Southward bound (The ruins of Chan Chan)

Cathedral by night


With only a few days left on our 90-day visas, we left Vilcabamba and Ecuador with some degree of sadness and a greater degree of anticipation. After eight hours of winding up and down the ever drier inter-Andean valleys of southern Ecuador we finally crossed the frontier into Peru, changing buses at Piura for a six hour night bus into Trujillo for a short stopover.

Trujillo, founded in 1535, is the largest city in northern Peru and has an attractive pastel-coloured colonial centre, probably not enough in itself to attract us, but it is also the location of some fascinating archaeological ruins which pre-date the Inca civilisation.

Now that merited a look.

Colonial doorway

Local government building

The colourful geometry of Trujillo

Trujillo Cathedral
Chan Chan

As the Inca are to stone, the Chimu are to mud. The lost city of Machu Picchu is now officially one of the wonders of the modern world, not least due to the wonderful stonemasonry of the people that built it. However, prior to the Inca empire, the Chimu civilisation ruled the northern coastal region of Peru from AD 1000-1470.

Just north of where modern Trujillo stands, they built their capital of Chan Chan out of adobe bricks; an incredible complex of 28 km2 and home to over 60,000 people; the largest city in the pre-columbian Americas and the largest adobe city in the world. Even more incredible is that many of the adobe walls of the 10,000 different structures still remain, crumbling for the main but clearly defining the layout of Chan Chan. On its flat and barren coastal plain, it lacks the visual impact of a Machu Picchu, but Chan Chan makes up for this with its sheer scale.

The structure of the adobe walls

Roaming the streets of Chan Chan

Restored friezes of the Chimu

Partially restored walls of Chan Chan

Courtyard of the Royal Palace of Tchudi

Fishnet adobe walls

Pool in the Royal Palace grounds

Moreover, some of the more important areas have now been preserved and/or restored, in particular the Tchudi compound, where the Lords of Chimu lived. Here you can see the rich artistry and adobe friezes, strongly influenced by the sea with fish, seabirds, wave and net patterns embossed on the adobe walls of temples, palaces and courtyards.

Moorhen on lilypads

Grebe in the Royal Pool

To appreciate even more the skill of the restoration, we wandered back through some of the unrestored areas of the city, where the walls and structures appear to have melted into large heaps of clay, but beneath which lie the still preserved 700-year old mud bricks and history of the Chimu people.

Unrestored walls and street in Chan Chan

A modern day resident of the ruins

What happens to adobe after 1000 years

Totara (reed) caballitos at Huachanco Beach

We were glad that we had stopped here for a visit. Before going back, we called in at Huachanco, a coastal village a few kilometres north of the Chan Chan site.

Standing end-up on the beach or floating out at sea were the objects of our interest - the totara (reed) caballitos, which are most likely the world's first surf-skis. Five metre long tapered bundles of reeds, the locals have beem using these since the time of the Moche and Chimu to paddle out to sea, catch fish and ride the waves back in.

Caballito waiting to catch a wave

The Moche Pyramids

Even earlier than the Chimu, the Moche civilisation rose and fell in this area between AD 0-700. They had built their city to the south of modern Trujillo, dominated by two huge huacas (temples); Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna.

The Huaca del Sol was built with 140 million adobe bricks on 11 levels, climbing skyward like the bottom half of a stepped pyramid. Much has foundered and resembles an enormous mound of clay, but the profile of the stepped structure can still be seen from certain angles and, as with Chan Chan, it is the scale that most impresses. It is not open to the public as few archaelogical studies have yet been made.

A well-preserved 1300-year old Moche painting

Smaller, at five levels, the Huaca de la Luna can be visited and the archaelogical excavations give fascinating insights into this ancient culture. The Moche had the habit of building a new temple over the old one with the passing of each priestly dynasty, so that each of the five levels were a different temple.

By burying them so, they preserved the inner temples with their paintings and friezes from the ravages of time and, even more importantly, the ravages of treasure-mad Spanish conquistadors who only managed to destroy the upper temple.

Looking over old city ruins to the Huaca del Sol

Moche frieze in the Huaca de la Luna

Cerro Blanco - sacred mountain of the Moche

Five temple layers of the Huaca de la Luna

Looking down into the ceremonial courtyard

Another Moche frieze

The curious Peruvian hairless dog - a resident of the temples

It is a jolt to our sense of permanence to consider the rise and fall of great civilisations, such as the Moche, Chimu and Inca over time; will someone one day be wandering through the remnants of concrete and steel that mark our time on this planet?

The big push south

Presidential Palace - Lima

From Trujillo we decided to bite the bullet and head south as fast as we could. We did this in two stages: firstly, eight hours by night bus to Lima, eight hours to have a quick look at this city of ten million people while changing buses, 18 hours across the southern Peruvian coastal desert to Tacna on the southern frontier with Chile, plus an hour to cross the border to Arica and find a nice hostal for a good sleep in a bed.

Changing of the Presidential Guard - Lima

Shacks in the Peruvian desert

The bone-dry grey sands of the Atacama Desert

Next, 29 hours by bus from Arica in the far north of Chile to Valparaiso; crossing for hours the grey moisture-sucking dryness of the Atacama desert - its flatness broken by deep arroyos containing narrow patchy strips of vegetation; following the barren mine-riddled coastal hills north of Antofagasta (the copper from this region is the engine of the thriving Chilean economy) until slowly the landscapes became less arid as we passed the trendy beach resorts of La Serena and Viña del Mar, to reach the port city of Valparaiso, with its old pastel-shaded hillside houses and flat sprawling centre.

A green oasis in the middle of the Atacama

Caleta de Quintay

We didn't stay long, but caught a local minibus for another hour to reach Quintay, a small fishing village living in a 70s timewarp on the rugged coastline of southern Chile. We had travelled over 4500 km in 56 hours on a bus - it was time to stretch the legs again. When we wandered down to the small port, with its wheeling gulls calling mournfully above the rocky cove, dotted with old timber houses, we knew we had found the right place to do so.