Before the Incas: culture in Trujillo

We rode about nine hours overnight up the coast to Trujillo, a Peruvian city in the desert known for its ancient history. It was a rough night. The TVs on the bus played until about 2 am and none of us got any sleep. We also hadn’t booked a hostel in Trujillo because we couldn’t find anything online.

So there we were at 7 am, a taxi having dropped us off in the middle of downtown, surrounded by luggage with no idea of where to go. Two men approached us, one selling tours and the other selling a hostel for good prices. We discussed it amongst the three of us, and said yes to both. We booked a full-day tour of the temples of the sun and moon and Chan Chan, which started at 10:50 am and completed at 6:30 pm for 50 soles a person (the English tour guide made it a little more expensive). Then we followed the other guy four blocks down to a decent-ish-looking hostel (El Mochilero) for around 20 soles apiece in a nine bed dorm.

The hostel had a hairless Peruvian dog, which we later learned was native to the region. The desert is (obviously) sandy and hot, so it naturally has no hair and is one of the ugliest dogs I have ever seen. Because of that, the breed fell out of favor for many years, until a national heritage movement is pulling it back into popularity. Most of the dogs now are mutts, because they have odd patches or stripes of hair.


The Trujillo region was the site of two pre-Incan civilizations: the Moche and the Chimu. The Moche, which came first, flourished roughly 100 BC to 800 AD. They were a deeply religious society, even more so than other similar civilizations, and this area was the base of their religion. The ruins of two temples, Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna, are near the base of Cerro Blanco, and the village was nestled between the two temples.


The names, Sun and Moon, are arbitrary. Archeologists named the larger, more ruined temple after the sun and the smaller after the moon because that was what they always found in Central America: two pyramidic temples, the larger always dedicated to the sun god and the other to the moon god. We weren’t able to enter Huaca del Sol because it was too much in ruins and there are several excavations underway. When the Spanish conquered the area, about seven hundred years after the Moche civilization disappeared, they rerouted the river to search for gold. The river cut right through the temple and destroyed almost three-quarters of it.


The temple of the moon, although smaller, is pretty large in its own right. We are still piecing together what the Moche culture looked like, but by the devotion in the temples we know they were deeply religious and the town economy was completely based on the temples. Although it was built with adobe bricks, the reliefs and carvings are still well-preserved and some even colored! It was very beautiful. The moon temple has about five layers, each layer built whenever the bottom layer was full of religious imagery, burial chambers for warrior priests, and the like. In one corner of the temple was a courtyard used for human sacrifice. They only sacrificed warriors, and only when the weather was acting badly. To appease the gods, a large boulder had to be stained with human blood. Warriors came in pairs to the temple, and the priest picked half of them to be sacrificed. Then the warriors would dress up and enact a battle sequence, the goal being to wound the human sacrifice. When that warrior was wounded/incapacitated, he was bound, given some herbal thing for nerves, and led to the top of the boulder. They were usually decapitated or their throats slit, then toppled down the boulder. All the gods we learned about were very violent. It seemed like a very intense religion.

We had a small group at that point, only six English-speakers, and returned to Trujillo for lunch and to pick up a larger group of Aussies. These guys had chosen to drink beer all morning long instead of doing the Moche culture tour, and at the beginning of the tour most weren’t really hydrating themselves for the long walks in Chan Chan. Probably not the best example of Australians that we have met. The first three, from our morning tour, were Aussies as well and were wonderful people.

Chan Chan is a UNESCO heritage site and absolutely ginormous. It is the ruins of an adobe brick city by the Chimu culture, which came directly after the Moche. While we don’t know what happened to the Moche, we do know that the Chimu were eventually conquered by the Incans. Until then, the city was 20 square kilometers and had a population of at least 30,000 people. The rulers often built citadels, which were combinations of temples, small shrines to lesser-known gods, and graves for themselves and their household.


We visited one of the citadels, as you can see, and learned about how the Chimu people used creative designs in their architecture, often drawing from the scenery around them. Waves, wings of birds, seaweed, and all sorts of things inspired their wall designs. The burial chamber was underground, and in this citadel the remains of around 40 women were found, so we assume they were his concubines. We don’t know if they died of natural causes over time, or if they were all killed and buried with the ruler when he died. The Chimu also used human sacrifice, sparingly and only in times of great need, but they would sacrifice anyone–babies, elderly, common people–but rarely warriors.


This is an example of the shrine-portion of the citadel, which really was a huge complex and practically a small town in and of itself.

We stopped off at the beach to see the sunset, then returned, exhausted, around 6 pm. We had no sleep the night before, on the bus, and had walked about six miles during the full-day tour. So we collapsed in bed and decided to head on up to Ecuador, not stopping in other cities, then immediately all fell asleep.

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