You already know about the Incas and their impressive citadel of Machu Picchu, but have you heard of the Chimú and Moche civilizations? The Moche came first, building and then abandoning their grand city in the desert. The Moche civilization declined, which eventually led to the founding of Chan Chan, the capital of the Chimú empire and once the biggest city in South America. These desert ruins in northern Peru are a lot of fun to explore and are very different to the historical sites we saw in the Sacred Valley.
Were Chinese people responsible for naming this abandoned city? Probably not, but it wasn’t the only question I had that went unanswered. A lot of people hire a guide to explore Chan Chan but we did it ourselves, and there’s not much information around to explain about the history of the city. The Chan Chan ruins were nearly empty though, which meant we got to wander down the adobe avenues and marvel at the detailed carvings (which some people claim have been “too restored”).
We really enjoyed the atmosphere of Chan Chan; the bone dry desert surroundings made it feel like something you’d see in the Middle East or North Africa (the first photo in this post is the outside of Chan Chan’s main building). It took us about an hour to walk around the main complex. The rest are either in absolute disrepair or are in the process of restoration. We started walking to a different area but were told it was off limits — we did see some other buildings on the road leading to the ticket office though.
Further reading: Learn more about Chan Chan and the Chimú civilization
Getting to Chan Chan
We took a crowded bus (1.5 soles) from near the centre of Trujillo to Chan Chan (it continues on to Huanchaco). It drops you off at the side of the road where you’ll have a 15-20 minute walk through the desert, passing ancient buildings in various states of decay. You can also take a taxi to Chan Chan — we could have returned by taxi for 10 soles but you’ll have to bargain. We tried to get a bus back to Trujillo but none would stop, but eventually a combi (collectivo/van) picked us up.
Huaca de la Luna / del Sol
Huaca de la Luna (house of the moon) was once an important place of worship for the pre-Inca Moche people. El Nino floods have severely damaged this place over the years but they’ve done a great job of dusting away the sand to reveal lots of colourful carvings. Archaeologists are discovering more here all the time; apparently only half of the site has been excavated. The main difference between Chan Chan and the far older Moche capital is the fact that they aren’t restoring it; they are just working to reveal what is already there. The colours and detail on the outside wall are amazing and the more they uncover of these desert ruins the more well-known this site will become.
The scenery is a big part of what makes this place special. The yellow sand of the desert mixes with the rocky hills to give the whole area a post apocalyptic feel. Huaca del Sol (house of the sun) isn’t open to the public yet but it’s the better looking of the two main buildings from the outside. You can walk between the two and then catch a taxi or combi back to Trujillo.
Further reading: Learn more about the Moche civilization
Getting to Huaca de la Luna / Huaca del Sol
We took a taxi from the centre of Trujillo to the ruins for 10 soles. There is a combi leaving from somewhere in the centre but we got bad directions and couldn’t find it. We took a combi back to Trujillo for 3 soles each
Chan Chan’s entry ticket will set you back 10 soles and if you need a guide you’ll find plenty hanging around the ticket office. The entry ticket to Huaca de la Luna / del Sol is 10 soles plus an extra 5 if you visit the museum (we didn’t). The entry ticket includes a free guided tour (tips expected) but you might need to wait a while if you want the tour to be in English. The guide was quite funny and gave us some great information about the ruins and the general history of the area. One misconception he tried to clear up was that the Moche people were obsessed with human sacrifice. He said that while humans were sacrificed, it was a very rare occurrence. He also told us that when Peruvians call someone a gringo it isn’t an insult…I think he just wanted to call us gringos.
If you’re exploring these desert ruins in Northern Peru you’ll want to base yourself in either Trujillo or Huanchaco, a small beach town nearby. We stayed in Trujillo and it was OK. It’s got a nice Spanish colonial core but we’ve seen a lot of cities like this lately and it didn’t compare favourably with Cuenca (Ecuador), Cartagena (Colombia) or Antigua (Guatemala). We arrived in Trujillo on an overnight bus from Mancora and left a couple of days later on an overnight bus to Huaraz. Make sure you visit the stunning mountain scenery near Huaraz if you’re travelling through Peru.
Further reading: Glaciers and Massive Mountains near Huaraz, Peru / The Trek to Laguna 69: One of the Best Day Walks in South America
Would you like to visit these desert ruins in Northern Peru? What is your favourite historic site? Let me know!
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Wednesday 7th of November 2018
Thanks for taking the trouble to write this. I've got a short cruise port call at Trujillo but trying to be independent. You verified information (taxi there, combi back) that's hard to find because most sites want to sell you a tour. (Sometimes I just hate tours! Want to wander around on my own, maybe see less but more relaxed.) Your comments about restored vs. uncovered-and-not-restored are also helpful to me!
Thursday 8th of November 2018
Thanks for the comment Connie -- I probably should be trying to sell some tours! I agree though, it's almost always better to do it yourself. Enjoy the cruise!
Anne Klien ( MeAnne)
Saturday 6th of February 2016
I never heard of chan chan but the place look awesome to explore. ... hopefully one day I'll get a chance to visit there when I get to Peru.
Saturday 6th of February 2016
I hope you make it to Peru one day soon, such a great country!
Friday 5th of February 2016
Wow this looks amazing! I'm planning a trip to Peru for later this year and hadn't considered this area. It's amazing how many of the building strategies are still in place today, like the hollowed bricks.
Friday 5th of February 2016
A lot of people never venture north of Lima but it's definitely worth it. The mountains, glaciers and lakes around Huaraz are also worth checking out.