Ancient sites of northern Peru

Say ‘ruins’ and ‘Peru’ and most travelers think of the well-tramped trails of the Incas, including the fabled lost city Machu Picchu. But ancient civilisations made their home in northern Peru well before the Incas came to town, and remnants of their once great cities are scattered across the region, against an awe-inspiring backdrop of cloud forest, snowcapped highland peaks and parched desert.

In spite of their historical importance, northern Peru’s ancient sites don’t make an appearance on most travelers’ itineraries. Tourism here is still in its early stages compared with the popular south, so not only will your visit offer an important boost to communities in this traditionally poorer region, you’ll get a chance to experience a more authentic, less crowded side of the country.

Highlights

Chan Chan

Once the largest city in the Americas and the largest adobe (mud brick) city on earth, Chan Chan, set in coastal desert near the seaside city of Trujillo, was the capital of the Chimú people, a pre-Columbian civilisation which flourished on the northern coast of Peru between the 12th and 15th centuries. At its height, as many as 50,000 people lived in the 20sq km city, including lowly workers, highly skilled craftspeople and priests.
Despite its position in a harsh desert environment, the city thrived because of a complex irrigation system of canals, reservoirs and wells. It was fantastically wealthy, and thousands of structures were built amongst a labyrinth of passageways and streets, including temples, cemeteries and 10 sprawling royal compounds with 9m high walls. Elaborate friezes adorned palace and temple walls, and some were hundreds of feet long. The rise of the Incas saw Chan Chan’s downfall, when Chimú ruler Minchançaman was captured in 1470. By the 16th century, the city lay largely abandoned.
Centuries of weather have taken their toll and much of the once magnificent metropolis has worn down to the ground. Of the 10 walled royal compounds, one has been beautifully restored, the Palacio Nik An. Visitors can wander the ceremonial courtyards and vast audience rooms, where motifs on the walls depict geometric fish and seabirds, demonstrating their importance to Chimú culture. There’s also an on-site museum where you can learn more about the history and significance of the site.

Huacas del Sol and de la Luna

Rising up from coastal desert near the city of Trujillo, and standing 500m apart, Huacas del Sol and de la Luna, or the Temples of the Sun and the Moon, were built during the Moche period between around 100 and 600AD, with each new generation adding to the structures. According to archaeologists, Huaca de la Luna was where religious and other ceremonies took place, while the larger Huaca del Sol served as the center of Moche administration. In between the two, now long buried beneath the sands, were the homes of local residents.

While Huaca de la Luna may be the smaller of the temples, it’s the most interesting to visit and its labyrinthine interior contains some incredibly well preserved, multicolored friezes for which the Moche were famous. About a third of Huaca del Sol has been washed away, but it’s still the largest single pre-Columbian building in Peru, built from some 140 million adobe bricks, many of which were marked with symbols by the workers who made them. It’s not yet open to visitors, as excavation is still ongoing.

Kuélap

Surrounded by misty cloud forest, the ancient walled city of Kuélap is one of the most magnificent buildings in the Andes, so much so that it’s often called the ‘Machu Picchu of the north’. Set on a craggy mountain ridge 60km southwest of Chachapoyas and above the village of Tingo, it was built by the Chachapoyas people a good 500 years earlier than its more famous rival and was once home to 300,000 people. Its towering 20m limestone walls, and the circular foundations of ancient buildings, have been partly reclaimed by the earth, with wildflowers and tropical greenery springing through cracks in the stone. Here you can explore the many ceremonial buildings and or just soak up the majesty of the site and the beauty of its location – the views out over the patchwork of farmland covering the Utcubamba Valley are incredible.
You can make the journey from Tingo either on foot (a return journey of six hours) or via a new cable car ride. Built in 2017, it has caused annual tourist numbers to soar, though it still has nothing on the queues and souvenir hawkers of Machu Picchu.

Karajía burial sites

Karajía, some 48km northwest of Chachapoyas, is known for the six oversized sarcophagi huddled together on a sheer cliff, gazing out over the valley below. Made from wood and clay, topped with oversized heads, and covered in faded painted symbols and designs, they stand up to 2.5m tall, and were the final resting places of Chachapoya nobility, including shamans, warriors and the highest officials from Kuélap. Inside the sarcophagi were mummies and offerings, though these were taken long ago by looters and archaeologists. There are also skulls set into the hillside above the tombs, thought to be from human sacrifices or trophies from battle.

Túcume

This huge and little-known archaeological site is set on the Pan Americana Highway, around 30km north of Lambayeque. It was home first to the Sicán people, who moved here around 1050AD, and then the Chimú, whose influence can be seen in the different architectural styles of the pyramids and walls. The remains of the city sprawl over 200 hectares and contains a series of crumbling walls, plazas, cemeteries and residential complexes as well as 26 pyramids and mounds. Not much excavation has been done here yet, but what the site lacks in tombs and treasures it makes up for in sheer spectacle and size. There are viewpoints to scramble up that give incredible panoramas over the entire site, and you can peruse artefacts and carvings at a small on-site museum.

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Practicalities

The best time to visit northern Peru is the dry season of May to September, when it's clearer in the highlands, and temperatures are much more comfortable for both trekking and sightseeing. Just be prepared for how cold it can get at night in the mountains, and pack appropriately.

This part of Peru is still very much developing and visiting the ruins involves bumping along plenty of dirt roads. While it’s possible to visit most of the sites yourself using public transport, a small group or bespoke itinerary will take all the hassle out of planning, and a knowledgeable tour leader and expert guides bring the history and mystery surrounding these places to life. Tours will mix northern Peru’s ancient sites and culture with exploring the dramatic natural landscape, too. You can explore the mountains, lakes and deep gorges of this region’s lush landscapes, and even hike to the spectacular Gocta Falls. This dramatic waterfall is well known to local people, but wasn’t revealed to the wider world until a German hiker stumbled upon it in 2005. Organised tours typically last two weeks and depart from Lima.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mihai] [Ancient sites of Northern Peru thumbnail: Gaston E.] [Chan Chan: Gustavo M] [Kuelap: JYB Devot] [Tucume: Enrique Jara]
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