deity. The splendid displays of color have survived the years, the looters and, most of all, the harsh desert.
In 2010 the modern Huacas Moche Museum opened, with three exhibition halls, a research center, a warehouse, an amphitheater, and landscaped communal areas that are environmentally sustainable.
Beyond the Huacas
Nearly nine miles from Chiclayo is a favorite refuge of friends and strangers alike: the Pimental resort with its grand hotels and mansions, the perfect place to relax by the dock while the world-famous “Caballitos de Totora” (reed boats) float along the rolling waves.
The Pomác Forest Historical Sanctuary provides another great option for nature lovers. It is a reserve for the remarkable carob tree and a perfect place for bird watching. In the city, don’t miss visiting the herbalists’ and healers’ market, where shamans and witches gather to sell herbs and preside over rituals of all types. At the other end of the spectrum, the Santa María Cathedral is also a must-see destination. Designed in the workshop of Gustave Eiffel, it is a neoclassical gem from 1871 that today enriches a city where ancient ruins, paintings of throat-cutting deities, and shamanic rituals are all part of daily life. Gracious hosts, the people of Chiclayo invite you to join in a conversation about the culture of their splendid past and enjoy cabrito a la chiclaya (goat Chiclayo-style) and a King-Kong (an adapted alfajor, a type of sweet biscuit).
Starting in July, Copa Airlines will offer two flights each week to Chiclayo (Perú) from North, Central, South America and the Caribbean through its Hub of the Americas in Panama City.