Travel to Chan Chan, Peru’s ancient adobe kingdom

The city of Chan Chan had an estimated population of 35,000 between 1100 and 1300 AD.

By Andrew Kolasinski

Ten minutes outside Peru’s northern city of Trujillo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose scale staggers the imagination. Chan Chan, the ancient adobe city of the Chimu culture is simply immense, covering almost 5,000 acres.

The site, the capital of Peru’s biggest pre-Inca empire is the world’s largest adobe structure.

The entire city is molded from bricks of sun dried mud into intricate interlocking walls and walkways decorated in elaborate patterns. Some walls are embossed with animal and fish shapes, others are waffled with criss-cross patterns and diagonals that represent fishing nets.

Surrounded by 60-foot walls, the city was divided into districts of temples, palaces, ponds and tombs. Water was everywhere, channeled through a sophisticated irrigation and aqueduct system that turned the severe and barren Peruvian desert into an oasis.

Tours of Chan Chan are easily arranged from Trujillo or in advance through an agency such as this specialist in tailor made Peru tours.

I joined a tour conducted by Donna, a knowledgeable local guide. A mini-bus picked me up along with half-dozen guests from various hotels.

After a look through the small museum near the site we re-boarded the bus and within a few minutes we had entered the city walls. The entry gate opens onto a vast plaza, its walls decorated with reliefs of sea otters, pelicans and fish. Donna explained these were fertility and prosperity symbols.

Another creature found at Chan Chan’s doorway was a live specimen of a Peruvian hairless dog. Under the blazing sun of the open desert Chan Chan’s official greeter barely nodded at our arrival.

Donna explained that the dog’s complete lack of fur allows it to stay cool in the hot climate, though their body temperature always remains very high. Their skin exudes high concentrations of lanolin and other beneficial secretions, and traditional Peruvian folk medicine prescribes having a Peruvian Hairless dog in bed with sick patients.

Inside the plaza the sides of a raised platform were embossed with vaguely human figures with grotesque beaklike faces, and holding scepters, spears, and curved blades. In this square the king sat on his throne witnessing human sacrifices.

One of the most interesting facets of Chan Chan’s entire history was the fact that the entire city owed its very existence to the ingenious irrigation and water management systems exploiting on springs and deep wells.

This meant that at the peak of prosperity, between 1100 AD and 1300 AD Chan Chan supported a population of about 35,000 people. The city was abandoned around 1470 after being overrun by the Inca, who had overwhelmed the entire Chimu culture.

Our tour worked its way through the maze of walls towards the inner sanctum of Chan Chan, a district called Tschudi where the royal family lived and held court. The air suddenly felt ten degrees cooler. Here the waterworks were still in perfect order and the structures were built around a vast clean edged rectangular pool. Donna explained that the design takes advantage of prevailing breezes and currents to provide air conditioning for the royal quarter.

After leaving the adobe kingdom and driving back towards Trujillo Donna pointed out the eroded Huaca de Sol and Huaca de la Luna, the Moche temples of the Sun and Moon. The mountain pyramids stand sentinel over the city, a testament to another of Peru’s ancient cultures.



Veronica Gruber