Ancient Cultures of the North Coast

Peru’s Northern Coast

Peru’s Northern Coast is rightly referred to as a cradle of nations.

Throughout the pre-Inca millennia, waves of cultures flourished here. Curiously, compared to the Inca sites of Southern Peru, the North’s ancient cities receive few visitors, allowing the intrepid few to explore in relative privacy.

The largest pre-European city in the Americas, Chan Chan, was constructed by the Chimor culture three miles west of present-day Trujillo.

An ornate wall with lines and figures carved into its face, behind a detailed ancient statue in Peru

Although it appears arid, the section of the coastal plain is fertile, and was irrigated anciently by an extensive canal network.

The site was occupied continuously from approximately 850 AD until the Inca Túpac Yupanqui defeated the Chimor emperor Minchancaman in 1470 AD.

Chan Chan’s Urban Core

At its zenith, Chan Chan’s urban core—divided into ten citadels—covered more than two square miles, much of which was surrounded by adobe walls fifty to sixty feet high.

The surrounding settlements filled nearly eight square miles and supported an estimated 30,000 residents.

Most visitors to the site tour a group of three walled plazas known as the Tschudi Complex.

Although impressive for its scale, Chan Chan is difficult to understand the site without the direction of an expert guide.

Twenty minutes from Trujillo and not far from Chan Chan, the village of Huanchaco is famous for its traditional fishing techniques.

Fishermen straddle small boats—caballitos de totora—made from bound reeds, a design that reportedly dates back 3,000 years.

Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon

To the southeast of Chan Chan, two enormous adobe pyramids tower over the surrounding landscape—the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon.

These monuments of the Moche culture were constructed between the first and eighth centuries.

Ancient Mural in the Temple of the Sun and the Moon in Peru

Huaca de la Luna

Huaca de la Luna is decorated with multicolored friezes, one of which covers nearly an entire side of the pyramid.

Approximately 160 miles to the north, near the town of Chiclayo, lies the ancient Moche burial site of Sipan, or Huaca Rayada.

The site was excavated in the late 1980s, unearthing a royal tomb filled with gold and silver jewelry. The tomb of this “Lord of Sipan” and reproductions of its contents are displayed in situ.

Túcume

North of Sipan, sits an area known as Túcume—a 540-acre site containing 26 major adobe pyramids and platforms built by the Sican.

Constructed on a plain around La Raya Mountain, the site was originally settled around 800 AD.

It continued under Sican control until 1350 AD, likely occupied by successive Chimor and Inca populations in years thereafter. Like Chan Chan, this area is crisscrossed by scores of ancient irrigation canals.

Getting to Trujillo

Trujillo can be reached by air from Lima in just over an hour. Flights from the capital reach Chiclayo in about 90 minutes.

Visits to these areas can be combined with extensions to the historic city of Cajamarca and the cultural sites of the mountainous Chachapoyas region.

Trujillo and Chiclayo have pleasant weather year-round.

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