Fascinating Pre-Incan Sites in Trujillo, Peru

There are two relatively unknown, but remarkable pre-Incan sites in northern Peru. They showcase amazing engineering, architecture and artistry for their time. Even though these sites are in Trujillo, one of largest cities in Peru, and only 550 km north of Lima, they are not on most tourists’ radars, but they should be.


Citizens of Trujillo are very proud of its history as the first Peruvian city to become liberated from Spain. It is even the capital of the Department of La Libertad (Liberty). Despite this pride of liberation from the Spanish, Trujillo has one of the most picturesque colonial centres we’ve seen. In Plaza de Armas the colonial mansions that surround three sides of the square are brightly painted in yellows, blues and reds. Topping off this gorgeous scene is the bright yellow Cathedral that proudly stands at one end of the square.

At night the buildings are lit, showcasing their gorgeous features.

A unique feature of these Spanish Colonial buildings are the white window treatments. The fancy designs on these fantastic window coverings can be seen on many heritage buildings. In addition to the window treatments, many buildings have large wooden balconies similar to what we saw in Lima.

The streets leading up to the plaza are also lined with lovely heritage buildings. As with many Spanish Colonial sites you can find a church on every street in Trujillo’s Old Town. Outside San Francisco Church we were lucky to see a bride in her white gown and veil about to enter the church.

Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna

Trujillo’s history goes back much further than the Spanish conquest and even before the Incas ruled. Between the 1st and 8th centuries the Moche civilization prospered in the river valley of this desert landscape. Surrounded by arid mountains, Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna were once two pyramids that were very important in Moche culture. Huaca refers to a sacred site or monument from pre-Incan history.  Today the remaining artifacts in these sites showcase their impressive artistry.

Huaca del Sol (Sun) was a pyramid-type structure built of adobe bricks. It is very large at 340 m long, 160 m wide and 30 meters high (1,115 ft x 525 ft x 98 ft). This large building was mostly used for administrative purposes and is not open to the public.

Huaca de la Luna may be smaller, but it was much more important to the Moche people as is was their temple. When we arrived, it appeared that there wasn’t much too see, but once we walked inside we stood in awe. Huge walls are covered in friezes painted in 5 colours: white, black, red, blue and yellow. Wall after wall displayed these incredible murals. Further into the pyramid remains we found detailed bas reliefs etched into the walls. The artistry was varied and included pictures of their God, Ai Apaec, important ceremonies and rituals, men holding hands, warriors fighting, and a few animals such as condors and crabs. The paintings tell the story of the Moche’s dependence on both the river and the land.

Their god, Ai Apaec, is often pictured holding a decapitated head. The Moche people followed this lead by making sacrifices to their god by slitting the throats of warriors, women, children and animals. Many were then decapitated. Our guide told us that in one type of ceremony two warriors would battle and the loser was then sacrificed. Before slitting the losing warrior’s throat he was given cocaine, I suppose it was so he wasn’t concerned about his imminent death.

We were able to see the rooms where these sacrifices took place and where they were then buried. Near by an altar is surrounded by even more colourful paintings and sculptures on the walls.

The entire pyramid was made of adobe bricks. It was said that 250,000 slaves built it using 140 million adobe bricks. A few bricks were laid out so we could see the different holes and cuts in them for their use in different parts of construction.

Apparently after a few hundred years, the Moche experienced drought and then famine and the civilization ended.

Chan Chan

Nearly 300 years later in a spot only 14 km away, a new civilization began by the same people, but who now called themselves Chimu. The legend says that their first leader arrived from the sea on a boat with his followers. This led to their belief that everything in their lives depended upon the sea. This is a change from their Moche ancestors who depended on the river. The strange thing to us was that they built their citadel 4 km from the ocean.

Their city is called Chan Chan and at its largest it covered an area of 20 square miles. The buildings in the citadel were entirely built of adobe bricks. Today many of the partial adobe walls remain. For as far as we could see there were mounds and partial walls in earth coloured tones. The monochrome meant it wasn’t exactly photogenic, but it was very impressive.

The Chan Chan first built a palace for their king, homes for the nobility and store rooms for all for the required food. The store rooms were air conditioned by creating holes in certain area to ensure wind flow.

The walls reveled a different artistry than in Moche. There was evidence in the bas reliefs of their reliance and worship of the ocean. Carved on the walls were representations of ocean waves, cormorants, fish and pelicans.

Like the Moche, the Chimu built their city in the desert. Collecting water was of the upmost importance. Our guide told us that it only rains once every 20 years. He has only seen it rain twice in his life and he is 30 years old. The Chimu dug deep wells to collect fresh water and built huge reservoirs to store it. Canals were built to service the entire city with water. One of the water reservoirs was situated so that it reflected the moon. This reservoir was reserved for their god. Archeologists found the bones of women who were likely sacrificed for their god to ensure the ocean continued to supply them with food.

In Chimu culture, once a king died, his body was mummified and stored in his palace for one year. Another palace complete with storerooms and nobility homes was built. At the end of one year a huge celebration took place in front of the mummy. This celebration would ensure the king would live on in the afterlife. His body was then returned to his palace which was sealed up with the bodies of his wife, concubines, servants, artists, engineers, architects… anyone he may need in the afterlife.

In total archaeologists have found 10 palaces, so there were at least 10 kings. In the end the Incas defeated the Chimu by cutting off their water supply. In the 14th century the Inca’s conquered Chan Chan taking Chan Chan’s engineers and architects so they could then use this same technology in Inca settlements. Many Chimu were killed by the Incas and then many more by the Spanish, but today there are many ethnic Chimu living in the area, including our guide.

Huanchaco Beach

Four km away from Chan Chan is one of the best beaches in the area. The sand at Huanchaco is a bit muddy, but it’s a popular surfing spot. Watching the waves from the beach we could see why. Consistent long waves continuously curled into shore. Dozens of surfers were out for a late afternoon surf.

The interesting thing about this beach is its relation to Chan Chan. Reed boats, that look like a cross between a kayak and a surfboard have been used by the Chimu people for nearly 3,000 years. Fishermen take these odd looking boats out to sea early in the morning to drop their fishing nets before surfing the waves back in to shore. Some say they were the world’s first surfers. This tradition continues today, unfortunately, we were at Huanchaco in the afternoon and weren’t able to see them in action. Their boats are on display though along the beach.

Where to Stay and Eat

There are many hotels and hostels in Trujillo. Make sure you stay near the city centre as other parts of the city look a little rough. There are a few restaurants around Plaza de Armas and the near by walking street attached. Our favourite restaurant was a small, locally run one called Amaretto.

How to get to Trujillo

Several buses run daily between Trujillo and Lima and other centres. There is an airport in Trujillo with flights from Lima.

Coming Next – Trekking in Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash

For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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