The story of Machu Picchu’s miraculous discovery in 1911 by Hiram Bingham’s expedition is well-documented in the tales of the Lost City, but there is a twist to this intriguing thriller. Bingham thought he had found Vilcabamba, yet all the while he had actually stumbled upon a different ancient city, that at the time no one realised was lost!
It wasn’t until 1964 that Gene Savoy’s investigations would reveal that Espiritu Pampa, in the Vilcabamba region west of Machu Picchu, was an abandoned community and the site of a long-running war between the Incan rulers and invading Spanish conquistadors.
In many ways, knowing that Machu Picchu wasn’t even the real Lost City of the Incas that Bingham had expected to find makes the legend of the modern wonder of the world even more astounding, but the more you explore Peru, the more you realise that the country’s fascination shouldn’t start or end with Machu Picchu.
Fly about an hour north of Lima to Trujillo, capital of the Libertad region and Peru’s third most populous city. This is where the Pacific Ocean meets the desert and on arrival you’ll see a sandy, barren landscape dotted with intriguing small hills. These man-made mounds are known as huaca, homes of the dead that house yet to be uncovered secrets of Peru’s remarkable past.
Some of these huacas and their surrounding ancient cities have been excavated and the findings are incredible. Breathtaking examples of sophisticated artworks, burial grounds, temples and residences. Overshadowed today by the more famous Machu Picchu, you don’t hear much of these phenomenal sites, but for many reasons these archaeological sites that pre-date the Incan citadel by over a century are even more astounding to visit – particularly when you can often expect to be the only foreigners or possibly share the experience with just a handful of local tourists!
This simple timeline helps put the age of these sites in perspective:
By around 850 AD, the Chimu dominated the north coast of Peru. Their prosperous economy was based on agriculture, they built irrigation canals, took advantage of the guano in the area for fertiliser and cultivated plants for construction, cotton, beans, corn, pumpkin, pepper, fruits and many other nutritious crops.
Handicrafts were also very important during this period and at the Chimu’s capital city of Chan Chan there were workshops where locals made textiles and worked extraordinary examples of gold, silver, copper and bronze.
At its peak, Chan Chan was spread over 24 km2 and with around 30,000 residents it was considered to be the world’s largest mud brick city. In 1986 Chan Chan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and today you can walk around the remaining walled compounds to get a sense of the monumental construction. Extensive restoration has been undertaken with appropriate sensitivity so it doesn’t detract from its authenticity and when you walk through the gates you are instantly taken back to an extraordinary era.
HUACAS DE LA LUNA:
Around 8 km south of Trujillo is where you’ll find Huacas de Moche, which was the capital city of the Moche culture from 400-600 AD. The full area is 120 hectares and incorporates the temples Sol and Luna, as well as a residential sector. The temples get their names Sol (sun) and Luna (moon) from the Spanish conquerors, who incorrectly assumed the temples were built by the Incas to honour their main gods.
Archaeological excavations began in 1991 and in the main platform have revealed 5 buildings that were erected over approximately 500 years. Each building was used for around 100 years, then as a period ended the construction was completely covered with adobe bricks and a new temple was built above.
Throughout the site you’ll see examples of the impressive Moche artwork and colourful reliefs decorated in classic red and yellow hues that are made from ochre and cactus juice blends. The featured cat-like face is that of the god Ai-Apaec, otherwise known as Decapitator, due to the depiction of him taking a knife in his left hand and the head of a prisoner in his right hand.
Travel tip: visit the nearby Huacas de Moche Museum. It opened in 2010 and as well as being a great modern structure that’s modelled on Moche designs, it houses a very impressive collection of ancient artworks and artefacts.
Located 60 km north of Trujillo, in Chicama Valley, is the archaeological complex of El Brujo, that has three major huacas. Excavations have been underway since 1990 at the site of Huaca Cao Viejo and this research has led to a greater understanding of the Moche culture from 200 AD until the temple was abandoned in 650 AD.
Huaca Cao has a stepped shape with four sides and four temple levels. Again each of these levels were in existence for approximately 100 years. When the initial building began construction in 200 AD and would have reached 96 metres long and 76 metres high. The stages that followed each grew by up to 7 metres, creating dramatic ceremonial plazas with designs that included soldiers, priests, stylised stingrays and fish.
After the Moche left, the Lambayeque culture took over the principal square as a cemetery and mummies have been recovered from this period. Later the Spanish arrived and as the population in the region expanded the priests built a Catholic church over the ancient square. Eventually a strong earthquake in 1619 led to the inhabitants relocating to the site of Magdalena de Cao town.
Whether you choose to base yourself in Trujillo or make the most of a Pacific beach break at Chicama, where you can surf the longest left ride in the world, one of the easiest ways to get around and explore these many historic sites is with a private driver. But a tip: brush up on your Spanish before you go because you are way off the regular tourist route and English is not common outside of your hotel – which makes this adventure in Peru all the more exciting!