Destination Peru

Uncovering Northern Peru

Text and Photos: Julia Henríquez


The northern coast of Perú may seem desolate: endless stretches of dunes, deserts, and avenues consigned to oblivion by time. Nonetheless, visitors venturing here should not be lulled into complacency, since the repetitive forms of the mountains unexpectedly begin to assume the shape of walls, then pyramids, and finally entire cities enveloped by a soft blanket of sand.

Between 200 and 700 A.D., this region was home to an advanced culture of ancient Perú, in which the native inhabitants cultivated the desert through an elaborate irrigation system and created beautiful ceramics. Their skilled artisans forged tools, weapons, and decorative objects in copper. And as we can see, they managed to build cities in this inhospitable wilderness.

We begin our tour in Chiclayo. The city may not seem very attractive at first blush, but it is nevertheless a requisite stop. It is the gateway to the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum in Lambayeque, the Sicán National Museum in Ferreñafe, and the pyramids of Túcume, three highlights of Perú’s extensive archeological circuit.

Lambayeque is a town of narrow streets and squat houses that would probably not make it onto visitors’ itineraries were it not for the fact that its colonial houses hide evidence of a discovery that changed the archeological history of Perú: since 2002, it has been the site of the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum, an enormous red cement pyramid that evokes ancient Mochica temples and the splendor of history.

The side ramp that leads into the museum evokes Mochica rituals, and just as if you were taking part in a rite, the ramp propels you into your own ritual, where you will find yourself slowly being pulled into three parts: the current you, the late-eighties you, and the past you, thus ushering you to the very edge of that magical expanse. Designed by architect Celso Prado Pastor, the museum recounts two interwoven stories.

The first narrative tells of the efforts of Walter Alva’s team of archeologists who discovered, restored, and studied all the pieces exhibited here; the second is the story of the spectacular burial found in 1987: the tomb of the Lord of Sipán, the highest-ranking individual burial still intact after extensive and destructive looting by grave robbers in the area.

The discovery of this vast mausoleum, consisting of more than eight tombs —some fifty feet underground— that sheltered a great lord and all his ornaments in perfect condition, created a furor in the academic world and added to Peruvians’ knowledge of their country’s history; this ritual burial shed light on the customs, tools, foods, and other elements of that remote past.

Visitors tour the museum from the top down, and each floor reveals another layer of the world uncovered by scientists. As you descend, you learn about the Lambayeques and their culture and slowly come to understand the significance of the Lord of Sipán. The museum is designed to allow visitors to follow in the footsteps of the archeologists and share the feelings they experienced as they unearthed fifteen centuries of history.

The sand and the heat gradually transport visitors to a different place and time. They can admire the jewelry forged by artisans, learn what the Lambayeque people worshipped and how, and see how archeologists made their great discovery, all of which is simply a prologue to the moment, three floors down, when they meet the great lord, wearing the jewelry that symbolized his power.

In the lobby we were advised that the tour would last a little more than an hour. Three hours later, we were still enthralled by stories about the great lord and his subjects, who worked day and night to create magnificent and showy ornaments, and in the end, give their lives to be buried alongside their ruler.

The day has passed quickly and there is no time to rest, so we hurry to the Brüning National Museum of Archeology, near the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum. Although it is much smaller, the Brüning Museum houses more than 1,400 treasures found by German-born archeologist Heinrich Brüning. After waging fierce battles against looters, Brüning decided that the treasures found in Perú should remain on Peruvian soil. Our journey through time has been exhausting, so we return to Chiclayo to make plans for tomorrow. There is still much to see and little time.

On the second day, we visit the Sicán National Museum. When it opened in 2001, it became one of the first structures here built exclusively as a museum. It is equipped with audiovisual salons and features replicas of the great burials discovered by Japanese-born anthropologist Izumi Shimada. The Museum teaches visitors about the Lambayeque culture, also known as Sicán, a word taken from the Mochica language and meaning “house of the moon.”

The museum divides the culture into three parts: early Sicán, from 800 to 900 A.D.; middle Sicán, considered the most important due to its trade relations, burials of great rulers, and technological advances; and late Sicán, from 1100 to 1375, when the culture was conquered by the Chimú empire. The museum presents the discoveries made at Huaca Loro in 1992 and exhibits life-size replicas that help explain the history of these people who showed such a genius for working in bronze.

On our way out, we decide to visit the Bosque de Pómac Historic Sanctuary, a not-immediately-visible dry forest near Ferreñafe. It is difficult to tell where the cities and dunes begin to give way to the leafy green trees that, against all odds, survive on two short months of scanty rain and endure ten months of blazing summer. We embrace a millennial tree and listen to the story of how its red sap repels tree cutters and attracts shamans and believers of many faiths, who protect and care for this ancient organism that sheds tears of blood when cut.

The walk through this forest, where the roots battle for the last drops of water in the depths of the soil, energizes us and propels us onward to our final destination: the pyramids of Túcume, located some twenty miles from Chiclayo. Entering Túcume, we cannot help but go back in time once more. Thirsty and tired, I press forward slowly but excitedly, since I am eager to see what the museums have promised. It is one thing to see photos and read information and another entirely to stand here on the spot.

Before us spreads a complex of dozens pyramids, making this one of the largest archeological sites in the Americas. The largest pyramid stands approximately 131 feet high and has a base measuring 1476 by 328 feet. Unlike the Egyptians, these engineers topped their pyramids with large platforms on which they built temples. The first people to occupy this site were the Lambayeques. Next came the Chimú, and finally the Incas; it had all been abandoned by the time the Spaniards arrived.

The day draws to a close. After walking through so many centuries, we have earned a rest, and yet my fingers cannot resist the computer keyboard. A part of me remains in that arid region of Perú, where history slept for centuries under the sand until wind and human toil brought it back into the light of day.

We leave Chiclayo feeling awed. The Peruvian saying, “Don’t see the movie, live it,” definitely holds. You do not merely walk through the desert; it permeates your soul, your memory, and your imagination.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *