The Land of the Cloud Warriors
My journey of discovery to South America’s most magical of travel destinations is an off-the-beaten-track exploration of the less visited north of the country. The history of Peru is dominated by stories of the Inca and the Spanish Conquistadors, the numerous indigenous cultures that preceded the Incas are almost lost in that historical narrative. This odyssey presents an opportunity to search beyond the accepted headlines, a chance to investigate some of the lost kingdoms that flourished and then declined prior to the arrival of the Spanish. On offer in Peru are unrivalled visitor experiences ranging from hiking and climbing in the incredible mountain scenery of the Andes, almost endless retail therapy opportunities, plus for the avid culture vulture the chance to immerse yourself in the historical richness of the many pre-Columbian civilizations that once dominated the region.
A Brief History
The earliest traces of human settlement in Peru date back to around 2500 BC. Settlements have been discovered along the coast where numerous river valleys punctuate the arid desert region, thereby creating fertile oases where fledgling communities could flourish. Around 1800 BC these coastal communities began to move inland following the path of the river valleys, at the same time migrating from the bounty of food harvested from the Pacific Ocean, to growing agricultural staples and domesticating animals.
Construction of permanent settlements in the Interior of the Peruvian highlands is dated to around 800 BC, the Chavin culture being one of the earliest of the noteworthy pre-Columbian civilizations to dominate Peru during this period. The Chavin excelled in the production of textiles and metallurgy as well as constructing ceremonial centres across the country. The decline of the Chavin around 300 BC saw the immergence of the Nazca and Moche cultures. The Nazca produced giant images of animals and geometric shapes etched on the desert floor, these are some of the iconic images of modern day Peru. The Moche were perhaps the most accomplished artists and metalworkers of any of the Andean civilizations, their rich legacy of artefacts are a testament to their exquisite workmanship.
The decline of the Nazca and Moche around 600 AD saw various cultures rise to fill the vacuum left, the most important were the Chimu, the Chachapoyas and the Incas. By the early 15th century the Incas emerged as the regions preeminent power brokers, with an empire stretching across the modern day countries of Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador and Chile. Cultural advancement reached its apogee in Peru with the Incas. They mastered the art of food production and distribution on an industrial scale and built a comprehensive road system to connect the cities in the various parts of their expanding empire. What the Roman Empire was to Europe, at its zenith the Inca Empire was to South America. Their mountain top refuge of Machu Picchu is the Incas most magnificent legacy and is Peru’s premier tourist attraction.
The arrival in 1532 of the Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro would change the entire course of Peruvian and world history. At that time the Inca Empire was in a state of atrophic civil war, Pizarro’s small expeditionary force was able to take full advantage in tricking and then executing the Inca king Atahuallpa. Within a decade the largest and most powerful empire that South America had ever known was firmly in the grip of the Spaniards, its people virtually enslaved and the glories of its empire stripped bare. The once all powerful cloud warriors were now consigned to history, all that was left were the clouds. The Spanish colonial occupation lasted for almost 300 years until a series of bloody wars culminated in Peru declaring independence from Spain in 1821.
The seminal years of independence were dominated by a succession of military officers assuming the role of president. Boom and bust years followed as Peru exploited its resources of minerals only to fall back on hard times as the world markets for these resources collapsed. Peru finally attained a climate of civilian rule in 1980. The following two decades became known as the “years of violence”, tens of thousands of people are thought to have lost their lives as a result of anti- government extremist groups indulging in a campaign of kidnapping and executions.
The Peru we see today is probably the most tourist friendly country in South America, its unique collection of world class attractions positions the country right near the top of many people’s must see list.
This wonderful journey through the cultural history of Peru begins in Miraflores, a rather affluent suburb of the capital Lima, from here we will travel through the north of the country to discover the rich heritage of the influential civilizations that came before, and invariably influenced the last and the greatest of the pre-Columbian peoples, the Inca. Today is Sunday and the centre of Miraflores is closed to traffic. The main square is taken up with hundreds of people partaking in a mass Zumba class, up and down the main-street people are jogging, bike riding and roller blading, whilst the coffee shops and restaurants are doing brisk business with the less active populace.
Close to the centre of Miraflores is Huaca Pucllana, a pre-Incan temple complex constructed around 500 AD. This complex is one of the most important ancient monuments in Lima, it served as a ceremonial and administrative centre for the Lima Culture. The central adobe brick pyramid which has been recently restored rises to a height of 22 metres, presenting a strange contrast sitting side by side with the modern buildings that surround it.
Lima has a population of 10 million, it has no subway, no railway and horrendous traffic problems, thus it’s a 6am start today as we head out of Lima early to beat the traffic congestion. We drive north along the Pacific Coast Road, a ribbon of tarmac that punctuates the vast endless desert plain. This dramatic scenery is complimented by the atmospheric low hanging mist waiting to be burnt off by the early morning sun. Our destination is the sacred city of Caral, dating from 3000 BC this is the oldest known settlement in the Americas. The site comprises some 20 temple complexes containing monumental ceremonial pyramids, plazas, an amphitheatre and residential houses. Situated midway between the mountains and the sea, the population benefited from the bounty of the sea in addition to being able to cultivate crops in the fertile river valleys. Caral was a thriving metropolis with a population estimated at around 20,000 at approximately the same time that Egypt’s great pyramids were constructed. In comparison with the pyramids in Egypt that were constructed as mausoleums for the pharaohs and their funerary treasure, the pyramids in Peru were religious buildings usually with temple complexes located at the vertex. The pyramids at Caral were raised by building a series of platforms of diminishing size on top of each other. Each platform was then built up with exterior dressing stones, then infilled with rope sacks containing stones collected from the sea. This was a very advanced idea for 5000 years ago; today we use this same method utilising metal cages and stones to stabilise rock faces.
The 4 hour drive to the ancient site of Chavin de Huantar involves negotiating a mountain road with innumerable switchbacks, hairpin bends and sheer drops of thousands of metres. The highest point on the road peaks at 4700 metres, at this altitude the lack of oxygen is immediately apparent as breathing becomes laboured. The incredible scenery of towering mountains and deep picturesque valleys takes away what little breath you may have left. The temple complex of Chavin de Huantar dates back some 3000 years, here the temple priests would communicate with the gods while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. The Chavin were a highly advanced culture particularly in the construction of stone buildings and their exquisite stylized stone carvings, their legacy makes them one of the most important of the pre-Inca civilizations.
Another spectacular drive progresses through a landscape surrounded by snow- capped mountains soaring up to 7000 metres, we then descend down to the coast to visit the temple complex at Sechin. Dating to around 2000 BC this ancient archaeological site is decorated with exquisite wall carvings depicting bellicose warriors and their defeated, dismembered victims. The site is currently under restoration having been heavily damaged by a landslide triggered by an earthquake in 1970.
The coastal strip of Peru is a desert landscape, though the rivers that flow down from the mountains and through the valleys make life and the establishment of towns and cities possible. In this harsh environment only around ten percent of Peru’s land is arable, even so they still manage to grow an astonishing variety of produce. Corn, pumpkin, squash, sugar cane, sweet potato and a wide variety of fruits flourish under these trying conditions. Peru is also unfortunately notorious as the world’s biggest producer of cocaine.
Trujillo is the second largest city in Peru with a population of 1.2 million people, founded in 1535, it was named after the birth place in Spain of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro. The main square is dominated by the 18th century Cathedral. Beautifully restored pastel coloured colonial buildings glorify the streets of this charming city, their detailed window grilles and intricately carved wooden balconies are a sheer delight.
A short drive south east of Trujillo is the site of the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. These two adobe brick pyramid temples were built by the Moche people around 2000 years ago, and are arguably the largest pre-Columbian buildings in the Americas. The badly eroded Temple of the Sun, the larger of the temples, was constructed using 140 million mud bricks; both temples require plenty of imagination based on their current visual perspective. But sprinkle a little fairy dust on these two structures and there is no doubt that in their hey-day they were the ultimate expression of the architecture of power. The priests who worked in these temples would chew coca leaves, the hallucinogenic effect of these ritual intoxicants would enable the priests to more effectively communicate with the gods. Chewing coca leaf is still a part of Peruvian culture today. The coca leaf help to suppress hunger and thirst, as well increasing energy levels, this would have enabled the builders of the ancient temples, as well as modern day builders to be able to work harder at high altitudes.
Constructed around 1300 AD and encompassing 20 square kilometres Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimu Empire. Believed to be the largest adobe brick city in the world, this puzzling architectural jigsaw of a city supported a population of around 60,000 people at its zenith. The Chimu transformed the arid wasteland around them into productive fields of fruits, vegetables and grains through their mastery of innovative irrigation systems. Chan Chan fell into decline in the late 15th century after the Chimu were conquered by the Inca. The ravages of time and weather have impacted the once visual splendour of this site, with only one of the ten walled citadels that formed the original city having been restored and currently able to be visited. Low level walls decorated with animal forms and geometric designs outline the floor plans of numerous temples, residential houses and ceremonial courtyards that once adorned this impressive site.
Chiclayo is a bustling commercial hub for northern Peru and is a million miles away from the affluent extravagance of Miraflores where this trip began. Chiclayo is a working class city with a bustling market where street hawkers purvey everything from second hand clothes to fake DVD’s. The real highlight here is the Witches Market, where you can purchase all sorts of herbal medicines, occult charms and a vast array of sexual potions for every possible requirement.
One of the premier attractions in northern Peru is the burial site of the Tomb of the Lord of Sipan which was discovered in the late 1980’s. This burial find of a Moche warrior priest along with his dazzling treasure dates from the 3rd century AD, and is considered the Peruvian equivalent of Egypt’s Tutankhamun. A total of 451 gold, silver, copper and other funeral objects were buried with the Lord of Sipan to accompany him in the afterlife. What is visible at the 14 separate grave sites so far excavated are replicas of the numerous skeletons and funerary treasure, all the original artefacts are in a nearby museum for safe keeping due to the ubiquitous operations of modern day grave robbers. None the less this is a truly impressive site and gives a vivid idea of the wealth, craftsmanship and cultural attributes of the Moche Culture that flourished in this part of the world over 2000 years ago. In a country that boasts some fantastic museums, the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum is the outstanding paradigm. Opened in 2002, as an architectural form it is a true tour de force. Based on the design of a Moche temple, the angles and projections of this building make it a photographic dream. Inside are displayed the collection of finds from the burial site of the Lord of Sipan. Beautifully preserved skeletons, pectorals, magnificent gold jewellery, weaponry, textiles and pottery are all exhibited in a sumptuous fashion. Due to the fact that none of the Andean cultures left any written records of their history, all the information that can be garnered about their culture is gleaned from their elaborate pottery, their various artefacts and their impressive architecture.
This entire holiday has been a journey through the spectacular scenery of the Andes Mountains, today it’s a three and a half hour drive to the remote mountain top fortress of Kuelap. Situated at an altitude of 3000 metres and perched high above the Utcubamba River, Kuelap was inhabited by the Chachapoyas people from the 9th century to the 15th century AD, whereupon their culture was swallowed up by the inexorable advance of the Inca Empire. The site is enclosed by a 20 metre high perimeter wall, contained within this enclosure are some 450 stone buildings in various states of disrepair. Kuelap is an extremely raw site, with undergrowth encroaching on many of the buildings and the whole site shrouded in the low lying cloud, for the few people that make it here it engenders an exceptionally atmospheric visitor experience.
The Leymebamba Museum is home to a wonderful collection of Chachapoya artefacts discovered in the region. The undoubted highlight of the museum’s collection are the cache of 228 intact mummy packages along with their burial offerings; these beautifully preserved mummies were discovered in 1997 secreted in a cliff tomb on the shore of the wonderfully named Lake of the Condors.
This adventure by its nature has involved numerous lengthy road journeys and the longest so far involves a 12 hour drive covering 480 Km from Leymebamba to Tarapoto. Situated in the Amazon Rainforest, Tarapoto provides a chilled out escape from the hectic schedule of long drives, ancient temples and museums. A 4 hour walk in the rainforest with a local guide is rewarded with encounters with coloured butterflies, frogs, numerous birds, as well as learning about all the various plants and trees that make up the biodiversity of the rainforest.
This fantastic Andean experience concludes back where it began in Lima, just leaving enough time for some last minute shopping before the long flight back home.
This was a fantastic journey to discover the architecture and culture of the lesser known pre Incan peoples of northern Peru. To be able to visit these sites, in the infancy of their tourist exposure and with very few other visitors, is to experience the untrammelled photographic opportunities that are all too rare in so many of the more high profile sites.
The majority of Peru’s tourism industry is located in the south of the country, with the standout sites of Machu Picchu, Cuzco and Nazca top of most visitors list. The north of the country is somewhat off the tourist radar and yet for the keen classicist there are magnificent sites in abundance, many of which I have been privileged to visit on this trip. The lack of investment in infrastructure, along with market awareness of what the north has to offer, presents a considerable barrier in convincing visitors that there is more to Peru than just the south of the country.