Northern Peru – Undiscovered Archaeology and Adventure in Chiclayo
Peru’s Forgotten Northern Wonders
Peru certainly has some of the greatest tourist sites in the entire world: Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines, Colca Canyon and Lake Titicaca… however although these sites are very certainly worth seeing, they are all situated in the south of the country and many tourists visit no other part of Peru, completely skipping the north of Peru and missing out on some of the greatest sights, excellent archaeology, culture and history that really make a holiday to the Undiscovered north of Peru a very special trip! If there is one city you should try to visit other than Cusco when in Peru, then it is Chiclayo.
The City of Chiclayo
The city of Chiclayo, and the surrounding region in the north of Peru is certainly one destination that any deserving traveller should visit. The area surrounding the city is an archaeological and cultural centre, with many of the ruins equally as important as Machu Picchu in the long and detailed pre-Incan history of the Peru region of South America.
The Moche ruins of Sipàn, dating back from around Ad 100 to AD 700, are weathered adobe ruins situated within a valley known as “SugarValley”, so-called today as thousands and thousands of acres of land are used to grow sugar and artichokes. The Moche culture dates back long before the time of the Incas, from around AD 100 to AD 800, and the culture is famous for painted ceramics, gold, and for giant constructions like those at Sipàn. This part of the world really is Indiana Jones inspired – these ruins were only discovered by the archaeological world in 1987, and only then because an archaeologist working in the area called Walter Alva noticed a sudden rush of treasures being sold on the black market in and around Chiclayo and realised that a new ruin must have been discovered by thieves. Teaming up with the local police, and even the FBI at one point, Walter and a team of archaeologists approached the site and found locals digging up graves using shovels and tractors. The police fought with the locals for control over the site, raided their houses to reclaim treasures (one incident even involved a policeman shooting and killing one of the “bandits”) and still to this day retain a presence at the site. Despite the fact that this ruin is far from anywhere, and it is 20 years since the original problems, there is still a Police Station to retain order and ensure the current workers do not walk off with any finds. The site is so big that excavations will continue for many years yet.
The Lord of Sipàn
The ruins at Sipàn are very famous in Peru and in the archaeological world for being the resting place of the “Lord of Sipàn”, and also for being one of the most important discoveries in archaeology in the past 30 years. Luckily the early bandits had only excavated parts of the site, and hadn’t found some of the key treasures buried underneath the desert ground. One such found not discovered by the bandits was unearthed during early excavations by Walter Alva, when a tomb containing thousands of cups was found, which was a sign that the location was of significance to the Moche people. Soon an untouched tomb was discovered which turned out to be one of the richest ever finds in the Americas: the tomb of The “Lord of Sipàn”. He was buried dressed in very flamboyant clothing, wearing incredibly rich decorations made from gold, silver, copper and turquoise including a giant necklace made of silver and gold that represented the sun and moon. Found alongside his body were the bodies of 7 other people – his wife, the chief of the military, two concubines, a watchman, a child, a banner holder, two llamas and a dog, all ritually sacrificed to protect and serve the Lord in his afterlife. When he was alive, approximately 1500 years ago, this man was a very very important person and ruler. Although the tomb has now been fully excavated and relocated to a museum close by, tourists visiting the site can see the precise location of the tomb, which contains an exact replica of the bodies positioned within the tomb itself.
The Sipàn ruins themselves are almost unrecognisable as pyramids, and it is obvious why this ruin wasn’t discovered until 1987. Over 1500 years of rain and wind have played havoc on the mud adobe bricks that the Moche people used, making the ruin resemble little more than a muddy hill. There are only very few places dotted around the ruin where bricks are evident, apart from one small segment where excavations have taken place to reveal the base of the structure. For tourists it is possible to walk up one side of one of the pyramids to a lookout point with amazing views of the valley below.
The Valley of Pyramids
Also close by the city of Chiclayo, in the Lambayeque region of Peru, are the fabulous and awe-inspiring ruins of Tucume.
From ground level these ruins appear similar to Sipàn: weathered adobe pyramids, however from ground level it is very hard to get a good perspective of the site. A 10 minute walk up a small hill to a look-out point changes all that, and it will suddenly become clear how amazing, and how large, this site is. Stretched out over a staggering 540 acres are a total of 26 pyramids of varying sizes, with connecting walls and smaller buildings and residential areas between them. In the very distant horizon you can also see additional pyramids in the middle of the green plantations that stretch for miles and miles.
Peru, and the tourist board of Peru, have recognised this area as archaeologically significant, and have taken the sensible decision to house items found in this region in a purpose built museum within the Chiclayo region itself, rather than relocate them to Lima. The “Tumbes Reales” museum is a world-class, high security facility, deserving of a visit from any serious tourist.
Of the hundreds of priceless artefacts on display the main draw are the remains of Senor de Sipàn and the contents of his tomb, not to mention countless incredibly intricate gold and silver decorations, each around 1500 years old.
How to Visit
The region of Chiclayo, and the surround LambayequeValley where the ruins are situated, is truly one of the most important culturally and historically rich areas of Peru, as well as being one of the best Peru travel destinations in the entire country. For travellers that do venture into Northern Peru it is also a method to get away from the crowds of thousands that descend onto Machu Picchu and Cusco every day. If you are lucky, and you travel to Tucume or Sipàn, you will probably find that you are one of only a handful of people lucky enough to be visiting.
The city of Chiclayo can easily be reached via direct bus or flight from Lima. The easiest way to visit the ruins at Sipàn and Tucume is to visit on a tour from the city, and regular “combi” buses (Peruvian local transport buses) also travel around the region and pass close to the sites, although this may involve a small walk – ask locals for directions.
Blog entry and travel guide written by Jonathan, who has lived in Peru and has travelled extensively throughout the entire country, particularly throughout northern Peru. He currently works for Go Andes, a UK travel and tour company specialising in tours and holidays to Peru, where his expert knowledge of travel in Peru is invaluable.
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