The great adobe (mud brick) city of Chan Chan lies about 500 km north of Lima, next to the city of Trujillo, the third most populated city in Peru. Although less visited than Machu Picchu, the ruined city of Chan Chan put Trujillo on the map.
Chan Chan was at the height of its power in the 15th century until it got conquered by the Inca Empire in 1470. As Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimu kingdom, this meant the end of their civilization. Only 50 years after becoming part of the Inca territory, the Spanish came and looted Chan Chan’s riches and artifacts.
After being deserted and robbed of all its glory for centuries, the site finally got listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1986. Since then a lot has changed. The former glory may have been lost forever but thanks to elaborate restorations over the past 30 years, Chan Chan has become one of the most restored sites in South America. Even if you feel that would hurt its authenticity, it cannot be denied that the city becomes alive because of it. When you walk through the gates of Chan Chan you get catapulted to a different time and place.
Chan Chan is the largest city of the Pre-Columbian Era in South America and the largest adobe (mud brick) city in the world. The entire complex spanned over more than 20km² and it is estimated to have had over 30,000 inhabitants at the top of its glory while the Chimu Kingdom had more than 500,000 inhabitants.
Next to being the residence of the king, queens and priests, Chan Chan served as the commercial, political and administrative centre of the Chimu Kingdom.
At the centre of the city, which spans over 6km2, lie extravagant ‘ciudadelas’ or palaces. These large architectural masterpieces functioned as storage, residence, mausoleum, temple and administrative centre. Outside of these areas lie the compounds and centres for textile weaving, metalworking and woodworking, etc. At the outskirts of these compounds there were the houses of the farmers. Only the palaces and the compounds have been reserved.
Although the complex was built in one of the driest climates in Peru, they managed to fertilize their crops and luxurious gardens and courts through an intelligent irrigation system. Water might have been a challenge but because the ocean was only a few kilometres away, food was plenty.
Whenever the king of Chan Chan died, his first wife (wife/sister) got drugged after which a ritual was performed that involved cutting her heart out as a sacrifice. The remainder of his 90 wives got poisoned without ritual. All of them were buried together in the palace and covered with sand. Because the palace would transform into a mausoleum, his successor needed to build his own palace. Over the centuries, nine of these royal palaces or ‘ciudadelas’ have been built, resulting in the vastness of the complex of Chan Chan.
These weren’t the only human sacrifices in Chan Chan. Young children and animals were often sacrificed to the moon deity, which was believed to make them into gods themselves.
The first palace, Palacio Tschudi is the most restored and is the only palace visitors can enter. There is a ticket office, gift shop and a few artisans selling their merchandise at the entrance and there is security inside the ruins.
The palace is completely surrounded by thick, large walls that would have been 10 meters high in certain areas. The walls surrounding the central ceremonial courtyard are for example 4m thick. Chan Chan is characterized by ingenious structural knowledge. The thickness of the walls but also the supporting structures around it are specially devised to protect it from earthquakes, while certain rooms or storage units only have holes in certain walls to let in the fresh wind only or to protect from the strong sea winds.
In its day, Chan Chan was magnificently decorated, the gates were in metal, the walls covered in variations of red, white and black and the walls had both painted and structural designs that were meant to give information about each individual place. Although the colors have faded and some of the walls seem to have melted, some parts still show the exquisite drawings and designs.
The gateway to Chan Chan is Trujillo. From Lima you can find bus tickets to Trujillo for 75 soles ($ 22) and it takes about 10-12 hours to get there.
From Trujillo there are regular local buses that go to Huanchaco, a must visit coastal town next to Trujillo. The bus that has Huanchaco written on it should take you past Chan Chan but check with the driver before paying. A bus ticket will cost you about 1.5 soles.
If you prefer taking the taxi from Trujillo it will be 10-15 soles.
The entrance to Chan Chan is 11 soles and a guide will cost you another 30-35 soles. We highly recommend taking a guide since the ruins become way more meaningful.
This entrance fee will also give you access to the the museum and the moon and sun temple in Trujillo (biggest adobe pyramid in Peru) built by the Moche civilization, which is also a great trip.
Mia Eggers is a Belgian backpacker that is currently traveling through South America with no intentions of heading back.