Fancy a rare look at the sacred city of the Incas? Take the road less traveled to the southwest...
Northeastern Peru: So Much More Than Inca
This magnificent and diverse region of Peru boasts a pre-Columbian past spanning the Moche, Chimú, Sicán and Chachapoyas cultures.
The north of Peru is a fascinating mix of ecosystems ranging from the coastlands of the Pacific to the Amazon jungle, featuring tropical dry forests, cloud forests and the high plateaus of the Andes. This region offers a unique blend of nature, archeology, history and culture that leaves visitors dazzled and pondering an interesting question: Why is pre-Columbian Peru only identified with the Inca? While the world still perceives Peru with the Incan face of Machu Picchu, other facets of the country’s pre-Columbian past are emerging, with discoveries that challenge not just archeological notions, but also ideas about aesthetics, mysticism, ecology and, of course, cultural tourism. You’ll find it all in northern Peru.
The Moche Theocracy
In 2006, an amazing find turned the archeological world upside down. Régulo Franco and his team discovered the mummified remains of a heavily tattooed, 26-year-old woman, who had died in childbirth. She had been buried with all the paraphernalia reserved for the highest-ranking leaders and priests in Cao. A seaside ecosystem in the department of La Libertad, Cao is home to an impressive ceremonial pyramid known as El Brujo (The Wizard) with its life-sized carvings representing condemned prisoners sacrificed to the insatiable executioner Ai Apaec, the divine being who expressed his discontent through floods, droughts and earthquakes.
The funerary bundle of Cao weighed 220 pounds, and archeologists were expecting to find a male body inside. Instead, they found a five-foot-tall woman, draped in necklaces of gold, silver, turquoise and lapis lazuli, her skin tattooed with snakes and spiders – the motifs of a shaman healer. The body belonged to a ruler and healer, the Señora de Cao (Lady of Cao).
A fantastic new museum has the mummy on display at the end of a sequence explaining the worldview of the Moche (or Mochica) culture, which flourished between about 300 B.C.E. and 700 C.E. between the Piura and Nepeña cultures. The vertical and caste-based theocracy of the Moche united various kingdoms together under one set of religious and political principles, rooted in fear of the forces of nature. The Moche people were accomplished gold- and silversmiths and, above all, master potters. Their clay huacos realistically depict people, illnesses, moods and feelings, religious practices, sexuality and acts of everyday life. Near the city of Trujillo, the department capital, another pyramid – the Huaca de la Luna – boasts a wealth of polychrome murals.
No one knows why the Moche culture disappeared, but towards the 11th century, the Chimú culture established itself on Moche territory. The capital of the Chimú kingdom was Chan Chan, a mud-brick city with a population of over 100,000. Today, there are nearly six square miles of restored remains – plazas, temples, aqueducts, pyramids and palaces – with an architecture characterized by the use of mud bricks and ornamental friezes with an endless repetition of mythical figures. Chan Chan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. After a visit to Chan Chan, you can be on the beach in Huanchaco within minutes, where surfers ride the waves alongside fisherman who still employ the same type of rafts – caballitos de tortora – that their Moche ancestors used 1,300 years ago.
Moche splendor is perhaps best reflected in the famous Señor de Sipán (Lord of Sipan), whose tomb was discovered in 1987 by Walter Alva in Huaca Rajada, near the small city of Lambayeque in the department of the same name, north of La Libertad. The Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán displays a replica of the ruler’s tomb, along with all of the original burial items, including elaborate pieces made of gold, silver, copper, mother-of-pearl and spondylus. In keeping with a culture that worshipped the magic and mystery of the moon (called “Si” or “Shi”), the ruler would take this vast array of possessions with him into the next world. Today, Walter Alva and his son Nacho are busy studying other discoveries, like the burial site known as Cerro Ventarrón, which dates back to the Archaic Period (4500 B.C.E.), and the temples of Collud-Zarpán (Formative Period, 3000 to 200 B.C.E.).
But there is still more. Within this labyrinth of ages and civilizations, it was discovered that Lambayeque is related to another culture, the Sicán (750 to 1100 C.E.), known for the pyramids of Túcume, a magical place where ancestral traditions revolved around the enduring power of shamanism. This culture is showcased in a terrific museum, Sicán, which is located in the heart of a sacred forest.
Jungles of the Amazon and San Martín
The country’s northeast ascends from the foothills of the Andes to dense, misty forests of ruby-colored bromeliads clinging to cliffs. From Lambayeque, we head to the Amazon Region, where in 2006 German explorer Stefan Ziemendorff confirmed Gocta as the third-tallest waterfall in the world, at 2,530 feet, as measured according to the criteria of the National Geographic Society. Despite this new distinction, nearly everyone identifies the region with Chachapoyas, the department’s capital and the name of a culture that existed from 900 to 1475 C.E. Chachapoyas (Sachapuyu in Quechua) means “Cloud Forests.”
The city of Chachapoyas or “Chacha” is the starting point for a visit to Kuélap, one of Peru’s most important archeological sites. Discovered in 1843 and classified as a fortress, Kuélap is now known to have been a religious, urban and military center. The site dates back to about 800 C.E., but was occupied at different times, even by the Inca. The citadel’s walls reach heights of nearly 40 feet and span over 650 yards. The current archeological project under Alfredo Narváez encourages the local population to “appropriate” their heritage. Young Amazonian guides show visitors around the unique circular architecture and explain things like why the entrance narrows to the point of being almost impenetrable. Narváez applies principles of eco-archeology, letting the vegetation blend into the archeological landscape to serve as a timestamp. The result is magical: the silence of the high forest is interrupted by the buzz of hummingbirds among the orchids and vines. All in commemoration of a people, warriors and farmers, who saw the Inca as enemies and allied with the Spanish against them.
We end our trip in the Amazon of San Martín, a region that combines several jungles in one enormous, steaming territory of red earth. The most important city, Tarapoto, abounds with exotic fruit, lively music, waterfalls and cacao, palm hearts and tobacco plantations.
The ancient history of Peru is highly complex, making the country’s northern region a treasure trove of civilizations, of creation, of conflict and splendor. in
Perú Tres Nortes: Provides comprehensive service all along the route.
LAN Flights: To Tarapoto, Trujillo and Chiclayo daily from Lima.
Where to Stay
$$ El Libertador
$$ El Golf
Balneario de Huanchaco
$ Huanchaco Hostal
$ Hostería San Roque
$ Gran Hotel Chiclayo
$$ Los Horcones
$$ Río Shilcayo
$$ Albergue Amazónico Pumarinri
$$$ Puerto Palmeras
$$$ Gocta Lodge
$ Puma Urco
$ Casa Vieja
$ Casona Montante
$$$ Hostal Revash
Rural boarding houses in the nearby town of María.
Town of mummies.
$ La Casona de Leymebamba
SIMBOLOGÍA / KEY
$$ Moderately Priced