Book! Pack! Go Travel! by Robbie Mamo

Trujillo’s Ancient Ruins

Trujillo’s Ancient Ruins

When most people think about ancient ruins in Peru, the first thing that comes to mind are the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. Before the Incas rose to power there were many other earlier civilizations that left their mark in history and on the countries landscape.

Most notably were the Moche and Chimu cultures that lived in an area of Northern Peru that spanned across 500km of the desert coastline and reached inland about 100km. The central core of these cultures was in the area that is know the city of Trujillo.

These cultures called the Moche Valley home. This region surrounds the Moche River and the people here thrived by fishing the coastal waters and being able to farm this fertile land.  Being able to harness the river to store water in vast reservoirs and develop a network of intricate irrigation allowed them to channel the water to their crops.

The Moche civilization lived in this area from sometime BC and flourished from 100AD up until around 500AD when their culture demised. This is considered to be a result of being taken over by the Wari civilization and also climate change that put a strain on resources.

The Chimu people lived in this area from around 900AD up until the late 1400’s when they were conquered by the Incas, who were then conquered by the Spanish less than a century later. These people were moon worshippers in comparison to the Inca who worshipped the sun.

Both cultures left behind lost cities and temples that are all within or a short distance from the city of Trujillo, near where I was staying in Huanchaco.

Being near Trujillo I wanted to take advantage of being in such a rich area for ancient history and decided to spend one of my mornings visiting the archaeological sites in the area.

After asking around I decided that instead of doing a group tour I would do my own thing and figure it out on my own.

The Chimu city of Chan Chan…

My first stop would be the lost adobe city of Chan Chan which was inhabited by the Chimu.

At around 8 am I got on the local bus headed to Trujillo and this costed less than 3Sol/1$ for a one way fare. Less than 10 minutes later I was at the junction where the road to the ancient ruins meets the main coastal highway. Getting dropped off here I was greeted by a few taxi drivers who offered to take me on a half day tour to all the sites for 60Sol/$20. For this price I gladly accepted and hopped in with my driver who took me down the long road to Chan Chan.

Chan Chan was a city of around 20 km² with a dense inner area of 6 km². This was home to approximately 30 000 people and is considered to be the largest known adobe city in the World. An adobe city is made of mud and brick, commonly this was how cities and dwellings were constructed in this area and many others throughout ancient times.

Once I got to the main entrance I paid 10Sol/3$ and this gave me entrance to the city of Chan Chan, the museum as well as the other 3 sites I planned on visiting.  Once I paid my fee I started by checking out the museum. The museum was small but what they had on display was excellent. There were many carvings, metal and gold work and also information boards that explained a lot of what I would see once I was inside the city walls.



A few carved statues recovered from the Chan Chan site.


A few of the artifacts that were at the museum.

After checking out the museum I walked out into the ancient city of Chan Chan. This was like nothing I’ve ever seen before and as with most ancient ruins it was like going back in time. One thing to consider is that with this method of mud brick construction it is prone to erosion. This is why they are still uncovering and reconstructing the city.

The city was made up of 10 citadels and included tombs, reservoirs, ceremonial rooms and temples. Walking through the city was like a maze and they had it set up where you walked through a set path and along the way they explained what you were looking at and the logic behind things being done the way they were.


This was a large citadel within the city.


This area had a large throne type structure which I found interesting.

Some would say that because they are doing so much reconstruction that it isn’t much to see or truly authentic but in all honesty I was impressed by how they laid it out and also the many original temples that still stood there.




Much of the city was built using diamond shape patterns. This was likely used to provide ventilation or have some function of controlling temperature in the city walls.

Most of the wall carvings and reliefs were depicting animals that were relied on for survival as well as warriors and gods they worshipped.


One of the walls with a pattern of fish etched into it. Fishing in addition to agriculture was a large part of the culture for these people and it is still the primary food source of the area.

Storage of water was very important and this was a large part of survival in this desert climate. The water from the Moche river and heavy rains the region gets in some seasons was stored in large reservoirs.


This is one of the reservoirs that had been excavated and these were one of the biggest achievements of this civilization.

In one area of the city the Chimu was a reservoir used to grow reeds. These reeds could be adapted to growing in brackish water which is a mix of salt and fresh water. Reeds are still used to construct the fishing boats that are being used by local fisherman in this region.


The site used the reservoir to demonstrate the traditional method of farming reeds in the marshes.


These guys were wearing traditional costume and demonstrating an ancient ceremony. A Peruvian hairless dog roams around behind them.

After walking around the site and taking some photos I decided it was time to round up my driver and go check out some temples that were constructed by the earlier Moche people.

The Temple of the Moon…

Less than a 15 minute drive from Chan Chan was The Temple of the Sun and The Temple of the Moon. The Temple of the Moon is open to visitors but The Temple of the Sun is not. This is because it was heavily damaged and destroyed by the Spanish and later looted by others as it was a burial mound for the elite members of the Moche civilization.


The Temple of the Moon seen in the distance at the slope of a mountain.

Once I arrived at the site I waited a short time for enough to form a small group of around 15 – 20 people. Included in the admission is a guided tour offered in both Spanish and English. I was very impressed how well the guide could converse in English, especially when using technical terms to explain what we were looking at throughout the tour.

The Temple of the Moon was used mostly for religious and ceremonial purposes and visiting it was the highlight of my day. It is a very large temple complex that was built using over 50 million mud bricks. These bricks were marked by whoever made them using fingerprints or other symbols. This alone showed the amount of work that went into building these temples, as well as the many hours and people needed to construct such a large temple.


Inside the temple as it sloped down from the mountainside.

Lots of the temple walls were lined with painted murals that originally used very bright colours. Over time these have mostly been eroded or faded away but in some sections that were shaded from the direct sunlight the colours were very well preserved.

The main image on the murals was Ayapec who was a deity also known as the decapitator. This being said human sacrifices were common in this culture and often times the person being sacrificed had his head cut off and held up high in the air. After these sacrifices the bodies were thrown over the side of the temple and left out on the ground.


Murals depicting Ayapec “The Decapitator”


Other common images on the murals were of animals, warriors and labourers.


A structure was built over the areas to protect from further damage from the elements.

The highlight of The Temple of the Moon was the Mural of the Myths which was a very large inlay that was colourful and filled with lots of different images. The guide couldn’t give an exact explanation of the signifigance of the images on the  mural but said that it related to various myths and legends that the Moche people believed in. Many of the images are similar to what was also shown in the murals lining the walls of the temple. Many animals were shown as well as warriors, kings, deities, flowers, stars and trees.

I stood there for quite some time looking at this mural and thinking of what it all meant and if it were some sort of timeline of their history as a people. Perhaps an explanation of how they believed they came to be. The fact that this was so well preserved was amazing after so many years and I could have stood there for hours marvelling over the images shown in this mural.

The Mural of the Myths!


This photo shows where the mural was set inside the temple.


The mural up close.


This was a drawing showing the images on the mural but not much reason was given for what they meant.

The Temple of the Sun…

After our tour of the rest of the temple grounds we went to the uppermost floor to get a better view of The Temple of the Sun. This temple was off limits to visitors because it was damaged and stripped over many years of people taking the treasures from the tombs that lie beneath.


The Temple of the Sun as seen from the top of The Temple of the Moon.

The Temple of the Sun was built using 130 million adobe mud bricks and dominated the landscape. It was amazing to look at this temple that was thousands of years old and the city of Trujillo in the near distance. Such a contrast of how things have changed and these people would have been proud to know that their temple still stood so many years later.


Trujillo in the distance behind The Temple of the Sun.

The Temple of the Emeralds…

After our tour I hopped back into the taxi for my last stop – The Temple of Emeralds. This was a Chimu site and is considered to be the ruling lord’s palace. It is a small site that is only around 2500m². It is a square shaped, two level structure connected by steep ramps and surrounded by an outer wall.

Like the other sites I visited, the walls were carved with reliefs of animals, people and diamond shapes. The one wall showed animal images standing upright like humans holding tools. These were mostly fashioned after birds, fish and lizards. One thing I found interesting is that they all had head dresses which made me think that they were important overlords or gods being depicted.  This was what I found the most interesting about the site and stared at the reliefs for a few minutes trying once again to understand what it all meant.


The outer walls of the temple.



Ramps leading up to the other levels of the temple.



Many of the walls had diamond shaped patterns similar to Chan Chan and was a common theme in the work of the Chimu people.


This one section led down to the lower levels of the temple.



Once inside the walls many of them had carvings which were well preserved and in some cases have been restored.


This one section in particular had amazing carvings. Many depicted human like creatures with animal heads and head dresses. Most of these carvings showed these creatures holding onto weapons or tools.

After visiting this site I hopped in with my driver and he drove me back to my hostel in Huanchaco. It was around 1 pm when I finished up the tour and was happy I chose to hire a driver. It was money well spent and if you had a group of four people it would have only been 15Sol/5$ per person for a half day of touring around and visiting these sites.

The highlight was definitely The Temple of the Moon but all the sites were worth a visit. Visiting these sites is a great way to spend half of a day and take in some of the ancient history of the area. If you have the time and want something different out of your visit to this area then I highly suggest taking some time to see these sites. There are also many more sites in the area just outside of Trujillo but I chose these sites because they were close to the city and where I was staying.

Gone on a whim…