05 September 2012

Chiclayo day one: pyramids and glorious grave goods

We hit the ground running in Chiclayo!

After a good sleep on the bus and a taxi to Hotel Embajador (highly recommended – lovely staff, smallish but clean, comfy room), we quickly got settled in and, feeling really refreshed after a nice hot cup of tea, made for us by the hotel owner’s wife, we booked ourselves on a full-day sightseeing tour.

The tour guide and driver collected us at 10am and our small group of intrepid travellers headed north to Túcume, the Valley of Pyramids. No, this isn’t about a trip to Egypt. Almost everyone has heard of the Incas but almost no one knows about the civilisations that existed in Peru prior to them, and northern Peru is full of incredible adobe pyramids built by the pre-Inca Sican, Moche and Chimú civilisations.

Sadly, these pyramids have been badly affected by water erosion, evidence of the ferocity of the rainy season from December to March. They have also partly been plundered and destroyed over the centuries by tomb robbers. There were once 26 pyramids at this huge site, covering approximately 540 acres; now, only 6 remain.

Model of what the site would originally have looked like
Archaeologists speculate that the Túcume site was originally occupied by the Sican people (from 800 to 1350 AD), who were then conquered by the Chimú (from 1350 to 1450 AD), who were subsequently overthrown by the Inca (from 1450 to 1532 AD). There was a museum at the site, but it was primitive, and the few replica sculptural reliefs we saw didn’t really provide a good idea of the apparently sophisticated societies that once existed here.

The landscape was desert-like, with vultures circling overhead and heat-crazed dogs chasing lizards amongst the scrub. We were shown carob trees, evidence that there is water deep underground as the roots of these trees can delve as deep as 70 metres in search of water, and we climbed a short way up the side of the La Raya mountain to get good views of the surrounding landscape.

Lunch was a welcome respite from the noon-day sun and delicious to boot! We dined at El Rincόn del Pato in Lambayeque, where we thoroughly enjoyed the local delicacy arroz con pato (rice with duck).

Then it was on to one of the best museums I have ever visited, the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán (the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan). It is shaped like one of the original pyramid structures and full of the amazing finds excavated from the tombs we were to visit later in the day. In particular, it houses the huge collection of gold, silver and copper grave goods recovered from the tomb of El señor de Sipán, the Lord of Sipán, who ruled over this area during the time of the Moche civilisation. The objects on display were dazzling in their magnificence, and the exhibits included reconstructions of the tombs so you could see how things would have looked at the time of burial.

Unfortunately, photography was not allowed within the museum but our next stop was to the actual tomb site, the Temple of Sipan, 33 kilometres south east of Chiclayo and about an hour’s drive from Lambayeque through mile after mile of sugarcane fields, and cameras were allowed in the local site museum, the Museo de Sitio Huaca Rajada. The finds were again impressive, from ritual ceramics and reconstructed tombs to the very scary-looking death masks recovered from the tombs of warriors and priests.

The temple itself is another large pyramid structure, much weathered but well displayed, with the excavated areas now covered to provide protection from the rain and some of the excavation holes reconstructed to give visitors an idea of what the burials looked like.

It had been a fascinating, if long and tiring day, and it was topped off by a very co-operative Burrowing Owl obligingly remaining still long enough for me to grab some photos and a huge red sun setting over the not-so-distant ocean on the drive back to Chiclayo.

Understandably, we were exhausted, so we got the hotel owner’s wife to make us some dinner and crashed early as we had another full-day tour booked for the following day.

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