Chan Chan: A Series of Large Walls*

The ancient Chimu civilization capital of Chan Chan was and is the largest adobe city in the world, comprising an area of 20 km². However, being built of adobe, it has not fared well over the past 1200 years, especially during El Niño events when intense storms and flooding have caused massive erosion. All that being said, it’s still a significant archaeological site, and you know I can’t pass up a good ruin.

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Chan Chain is located about 5 km northwest of the Peruvian city of Trujillo, about halfway to Huanchaco, and you can easily get there on any collectivo going between the two. As Alina didn’t have much interest in eroded adobe walls, I left her at the beach and headed off on my own to explore.

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Getting dropped off at the entrance on the edge of the highway, I had a long, hot, dry walk towards the ocean, where the main preserved complex lies. Although the full city of Chan Chain is massive, extending from the ocean well inland past the highway, only a few temple complexes have been preserved and restored, making for a manageable visit.

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As I walked, I was initially a bit disappointed, as indeed all the walls I could see were extremely heavily eroded, barely recognizable as man-made structures in fact. But as I continued, a few more significant structures emerged, including the main walls of one of the less preserved complexes.

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I eventually ended up at the entrance to the Palacio Nik-An (Tschudi Complex), the main visitor area. Here a lot of work had clearly been done to cover the structures from rain, including a lot of reconstruction work I would guess.

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From here, I could enter the temple complex and have a look around. There was surprisingly good informational signs in both Spanish and English including little dioramas of what each area originally looked like, and placards indicating the path to follow.

It was clear that water was a huge problem here, as everything was covered and drainage systems ran everywhere. However, the conservation work really paid off, as there were incredible murals of fish and birds, and a stunningly intricate series of walls carved into the form of nets.

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Wandering through the complex, everything was so desolate and dry, it was hard to imagine a people living here. I imagine it was a somewhat greener environment nearly a thousand years ago.

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It was interesting to see the difference in cultural icons from this coastal civilization compared to the highland Incas. Here it was all fish, nets, shells, and birds, whereas the inland civilizations were snake, pumas, and condors. Really fascinating.

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Coming around a corner, the dryness was suddenly replaced by a huge, reed-filled pond, enclosed within a large square.  Sadly I can’t remember what its purpose was!

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Leading of from this area was the burial complex for the head Chimu, where early excavations had revealed a mummy in the central tomb. In the surrounding small tombs were worldly possessions and sacrifices, or as the English signage read “useful objects such as courtesans and officials”.

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I continued exploring the dry, dusty remains of Chan Chan, coming away mostly with a sense of wonder at just how big the city must have been. It had taken me almost two hours to wander just this one temple complex, and that was just a very small part of the full city.

It’s a shame that this remnant of a long gone civilization will not survive the test of time, slowly eroding away to nothing over the coming years. As a conservationist said when asked how it could be preserved, “We need to cover the whole thing with a big tarp”.

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*cf. Eddie Izzard

 Logistics (October 2013):

Here’s what I paid for my visit:

Collectivo from Huanchaco to Chan Chan entrance: s/1 (should be the same coming from Trujillo)

Chan Chan entrance fee (includes nearby museum): s/10

The museum is about 500 m or so closer to Trujillo than the Chan Chan entrance. It’s interesting, but not spectacular, worth visiting just because you already paid for the ticket. A lot information on the development of the Moche and Chimu civilizations, their conquest by the Incas, and later Spanish colonization. Not too many artifacts, if I recall correctly.

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