NORTHERN PERU was home to advanced cultures before the Incas moved in and certainly well before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. By the time of Christ, the Chavín and the Cupisnique had already passed their mantle to the Recuay, Moche, and Cajamarca, who had faded from memory when the Sicán, Chimú, and Chachapoyas people fought and were conquered by the Incas in the 1450s.
They all left their mark, and dozens of ruins are spread throughout northern Peru. Despite their historical importance, the following sites are nearly empty of tourists.
Chavín de Huántar (near Huaraz)
One of Peru’s oldest ruins, Chavín de Huántar was the center of Chavín religious life (1000BC-200BC). The temple’s passageways have been buried by landslides to form an underground labyrinth of narrow tunnels. At their center is a sculpture of the supreme feline deity known as the Lanzón.
Many anthropomorphic carvings found at the site are now on display in the Ancash Archeological Museum in Huaraz (Avenida Luzuriaga #762), but you’ll still find whimsical heads along the temple walls.
You can reach Chavín de Huántar by bus from Huaraz, or explore the Cordillera Blanca in a three-day hike from Olleros that follows a pre-Inca stone road beneath glacier-covered peaks through several traditional villages. (Galaxia Expeditions is recommended.)
Huaca de la Luna and Chan Chan (Trujillo)
In Trujillo, the Moche culture (50AD-800AD) built the Huacas de la Luna y del Sol (Temples of the Moon and Sun) as their religious and administrative centers. Only the Huaca de la Luna is open for tours.
The ceremonial plaza on top of the adobe pyramid was filled in and rebuilt every few generations, and archeologists have uncovered three earlier layers, each with colorfully painted warriors, spiders, snakes, and differing interpretations of the Moche’s octopus-inspired destroyer god.
The Chimú culture (1100AD-1450AD) built Chan Chan a few kilometers up the coast. The walls of the world’s largest adobe city have been melted by the rains of periodic El Niño storms, and what was once home to 30,000 people is now a mass of crumbling hills cut through by a major road.
Several of the buildings have been preserved by the drifting sands, including the palace of Nik An and its intricate adobe carvings: fish, nets, and pelicans that tell of the Chimú reliance on the sea.
Cumbe Mayo (Cajamarca)
In the Andes, the Cajamarca culture (200AD-800AD) built networks of stone roads throughout the mountains, as well as the extensive system of aqueducts known as Cumbe Mayo (“Thin Rivers” in Quechua).
The porous volcanic rock of the mountains stored water in the rainy season and distributed it in the dry season, so water flowed year-round in the channels that were cut nearly 8 kilometers down to the valley. They vary in width and take advantage of 90-degree zigzags to control the force of the current and prevent erosion.
Surrounding Cumbe Mayo is the stone forest “Los Frailones,” so named because the stones — some over 20 meters tall — have been eroded and fractured by wind and rain to take on forms resembling hooded monks (frailes).
To get here, take a day tour from Cajamarca, or go on an overnight hike and camp under the stars where the ancient Cajamarca people worshipped the water that gave them life (VIP Tours is recommended).
Laguna de los Condores (Leymebamba)
From Cajamarca, take the unpaved 253km road that winds over steep Andean passes, carving across dry desert cliffs on its way to the cloud forests that were once the homeland of the Chachapoyas people (800AD-1450AD).
Most buses from Cajamarca only go as far as Celendín, so best to book on a Movil Tours Chachapoyas-bound bus to Leymebamba.
In 1996 a group of farmers discovered a row of stone mausoleums high on a cliff above the Laguna de los Condores, with more than 200 mummies entombed inside.
Today the mummies can be seen in the Museo Leymebamba, but travelers can also take a three-day hike through the cloud forest to visit the mausoleums and the nearby ancient settlement of Llaqtacocha. Ask at the museum to be connected with a local guide, or book a tour from Chachapoyas.
Chachapoyas is the sleepy capital of the Amazonas region and the best base for exploring the ruins of the Chachapoyas culture. The most famous is Kuelap, an ancient fortress built on a crag so that its towering 20-meter limestone walls seem part of the cliff face.
Though most of the houses were demolished by the Spanish in the 16th century, over 400 of the characteristic circular foundation platforms remain, decorated with bromeliads and orchids.
Visit the site on a guided day trip, or take a 4-day trek that follows anciently paved roads through the cloud forest to Kuelap and other ruins, including the sarcophagi of Karajia and the settlement of Gran Vilaya. (Turismo Explorers is recommended.)
Sipán, Túcume, and Batan Grande (Chiclayo)
Chiclayo was home to the Moche (50AD-800AD), Sicán (700AD-1370AD), and Chimú (1100AD-1450AD) cultures, who left massive adobe pyramids and tombs stuffed with ceramics, precious stones, and gold artifacts.
Though many of the sites have been looted over the years, findings like the tomb of the Lord of Sipán shed light on the customs of these ancient civilizations. Likewise, the nearby Túcume and Batan Grande pyramids have been devastated by El Niño rains, but excavations continue to yield new information.
These crumbling adobe ruins can start to blur together, but the area’s many museums, including the Sicán National Museum, the Bruning National Archaeological Museum, and the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum, help you sort them out.
This article was originally published on December 16th, 2009.