When they are planning their Peru holidays, most people – unsurprisingly – have one destination in mind: the fabulous Machu Picchu. Whether they’re planning to trek the Inca Trail, or travel by luxury train, this famous lost Inca city has an almost magnetic pull for holiday-makers. There’s no denying it: Machu Picchu is fabulous, and it really does have to be seen on any holidays to Peru, but it’s very far from being the full story.
Quite apart from Machu Picchu, the south of Peru has always been more popular on holidays in Peru, largely because the infrastructure has traditionally been more developed here, in terms of both accommodation and transport, but also because top attractions like Lake Titicaca and the Nazca Lines are located here. What is much less widely known outside of Peru is that some of the real historical jewels of the country are nothing to do with the Incas at all…
Before the Inca Empire even existed, the very first Peruvian civilizations were being built, not up in the Andes mountains, but in the fertile river valleys of northern Peru. Here, the Moche and the Chimu built huge cities, massive temples and enormous pyramids, hundreds of years before Cusco was a twinkle in the Inca’s eye! Unfortunately for posterity, however, the building material of choice was adobe bricks, and because much of the construction took place near the ocean, hundreds of years of salt spray and wind have weathered the buildings and covered many of the larger sites with sand so that it is only recently that the scale and scope of these pre-Inca sites has begun to be appreciated, and the northern sites have begun to find their way on to people’s itineraries for their Peru holidays.
Just outside the pretty colonial city of Trujillo, for example, lie the ruins of an even larger Chimu city, known as Chan Chan. Covering an area of almost 20km2, this was the largest pre-Columbian city in South America, with an estimated population of around 50,000 people. The brick walls are covered with a thin layer of skim, which is decorated with beautiful stylized motifs reminiscent in many ways of Greek or Roman mosaic patterns. Also just outside of Trujillo are the Huacas del Sol y de la Luna – two huge adobe pyramids which were built by the Moche as temples to the Sun and Moon. The Temple of the Sun in particular is enormous, and is a bit like a Russian doll; successive temples were built on top of each other, meaning that as you travel inside the pyramid, you encounter well-preserved layers of the earlier temples, each with its own vivid paintings of fanged beasts amid huge geometric friezes.
Just a short distance further up the coast, the town of Lambayeque is fairly unprepossessing, but it is home to one of the best museums anywhere in South America, the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum. A few kilometres to the south, the burial of a Moche chieftain was discovered in 1987 and it quickly became apparent that this was one of the most important discoveries ever made in the Americas. It’s sometimes described as “Peru’s Tutankamun” and the beauty of the hundreds of exquisite golden and jewelled artefacts found in the undisturbed grave of a Moche Lord is certainly hard to exaggerate. What is especially pleasing is that the Royal Tombs museum, where the bulk of the finds are housed, is so well-curated, and a real must-see on your Peru holidays. Individual pieces are given the space and context to allow you to fully appreciate them, and a few hours spent here is a real pleasure, even if you’re not normally a ‘museum’ person.
With much-improved road and air links, the north of Peru is really starting to open up, and it’s now much easier to include visits to Chan-Chan or Sipan as part of a more ‘standard’ itinerary on your Peru holidays. New hotels are also starting to appear, giving you a much wider choice of accommodation than before. The north also offers some of the most exciting examples of Peruvian cuisine. Last but not least, once you’re up in the north, you’re that bit closer to Peru’s best beaches in Mancora and Punta Sal: just if you’re feeling a bit cultured-out and feel like some relaxing beach time would be the perfect end to your holiday to Peru!
Dan Clarke works for Real Peru Holidays, the UK experts for tailormade holidays to Peru. He specialises in trips to the north of Peru and thinks more people should get off the beaten track and explore the Pre-Inca north.