Pre-Columbian Peru: The Archaeological Trail Beyond Machu Picchu

by  Elissa Garay | Apr 23, 2013
Machi Picchu in Peru
Machi Picchu in Peru / sorincolac/iStock

While Peru’s Machu Picchu – the mystical ruins of a gravity-defying 15th-century Incan citadel, perched high atop the verdant Andes – might get all of the glory, the country’s northern coast beckons archaeological buffs further afield with ancient sites standing in testimony to the once flourishing civilizations of the Moche and Chimú, which pre-date even the Incas.

Base your stay in the well-preserved Spanish colonial city of Trujillo (350 miles north of Lima), and set out to a trio of can’t-miss archaeological sites, including the fascinating Temples of the Moon and Sun, expansive Chan Chan (once the largest city in the Americas), and newly emerging El Brujo (site of a magnificently preserved mummy queen). A trip here will inspire your inner Indiana Jones, and with a little imagination, transport you back to the lives and times of the ancient Americas.

El Brujo

Nearly 40 miles north of Trujillo in the Chicama Valley, the archaeological complex of El Brujo (or “the witch”) marks an ancient Moche ceremonial center fronting the seashore (it opened to the public in 2006). A trio of adobe pyramid temples, dating back as much as 2,000 years, make up the complex, including the Huaca El Brujo, Huaca Prieta, and Huaca Cao Viejo – the latter is the best preserved of the lot, with its multi-tiered “Warrior Narrative” carving (don’t miss the views from the top across the valley and complex, pictured above).

The discovery of the Señora de Cao in 2005, a 1,600-year-old mummified Moche queen, skyrocketed the site into the international spotlight; a modern little museum, the Museo de Cao, dedicated to the find, debuted in 2009 and is set adjacent to the site. Remarkably, you can still make out the tattoos on her skin; plan on at least 30 minutes to peruse her personal jewelry and clothing, and other artifacts from the excavations. Tickets cost $4.

Temples of the Moon and Sun

On a sandy desert stretch in the Moche Valley, set about five miles south of Trujillo, this duo of huacas, or temples, stand in tribute to the sun and the moon, in the shadow of the Cerro Blanco (White Mountain). This Moche archaeological complex, built around 500 AD, was once a great religious and political center. An ancient city, long since lost to the sand, once stood in between the twin temples.

Of the two adobe-brick step pyramids, the Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun) looms larger, reaching more than 60 feet into the sky (perhaps only a fraction of its former size), but remains largely unexcavated and off-limits to visitors. The smaller, but better-preserved, Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon), served as a burial chamber and place of pilgrimage and ceremony, and showcases several consecutive layers of construction and a series of large friezes depicting Moche deities, warriors, and sacrificial ceremonies (some of which have remarkably maintained their original color, pictured to right); a climb to the temple's top affords terrific views over the valley and neighboring huaca. Tickets cost $4, including the services of a required guide (tips are appreciated).

Chan Chan

Set three miles north of Trujillo in the Moche Valley, this behemoth Chimú site, dating back to around 1300 AD, was the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas and the capital of the Chimú Kingdom (before it fell to the Incas in the 15th century, and, ultimately, to the Spanish conquistadors). UNESCO protected since the mid-1980s, this vast adobe complex covers some 10 square miles, spanning temples, defensive walls, ceremonial roads, workshops, agricultural areas, and nine autonomous complexes or palaces for Chimú chieftains, some still with decorative elements. Severely weathered over the years, the complex’s sheer size (once home to 60,000 inhabitants) and organizational complexity still manages to impress. Tickets cost $4.

Incurable travel addict, longtime travel scribe, and mindful money-saver Elissa Richard is currently indulging her insatiable wanderlust on an epic 14-month journey around the globe – intent on making it every step of the way without busting her modest budget. Follow her along the way as she reports back with budget-savvy travel tips from the mountains of Transylvania to the wilds of Tasmania, and from the little-trodden temples of Burma to the bustling bars and clubs of Buenos Aires. A vagabond in search of value, just for ShermansTravel!

Skier in Aspen, CO
Find The Best Cruises
Find a cruise

Find the best deals!

Click on multiple sites to get the lowest prices

Click on multiple sites to get the lowest prices