Peru’s most beautiful ruins are not located at Machu Picchu. The Inca construction there is an example of masterful engineering, and has a jaw dropping location, but, in the end, the ruins themselves are a series of very well-built gray walls. I know, it’s not the Incas’ fault that their decorative elements were spirited away by dashing archaeologists, but that doesn’t change the experience for visitors today.
If you want to see the height of ancient, artistic creativity, you’ll have to head to an archaeological site on the other end of the country: the Huaca de la Luna. The site receives just 300 visitors per day, not because it is hard to get to (it is only about fifteen minutes by taxi from the center of Trujillo, Peru’s third-largest city), but because it has never been mythologized or marketed, which is a shame.
The pyramid was built by the Moche culture about 1,500 years ago- well before the Inca came to power in the southern Andes. Along with the Huaca del Sol, it book-ended a city of some 20,000 people in the Moche River valley, under the folds of the Cerro Blanco hill. The Huaca de la Luna was the religious center for the Moche, a site for sacrifices and rituals.
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The ruins of the ancient Moche city, the Huaca del Sol, the Moche River valley.
One approaches the site today from the Trujillo suburb of Moche. Don’t be put-off by the pyramid’s external appearance: it looks like a massive pile of dirt and bricks, covered by some metal roofing. The good stuff is all inside.
What is the good stuff, you ask? Ancient friezes covering the interior walls of the temple, with their original, 1,500-year-old paint jobs. Because the Moche kept building new temples on the old site, the bricks of each new temple preserved the paintings of the old one.
Archaeologists have peeled back the layers to fin representations of gods and religious ceremonies. One massive room has images of Ai-Apaec, the principal Moche god, covering every wall, with different facial expressions. It’s hard not to ponder at the world view (and San Pedro cactus) that led to such art.
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Ai apaec friezes
On an outside patio, your guide will explain which chambers were used for human sacrifices, and how the victims were selected through ritual warfare. Inside, the altar where their blood was consecreated to the gods is perfectly preserved, and the paintings around it have been maintained.
The most breath-taking site is one you’ll see on your way out of the pyramid. As you exit by the ancient ramp that served as the entrance to the temple, you will see the external wall of the final pyramid. Its entire side is covered in painted friezes, dating back a thousand years. Here, more than any other place I’ve been in Peru, it is easy to see what the ancient city looked like when it was occupied.
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>The external wall of the pyramid
One amazing aspect of the Huaca de la Luna site is that excavations have, basically, only begun. The ancient city is just being explored now, and archaeologists have not done excavation in the Huaca del Sol, which could hold similar artistic treasures. It’s an exciting, evolving attraction on the northern coast.
To visit the site, it is easiest to take a taxi from the center of Trujillo (S/. 15 each way), though it’s also possible to visit on an organized tour or by public transportation with a combi to the town of Moche. Admission to the pyramid costs S/. 10 and includes a mandatory guided tour. There are a number of restaurantes campestres in nearby Moche. For more information on the pyramid, check >here.
Could a little-visited pyramid in Trujillo’s suburbs be Peru’s most beautiful archaeological site?