Huacas, Huacas, Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Trujillo is an odd duck. It’s a sprawling and, in my opinion, ugly city (though we never visited the center), close to the ocean, but not actually on it. But, the delightful village of Huanchaco is just nearby. The impressive Chimu city of Chan Chan is about 5 km to the northwest. And to top it off, the really incredible 1900 year old Moche temple complexes of Huaca de la Luna and Huaca del Sol (temples of the Moon and the Sun) are just a few kilometers out of the city to the east.

Once again, Alina was all ruined out, so I headed out to the Huacas on my own. After a somewhat grueling 90 minutes or so in various collectivos, I finally arrived at the site, smack in the middle of the desert. Here’s a hint: you’ll know you’re close when you see the giant pyramids contructed of millions of adobe bricks.

The park is a combination of two separate areas. First, there are the Huacas themselves. These are the giant step pyramids, and you can tour them with a guide who gives useful explanations. (Huaca del Sol is closed for excavations at the moment, and probably for several years. There is still plenty to see in Huaca de la Luna.) Secondly, there is the museum, which contains pottery, jewelry, and textiles recovered from the temple sites and from the urban complex lying between them.

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You absolutely must visit the museum! The pottery there is just incredible, by far the most impressive I’ve ever seen. Sadly, you can’t take pictures, but I found one on the internet. 420px-Moche_portrait_ceramic_Quai_Branly_71.1930.19.162_n2

The Moche used molds for their pottery, enabling all sorts of crazy shapes, including a lot of faces, animals, and even entire scenes. The museum also explains the iconography at the Huacas, so its useful to visit here first so you know what you’ll be seeing. Further in the back are textiles and jewelry recovered from a crate that had been buried between layers of the temple, and thus avoided plundering. All of this is also very impressive, especially the centerpiece, a complicated cape/chest adornment worn by the priests.

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After spending much longer than I’d anticipated carefully poring over all the artifacts at the museum, I headed on over to Huaca de la Luna, where I was just a few minutes late for one of the last tours of the day. I hurried off toward the temple to catch up with the (Spanish speaking) group, and spent the next hour being led through the complex.

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The first temple was constructed of adobe bricks on the site in about 100 CE, and was then expanded four more times over the next 600 years. Each time the plaza on top was filled in with more bricks, and then an entire new pyramid constructed around and atop the previous temple. In this way, there are five levels or pyramids, each surrounding the inner ones.

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In excavation, archaeologists starting uncovering the inner levels from the middle out, and so now there is a sort of reverse pyramid in the center of the complex, reaching down towards the earliest construction. We were shown how many of the adobe bricks were individually marked by the craftsmen who had fashioned them.

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Because of the layering and thus protection from weathering, the earlier levels of the temple have preserved truly incredible murals, vibrant with the original colors.

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The primary motif is the mountain god, with a feline face surrounded by octopus tentacles. It’s even possible to see the evolution of this depiction of time, as there are noticeable changes on the murals of different levels of the temple.

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Moving onward, we could see partially excavated areas enclosing more murals, as well as some tombs that had been uncovered within the walls.

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It was in a place such as this that a small woven-reed crate containing the stunning priestly vestments and jewelry on display in the museum had been found, originally placed here as an offering to help lend strength to the walls.

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On top of the Huaca, in the plaza, we could see the remnants of the main altar. The circular holes in the ground were where supporting wooden columns once stood, holding up a roof or awning under which sacrifices and offerings were made.

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On the walls nearby, you can see four different layers of murals, painted atop one another. Well, you can see four if you have a sign in front of you telling you what to look for at least. Here, maybe you can see the difference between the earlier, white dominated mural, and the later red and blue square patterns.

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Looking eastward from the main plaza, we could see the excavations of the urban center on the plain below and in the distance, the bulk of Huaca del Sol.

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Having not received the same conservation work, it is much harder to see the actual form of the temple, everything coated in centuries of blowing sand. Still, one can easily imagine the shape it must once have had, with several levels of stepped pyramid and a long ramp leading up to the main plaza on top.

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Finally, we returned to the base of the pyramid, where we could view the north facade and the main entrance ramp. The facade was completely covered in sand 30 years ago, before conservation efforts began. Now it has been uncovered, and the layers of murals and reliefs can be seen.

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First, we see the victorious warriors of ritual combats leading the bound losers to be sacrificed.

Then, the priests performing celebratory dances.

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Above, a pair of a spiders with a shared abdomen.

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Finally, the top two layers show a water god carrying fish, as well as serpents.

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Stepping back, you can see the whole facade, with it’s several layers of symbolism, and imagine what it must have looked like before centuries of weathering took its toll.

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Our final image of the temple was an intricate mural, “the wall of the myths”, showcasing a variety of images from the cultural and spiritual lives of the Moche people. This final colored mural once again made me appreciate these temples and how rare it is to be able to step back in time like this and be able to see things very nearly as the people of the time did.

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Logistics (October 2013):

Here’s what I paid to visit the Huacas from Hunachaco. Same prices to get back to your starting point.

Collectivo from Huanchaco to Ovalo Grau: s/1.50 I hopped on an orange “H” bus in Huanchaco. This took forever, and I actually got off too soon and had to walk down Av. America Sur for about 20-30 minutes. It’s best to just ask the money collector to let you know when to get off. You want to be at the big gas station at Ovalo Grau.

Collectivo from Ovalo Grau to Huaca de la Luna: s/1.40 From the gas station, find a small collectivo that is labeled “Moche” or “Huaca” in the front window. Ride it all the way to the end of the line. They should let you off by the museum where you need to buy tickets.

Combined entry ticket to Huaca de la Luna and the Museum: s/13 (s/10 for just the Huacas, and s/3 for the museum) Absolutely go to the museum! The pottery and jewelry that has been recovered and is on display is stunning; the best pottery I’ve ever seen. Entrance to the Huacas includes a guided tour.

Tip for your tour guide: s/? Well, I’m guilty. I didn’t tip her. But you should, they do a nice job. I was on a Spanish only tour, but I think there are English language ones at least once a day.

Pottery Image Credit: Wikipedia

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