We get an overnight bus from Mancora and as soon as we climb onboard we both know this might be the worst one we’ve been on: very packed and old and creaking. We manage to get some sleep – interrupted by someone having a horrendous poo in the bus toilet which a man has to come along with chemicals to sort out! – so we’re very glad to arrive in the city in the early morning.
The main reason people come to Trujillo is to visit the ancient archaeological sites around the city. There’s not that much to do in the town itself but we’re still keen to explore so a bit disappointing when we arrive in the main plaza to see it all covered in building work. The French lady who owns the hotel where we’re staying says that the city people are angry about it – the plaza doesn’t need to be dug up and there’s lots of repair work to be done after disastrous floods last year, but the mayor is corrupt and so the building work has gone ahead. The town still has nice elements: a bright yellow cathedral, beautiful wooden balconies on colonial buildings and wrought iron grilles.
We have decided against an organised tour of the archaeological sites and are going DIY; we catch a minibus from the main avenue and head towards the site of the Chan Chan Empire. Fifteen minutes out of town and just off a busy road is the ancient city of the Chimú Empire, a pre-Incan civilisation that stretched from Ecuador to Lima. The city is 14 square km and is a strange sight: half buried collapsing into sand, half rising above the desert and divided by a main road (another corrupt mayor in the 1970s, according to our guide, Harold). 35,000 people lived in the city from 900 to 1500 AD when they were defeated by the Inca.
Unlike many other civilisations, the Chimú worshiped the moon. This culture lived along the coast, farming and fishing on the almost lunar landscape; it was the moon (not the sun) whose light allowed cultivating land and fishing at night as well as represented fertility. Many of the carvings and architecture represent the 28 day cycle of the moon, under which men where sacrificed to the gods. We enter the main palace of the city through a wide funeral passage, lined by 10 metre high mud walls through which dancers and musicians tattooed with octopus blood would have led the concubines and llamas to be sacrificed for the king’s death.
We move into the covered area which was the administrative centre, a maze of passageways and rooms carved with sea waves, birds and diamond spaces representing fishing nets. The complicated network of rooms was designed so that enemies would get confused; whilst the Chimú knew to follow the carvings of birds to find the exit, enemies would be stuck in the maze and defeated.
Everything seemed to have a reason and it was great to have Harold explaining the significance of every little detail. He has a sweet, high pitches laugh for a large man and is a friendly and warm, excited that we are on our honeymoon. We talk about our families and our national dishes and he looks at us and exclaims shrilly “but why you not fat???”, making us laugh.
Amazingly, the Chan Chan Empire has been unaffected by earthquakes and flooding which has floored so many Peruvian cities over the centuries.
After the tour, we catch another bus to a nearby fishing village called Huanchaco for lunch. The bus is filled schoolkids, pushing each other and giggling. Huanchaco is a surf town and though there are lots of places to eat along the main drag, the backstreets are quiet. We eat cheap ceviche on a restaurant terrace and watch the surfers waiting to catch a wave. Along the beach are wicker surfboards, called cabalittos de mar, which were first used by the Moche culture hundreds of years ago.
On our way back we visit Huaca Esmerelda, another Chimù site in the middle of Trujillo and surrounded by modern buildings. We’re the only ones there and have to wake up the guard to let us in so we can walk around the ancient walls. There are two hairless dogs, an ancient local breed, which apparently are good for people with arthritis..!
The next day we visit the Huaca de la Luna and the Huaca del Sol, ancient sites on the other side of the city. Again we catch a tiny minibus there, crammed with twenty or so people, and bounce along dirt roads into the barren landscape. The Huacas are ancient temple of the Moche culture who were here even before the Chimú. They are two pyramid structures, one of which is being excavated and one is covered in sand and crumbling away. They were absolutely amazing, covered in carefully excavated and preserved frescoes and unlike anything I’ve seen before. The Peruvian government doesn’t provide any financial support to the sites, which rely on private donations to protect and preserve these ancient places.
Back in Trujilo we have a couple of hours to kill before our next overnight bus south. I go to buy a rice pudding from a lady who has a little stall just around the corner from where we are staying. I am a big rice pudding fan and hers is delicious: with blackcurrent jelly, and flavoured with vanilla and burnt sugar and served in a plastic cup for the grand total of 25p. We go up the road to watch the Peru v Argentina match on a big screen: its being shown in an open square and we grab a beer and a plastic chair. All day we have seen people wearing Peruvian football shorts and with their faces painted, gearing up for the game, and when Peru draw 0-0 in the group stages against the mighty Argentina the celebrations are as if they have already won the World Cup.