Before the Incas – Chan Chan and the Chimú Kingdom of Peru
The first thing that occurred to us when we arrived at the entrance to northern Peru’s Chan Chan ruins, was that we might have been dropped off at the wrong place.
Considering the importance and span of the settlement itself, the entrance area seemed surprisingly small and unsophisticated, with just a few ticket and souvenir kiosks and some basic refreshments and bathroom facilities, housed within a shell of several brick walls.
Was this really the major gateway into the biggest pre-Columbian city in South America and the largest adobe city of the ancient world?
Chan Chan and the Chimú culture
Before the encroachment of the feared Inca Empire, northern Peru was already thriving. Several cultures had established themselves here, either in the cloud forests further east, or here, where the arid desert meets the mighty Pacific Ocean.
One of those cultures, the Chimú, had themselves begun to emerge in around AD 700 from the fragments of the more aggressive Moche people. Located in the mouth of the Moche Valley, Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimú Kingdom of Chimor and is believed to have been constructed in around AD 850.
The ancient capital was vast. Spanning up to 20km2, and occupied by around 50,000 inhabitants, it comprised 10 walled citadels, or ciudadelas, each containing dozens of chambers, plazas, ceremonial rooms, storerooms and burial mounds, mainly for royalty. Irregular rooms called huacas, appended to the outer segments, housed the lower classes, and often doubled up as artisan workshops.
The Palacio Nik-An, also named the Tschudi Complex (after a Swiss naturalist), is the only ciudadela that has so far been restored to any notable degree, and it’s here we emerged when we passed through the entrance – straight into a massive, walled ceremonial courtyard and into the realm of the ancient Chimú kings. Definitely in the right place, then…..
First Ceremonial Courtyard
As a ritualistic arena, this courtyard is magnificent. The surrounding 4m-thick interior walls are adorned with replicas of the original geometric designs. Closest to the entrance, at ground level, you can see etchings of a few sea otters, the only originals left. But the most striking impression hits you as you set eyes on centre stage – a man, dressed in a colourful tunic and metal headdress stands in stoic warrior-stance, acting out his kitschy tourism role with remarkable gusto. A plinth of sorts, laced with further replica artefacts, completes the scene. It was one of the few occasions I was unable to resist the lure of a set-up photo opportunity.
I walked around afterwards, and despite the silence, I felt somehow transported back to a time where the courtyard brimmed with activity and chatter.
Heading out of the Ceremonial Courtyard via a ramp, we walked along the outside wall, one of the most decorated and best restored of the entire complex. A decorative frieze runs along its entire length, with a span of seabirds topped by streams of engraved fish. The ravages of time are clear to see in the rougher edges, but that’s where the authenticity of these few remaining originals really hits home.
Mystery of the Audience Rooms
The path along the outside wall leads into the mysterious labyrinth of the Audience Rooms. Nobody knows quite what their function was, but they were undoubtedly of major importance, because these are the most extensively decorated chambers on the site.
The Chimú lived very close to the coast, and in contrast to the Sun-worshipping Incas, they venerated the Moon – they knew it had some connection to the sea, the source of most of their food. As with many cultures through the ages, that which provides sustenance tends to be revered, so throughout Chan Chan, haut-relief motifs of seabirds, waves, fish, otters and sea lions can be seen everywhere, albeit mainly replicas, since most of the originals have long-since been eroded away.
Here in the Audience Rooms all of these symbols are represented, along with seemingly endless diamond-lattice surrounds. One thing I couldn’t determine, is why they were called the Audience Rooms if we’re not sure of their purpose? If anyone knows, please enlighten me!
Gran Hachaque Ceremonial Pool
Moving on from the Audience Rooms, past a second ceremonial plaza, another ramp takes you beyond the monochromatic expanses of adobe – to the pleasant contrast of the Gran Hachaque Ceremonial Pool, a freshwater reservoir surrounded (and somewhat invaded) by reeds and grasses. It’s likely that the water was used for food preparation among other things – what is also almost certain is that the reeds and grasses took hold only after the city fell to ruin. Today, the vegetation is maintained only because it provides an unusual oasis habitat in what is otherwise an arid landscape.
Water also featured heavily in Chimú culture by way of an extensive network of interconnected irrigation canals, wells, and aqueducts. Some say the Chimú were the first true hydraulic engineering society, so sophisticated was this network that its like wasn’t seen in the western world until the 18th century.
Echoes of the past in the Assembly Room
The final area we visited – and my favourite – was the Assembly Room. It consists of a large, rectangular room with 24 separate seats recessed into the walls and extra ‘grooves’ cut around them, which results in an incredible acoustic effect. The recesses somehow act as amplifiers, and would have maximised the resonance during ancient Chimú musical performances. You can test this out for yourself – which we did, of course – by poking your head through into one of the hollowed-out niches and belting out a loud ‘laaaaaaaaaaa’!
The decline of the Chimú and the fall of Chan Chan
In its heyday Chan Chan must have been an astonishing place to behold. The Chimú were spread widely along 1000km of the Peruvian coast, and were the last people standing in the way of the Inca Empire’s total domination, but in around AD 1470, they too succumbed and were absorbed into Inca culture. The city inevitably began to fall into decline and when, in AD 1535, the city of Trujillo was founded adjacent to Chan Chan by the Spanish conquistadors, many priceless artefacts were looted.
In modern times, appreciation of Chan Chan’s cultural and archaeological significance has grown, and excavation of the site began in the 1960s. In 1986 UNESCO designated Chan Chan a World Heritage Site. In Peru’s eastern jungles, coastal protected areas and sacred valleys of the south, tourists still stream through in their many thousands, but savvy travellers are beginning to wise up to the archaeological marvels offered in Peru’s northern deserts.
The challenges facing Chan Chan in the future won’t be about popularity, but the increasingly difficult climate circumstances. Northern Peru is particularly susceptible to riverbank-bursting downpours caused by high ocean temperatures and the El Niño current, and has already suffered much erosion over the centuries since its abandonment. In 2017, the region was battered by the most devastating floods for 20 years, but whether we’re seeing an increase in frequency and severity of these events due to climate change, we can’t yet tell. The job of continuing to preserve and restore Chan Chan won’t be cheap or easy, and while its historical significance is beyond doubt, the battle for its future continues.
- there’s a museum about 15 minutes’ walk from the entrance, featuring excavated artefacts, replicas and leaflets in Spanish and English.
- the Palacio Nik-An site is located along the route from the city of Trujillo and the coastal resort of Huanchaco. Either one of these makes a great base for visiting the ruins.
- tickets cost $11 soles, are valid for 48hrs, taxis from Trujillo cost around 10-15 soles and at the other extreme, the bus running between Trujillo and Huanchaco is around 1.5 soles.
- take some water & sunglasses with you, with sun lotion and a hat or light shawl also a good idea – it’s mighty parched out there.
- we visited without a guide, but there is limited signage at the complex, so you’ll be walking around without much clue of what you’re looking at. I recommend you either visit the museum before, and pick up an information pamphlet, or book a guide at the entrance for around 30 soles. It may seem expensive compared to the ticket itself, but it does make the experience more meaningful (I had to do a lot of research post-visit). Tip: Look around and see if any other visitor who has just arrived wants to share a guide. Another option is to book an organised guided tour from Trujillo.
- we stayed at the Naylamp Hostel in Huanchaco (from 20 soles pppn)