Off the Gringo Trail in Peru

Sipán, Peru
by Irene Butler

Peru – Published in Travel Thru History E-Zine

Lord of Sipan CoffinWith the uncovering of over 1000 ceramic pots containing food for the afterlife, archaeologist Walter Alva knew his 1987 discovery near the village of Sipán, Peru was of major importance. I can only imagine his euphoria when under the pots he unearthed a sarcophagus of a king in royal splendour, and deeper digs revealed other kings and priests – the Lords of Sipán.

There are two ways to get to Sipán; the easy way is to fly from Lima to Chiclayo (which is 30km from Sipán). Or for the more adventurous, such as my husband Rick and myself, hop a bus heading north. A bonus of overland travel is being able to take in the treasure trove of sites along the 760km route.

Northern Peru is considered “off the gringo trail” since nine out of ten travellers to the country head south, the draw being Machu Picchu and other Inca ruins. Our first bivouac north of Lima is to the town of Trujillo (tra-HEE-yo) – the absence of souvenir shops and touristy restaurants speaks for itself – we are going against the grain.

The most prominent ruin in the Trujillo area is Huaca de la Luna, a 10-storey adobe pyramid of the pre-Inca Moche Empire. From the outside this temple, built in stages between 100-700AD, appears to be a gigantic mound of clay. Upon entering our eyes widen at the sight of mud walls curiously cut away, revealing levels painted with geometric figures and mythological beings. As we gaze at the elaborate mosaics in shades of magenta, gold, green and black, our guide Juan explains that each new century the Moche sealed the bodies of their deceased rulers into the pyramid by completely covering the tombs with a new stepped platform. Thus with archaeologists slicing through the eight-level pyramid, we are awarded this amazing glimpse of condensed history.

As gold was buried with the royals, the various levels were the target of relentless plundering since colonial times. Juan, now in his 30’s said, “When I was a young boy my parents told me to stay far away from this pyramid because of grave robbers.”

Fortuitously, in 1997 an area with gold disks and textiles was found that had been missed by thieves (the items now housed in a Chiclayo museum). A year earlier excavations behind the pyramid revealed the skeletons of 40 men, aged 15-35, believed to have been sacrificed to stop the El Niño rains which partially destroyed the temple circa 750AD.

From Huaca de la Luna our route followed the chronology of the ancients. After the decline of the Moche, the Chimú civilization emerged in 900AD.  By 1300AD their adobe domain Chan Chan covered 20 sq km (4940 acres), becoming one of the largest pre-Inca empires. It was abandoned in the 1470’s when Chimús were overrun by an Inca army.

In its heyday this complex (a few km from Trujillo) was believed to have sustained a population of 60,000. Dwellings are interspersed by storage bins for food, huge walk in wells, workshops, and temples. In the centre of the complex are 10 royal compounds built by the succession of rulers. El Niño again veered its watery destruction in 1983 and then in 1998, badly eroding the adobe, but each time uncovering bodies with gold masks.

As we walked around the site, I found myself cringing at what I thought were diseased dogs, until Juan pointed out they were fine specimens of the Peruvian Hairless (declared in 1986 as a distinct breed by Kennel Club International).  From paintings on the ceramics and dog skeletons found in tombs, it is believed these “naked” dogs have been around for nigh on 4000 years, thus deserving mention with the relics of old. The locals tell of their legendary healing properties.  Contact with their skin is said to cure asthma in children and with their unusually high body temperature they are hauled off to bed like hot-water-bottles.

Our next highly anticipated stop was Chiclayo – the bustling hub of the north with fine amenities, such as ice-cream shops and cappuccino cafés.

It was not long before we taxied out to Huaco Rajada (Cracked Pyramid) the Moche culture ruins near the village of Sipán where the Lords were discovered in a bizarre way. A police call at midnight alerted Archaeologist Walter Alva to come to the site where they interrupted grave robbers hauling out rice sacks stuffed with gold antiquities. Alas, it became apparent that this was not the first visit from robbers, but fortunately the looting had been confined to one chamber.

The Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán (Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum), where these treasures now rest, was like being time-warped back to the grandeur and sophistication of this ancient civilization. The excavation details were enthralling. Directly below the ceramics Alva came across the skeleton of a sentry with feet cut off, believed to have symbolized eternal vigil – plus a standard bearer, 3 young women, a child, 2 llamas and a dog buried with this ruler. This funerary chamber (carbon dated 300AD), was followed by a series of discoveries; the latest in 2007 was chamber #14.

As we moved from display to display, I was awestruck by the craftsmanship of the exquisite ornamental objects of gold and silver embedded with turquoise. The final exhibition is a mausoleum to these ancient leaders. I stood riveted at the sight of their bones arranged in wooden coffins. My parting thought was, “King Tut had nothing over the Lords of Sipán”.

A brief look at a map had us rationalizing, “What’s another 7 hours when we have come so far”, especially when the extra distance meant a week at Mancora Beach. Upon encountering miles of fine sand backed by a riot of palms and caramel coloured hills, we gleefully agreed it was a great decision. Surfers abound, bragging they always catch a good wave here. There is nary a high-rise hotel in sight; and most of the moderately sized accommodations are owned by Peruvians.

We readily slipped into a hedonistic existence of lying under a halogen sun by our infinity pool, occasionally taking a dip, and walking up the beach to a small fishing village dotted with seafood restaurants.  A perfect setting to ponder the wonders of the venerable empires we had seen on our journey north – before bussing to the nearby coastal city of Tumbes, and taking the easy way back to Lima by air.

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