With its restless sand dunes and miles upon miles of coastal desert, northern Peru looks at first to be a place for surfing and little else. However, those who visit its cities of Trujillo and Chiclayo quickly learn the region’s secret: that beneath those sands lie some of the most spectacular archaeological sites on the planet.
The greatest of these sites is Chan Chan, the seaside settlement near Trujillo that was once the largest adobe city in the world. Capital of the great Chimú empire, its enigmatic friezes and undulating barriers still evoke the glories of its artistic and warrior class. Meanwhile, not far away, the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna stand stark against the sky, two imposing pyramids built by the Mochica people. Practitioners of an especially bloody form of human sacrifice, these pre-Colombian natives were ultimately destroyed by a violent El Niño event, leaving their temples to decay amidst the sand.
Other archaeological glories await in Chiclayo further north. There the 1987 discovery of the tomb of El Señor de Sipan revealed to the world one of the richest tombs since Tutankhamun’s, full of precious gold jewelry and ceramic artifacts. Meanwhile, in the city’s Mercado Modelo, a host of vendors sell potions, herbs, amulets, and hallucinogenic cacti to the shamans and witch doctors that inhabit the region.
Trujillo and Chiclayo are about more than just history. The cuisine of northern Peru is considered among the most exquisite in the country, with dishes like cebiche made from black shellfish and spicy goat stew (seco de cabrito) on the menu. There are also shows of la marinera, Peru’s seductive national dance, as well as the opportunity to take a ride in caballitos de totora, handmade reed canoes that date back to Inca times.
The deserts of northern Peru are easily passed over. Those, however, who take the time to investigate will find a bevy of treasures under the sands.
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