Unfolding the mystical ruins of Peru

Often associated solely with the Incas, Peru’s cultural history is, in fact, far older. We explore some ancient ruins along the country’s northern edge, in search of forgotten civilizations and stories.


Human Sacrifice: 

It isn’t unusual to come across these words when touring the oft-overlooked ruins of Northern Peru. While it may be hard to sense in Lima, the country has a mystique to it. Sometimes, it even borders on eerie. Maybe it’s just the circles in which I move, but whenever I ask, I learn that most people come to Peru for one of two things (and sometimes for both): to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or to drink ayahuasca (a hallucinogenic brew from the Amazon). Both are otherworldly. Both make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and induce states of sanctity. And both illuminate one notion clearly: in Peru, all sides of the veil are alive and kicking.

If a meditative stroll through hallowed pre-Columbian ruins appeals to you more than ingesting hallucinogens, there’s plenty here for you. And if you like things quiet, worry not: sharing the celebrity of Macchu Pichu with 2,500 other seekers isn’t your only option. Scattered north of Lima, on the coast as well as inland, are dozens of important archaeological sites whispering tales from civilizations long lost. Some of those were even hardy enough to withstand complete domination by the insatiable Inca Empire. And the best part? Due to either their lack of fame or the difficulty in reaching them, the notion of ‘having the place to yourself’ is nowhere near an unrealistic one.


In the background sits a re-creation of a shaman’s house, while in the foreground are remains of the actual houses.

The remains of Chan Chan

Situated on both sides of the 11-km road that connects the fishing village of Huanchaco to the city of Trujillo, are the melting remnants of the once mighty metropolis of Chan Chan. These are the vast coastal plains of Peru, a searing desert though and through, sandwiched between the tempestuous sea and the towering Andes. The elements are rough and resources scarce. Built entirely from adobe by the Chimú civilization (~A.D. 850-1470), Chan Chan once held, within its walls, as many as 60,000 souls and was the seat of the 600-mile long Chimor empire. Some of the walls were said to have had ten-foot wide bases and heights of nearly thirty feet; the complex itself is near 20 square kilometers. The fortified city was arranged in ten separate citadels linked by long corridors, lending to Chan Chan the ambiance of a labyrinth. The citadels—or palaces—comprised burial chambers, residences, temples, reservoirs, and ceremonial rooms.

As is often the case with our resourceful species, hardships beckoned ingenuity from the Chimú. Around the year 1000, an extreme drought and shifts in the earth’s crust caused the empire’s drinking source, an underground water table, to drop to an inaccessible depth. But natural forces weren’t incentive enough to relocate the civilization; instead, these masters of irrigation undertook the construction of a massive canal that would bring water from the Chicama River, some 50 miles away. And when the semi-regular weather phenomenon, now known as El Niño, would arrive bearing his trademark deluge, the Chimú weren’t opposed to sacrificing humans to soothe the deities. Their preferred offering? Their children – ribs crushed, hearts extracted and piled on mounds of fruits, cotton, and llamas.

But more often than not, Chimú revered water, both sweet and salt. Nestled deep within Chan Chan is an unexpected and picturesque freshwater pond, and elements of the sea – such as otters, pelicans, the ocean waves, and fishing nets – are carved into the long corridors of the complex. Likely because of her hold on the abundant sea, the Chimú deified the moon (unlike their sun-worshipping Inca contemporaries), and the sun was viewed as a destroyer. In the end, though, it wasn’t the hand of Mother Nature that trumped the Chimú, but rather the voracious Inca. The arid desert air has, in fact, been a friend to Chan Chan, helping preserve its impressive structures and even the mundane material remains of daily life. But this UNESCO World Heritage Site (classified as “endangered”) does have one very powerful and turbulent entity working against it: the ungovernable tantrums of El Niño threaten to slowly reintegrate Chan Chan back into the desert ecosystem from which it was created.


Chan Chan’s serpent-like walls give the impression of walking through a desert labrynth

Chan Chan’s serpent-like walls give the impression of walking through a desert labrynth


Just outside Trujillo are the remains of two pyramids, Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna (in Qechua, “huaca” translates to “temple”). At their heights, the moon pyramid reached 21 meters and the sun pyramid a staggering 43, and like Chan Chan, both are slowly being swallowed by the desert terrain. The temples actually predate Chan Chan, having been built by the precedent Moche civilization (~A.D. 100-800), and are thought to have served administratively as well as ceremonial functions. Evidence of ritualistic sacrifices has been found at Huaca de la Luna, namely the remains of over 70 warriors. Some of their stories are preserved on 52 unfired pots that have been uncovered at the site, each pot depicting one individual’s story. If you decide to explore Huaca de la Luna (Huaca del Sol was closed for excavations at the time of writing), you must take a guide, which is included in the price. Crowds are rare; during my visit, my guide and I were the only ones on hand to intimately tango with the indelible spirit of the Moche.


Royal Tombs of Sipan

One February evening in early 1987, a discovery was made near the city of Chiclayo: a face with turquoise eyes and a feline with shell inlays for teeth, both made of gold. That discovery eventually led to the excavation of Huaca Rajada, a site which relinquished from its terrestrial hold the final resting place of the enigmatic Lord of Sipan. The tomb, located in one of two badly corroded pyramids near the village of Sipan, is carbon-dated ~A.D. 300.

This was an important man. His body and tomb were embellished with stones, copper, feathers, beads, pottery, and gold (451 trinkets in all), and he was interred with a host of escorts: two llamas, a dog, and eight other human beings. Two men, most likely warriors sacrificed to protect the lord in his afterlife, flank his sides. Three adolescent females – two at his head, one at his feet – were likely his wives. A child rests in the sepulchre and another female crouch over the tomb. The remains of one unfortunate soul—found with his feet severed—recline above. It was believed that removing his feet prevented this sentinel from abandoning his post, even in the afterlife.


One of the tombs excavated at Sipan

One of the tombs excavated at Sipan


Here at Sipan, the artisans of the Moche civilization shine. They were prolific potters and all of the burials uncovered to date at Huaca Rajada (subsequent excavations yielded the ornate graves of a priest as well as an older lord) were littered with Moche earthenware. These ceramic pieces, coupled with the lord’s adornments, have helped to unlock the secret of his identity. Archaeologists surmise that he was a warrior-priest of the highest caste. In life as well as death, his mouth was covered by a gold, crescent-shaped nose ornament. The Moche believed their elite were divinely descended human-animal hybrids, and the gold plates hid their ferocious teeth (or, from a more contemporary perspective, they simply served to mask the mere men behind the proverbial curtain).

The Moche had a penchant for human sacrifices. Decapitation. Live burials. Blood-letting and starvation. Today, the remains of the lord’s domain – engulfed by the quiet hush of the desert and tended to by guardian vultures – resurrect voices from the past that filter surreptitiously into one’s imagination. And a bumpy, unpaved, two-hour bus ride from Chiclayo means you stand a pretty good chance of hearing those supernatural murmurs without another (living) soul around.


Land of the cloud warriors

Leaving the arid coast behind, the road winds inland through the northern highlands into the land of the Chachapoyas, the people of the clouds. And what the Chachapoyas left behind is – literally – the crowning jewel of a tour of Peru’s northern ruins.

Fierce warriors in their own right, the Chachapoyas (~A.D. 800-1570) were the architects behind the mountaintop fortress of Kuelap, rivalled in size only by Machu Picchu itself. (It’s estimated that Kuelap was constructed with 40 million cubic meters of stone, compared to 16 million of the Egyptian pyramids). Even before the Inca, the Chachapoyas grappled with problematic neighbours, and the location of their fortress was nothing if not strategic. Invisible to the valley below it, Kuelap nonetheless has a great view of the peripheral Amazonas from its lofty, 3000-meter vantage point. And with some feisty Amazonian residents being headshrinkers, the vista was as functional as it was aesthetic: headshrinkers weren’t exactly the kind of neighbours you’d want to have over unexpectedly.

There are three points-of-entry to Kuelap: one was used by the commoners and another by the elite; the third was perhaps an emergency exit of sorts. These portals are the only way in; the walls of Kuelap are a sharp eight meters. They all lead to steep corridors that grow more and more narrow on the ascent; this trick-of-the-eye forced large parties into single-file lines. That way, should the fortress ever be under siege, the attackers could easily be picked off. Today, these entrances are referred to as the “killing corridors.”

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At the height of the Chachapoyas culture, settlements dotted the surrounding landscape for miles. However, Kuelap itself was reserved for the most revered members of society: the best artisans, warriors, and shamans. The shamans’ houses were distinguished from others by diamond-shaped reliefs along the bottom perimeter. The shape signifies the undulating serpent (the underworld), which, to this day, is revered all over Peru. Together with the puma (the earth) and the condor (the world above), the serpent is a mystical character who communicates with humans through the use of medicinal, hallucinogenic plants. The Chachapoyas shamans had deep relationships with these plants.


One of the infamous killing corridors of Kuelap

One of the infamous killing corridors of Kuelap

There is one structure in Kuelap that remains fully intact. Known today as “the ink pot” because of its flue-shaped interior, archaeologists agree on one thing about it: something ceremonial occurred in there. One theory says that this hallowed space was where shamans held ayahuasca ceremonies, wrapped in the blackness of midnight, chanting the icaros that beckoned spirits and creatures from other realms. And the other theory? The ink pot housed hungry jaguars which were used in ritual sacrifices, whose food – prisoners of war – were dropped in from the top. Some archaeologists also believe that Kuelap is the only site outside of North America that saw the practice of ritualized human scalping and sacrifice. How else could one explain the excavated remains of a scalp-less adolescent female?

Toward the end of their empire, with the Inca pressing in on all sides, the stalwart Chachapoyas started to falter. However, they remained undiminished enough to join forces with the arriving Conquistadors. The mighty Incas were finally defeated – but at a precious and unrecoverable cost to the Chachapoyas. The Spaniards brought with them a dangerous and invisible stowaway – the smallpox virus, which wiped out over 90% of the Chachapoyas people. The rest was absorbed by the Spanish.

Even today, Kuelap is not easy to reach. There have been efforts made to facilitate the undertaking (such as road improvements and organized tours), but the way is still battered. The most convenient option (which, due to time restraints, is the one I opted for) is a three-hour bus ride from the town of Chachapoyas over a winding, unpaved mountain road with those, who signed up with you for the tour. You can also hike from the village of Maria, which takes about three hours. A difficult trip, but what I recollect most are the four hours spent leisurely strolling amongst ancient ruins, listening to stories that – upon closing my eyes – conjured images of shamans chanting in dim-lit spaces; of knee-bent, strapping warriors awaiting their bloody fate; of hungry jaguars prowling a small, dark space; of sacrifice to the tempestuous gods. And all this accompanied only by the quiet symphony of my imagination and the sprawling, vivid grandeur of Kuelap.

The view from the trek en route to Kuelap



How to go: While there aren’t any flights directly from India to Peru, you should be able to find a relatively affordable flight to Lima via New York City. Taca Airlines, LAN, and Delta all fly into Lima. For the adventurous (and those with some time on their hands), Peru’s northern circuit can be covered by bus. Cruz Del Sur is Peru’s premier bus company ( Otherwise, domestic flights from Lima to Trujillo are available via LAN or low-cost carriers like Star Peru.

When to go: Located in the southern hemisphere, Peru’s summer is technically from November to February; however, you’re more than likely to get pretty wet if you go during these months. Peru has two distinct seasons: rainy and dry.  If you make the trip between the dry months of April to October, you’ll find yourself surrounded by fewer mosquitos and on sturdier ground.

Things to remember: The weather in Peru’s mountains and deserts can fluctuate between hot and blustery. Wear layers to accommodate nature’s mood swings. Also, make sure to pack water and sunscreen. The high altitude sun can be harsh.

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