The Road to Ruins, Northern Kingdoms

The renowed Peruvian Paso horses

It’s almost a sure bet that when a client says “plan me a trip to South America,” Peru’s storied and spectacular Machu Picchu is going to top the wish list of destinations. Well, while the whole world is loving Inca-built Machu Picchu to pieces, a host of more timeless monuments of the earliest Indian cultures—the Moche, the Sican, the Chimu—flourished from the first to the 14th century in the narrow desert strip between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes and today offer crowd-free discovery when on the road through the Northern Kingdoms of Peru.

If Peru’s archaeologically rich north is not a first-time visitor’s priority, the region will captivate any antiquities aficionado, and travel along what is called La Ruta Moche can be the perfect itinerary for the repeat traveler or for any client whose prime-time interests are Peru’s pre-Columbian and colonial cultures.

Reed boats in Huanchaco

A year ago, a friend and I booked arrangements with Lima-based tour operator InkaNatura Travel for a 4-day tour of the desert kingdoms, starting in Trujillo and ending in Chiclayo. Here are some of the highlights:

Trujillo, an hour by air from Lima (seven hours overland) was founded in 1534 by Diego de Almagro, Francisco Pizarro’s one-time partner in the conquest of Peru. Taking its name from the city in Spain where Pizarro was born, Trujillo is notable for its colonial and republican-era architecture, expressed in its carefully restored historic mansions. The exquisite ensemble of historic structures around the Plaza de Armas, such as Casa Bracamonte, Casa Orbegoso, La Casa Mayorazgo and El Templo de la Compania de Jesus come collectively close to an architectural masterpiece. Be sure to step into the Iturregui Palace, Casa Uriquiaga and La Merced Church, then stop at the Archaeological Museum of the University of Trujillo, which directs excavations outside the city at the Temple of the Moon or Huaca de la Luna. Findings include wall after wall covered with colorful friezes populated by fanged deities and exotic gods in the form of spiders, snakes, felines, octopi and other marine creatures; they rub shoulders with lines of dancers, warriors and naked prisoners, as well as scenes of ritual combat.

The largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas

Take a break from antiquity for lunch at the nearby Huanchaco, whose superb seafood restaurants overlook the Pacific Ocean. Here, fishermen still paddle out to sea in their caballitos de totora, introduced at the time of the Chimu Empire centuries ago; adventurous clients can take a lesson in navigating these one-man reed rafts. And in Trujillo, the place to call home is the Libertador Trujillo, a salmon-colored mansion with a fair amount of colonial elegance, right on Plaza de Armas. It has 78 rooms and suites, the very good La Bovedas
restaurant, and an outdoor pool. Double rooms from $150 with breakfast.

Three miles outside Trujillo is Chan Chan, once the major stronghold of the Chimu Empire that flourished from around A.D. 1300 to 1470. Covering nearly 5,000 acres, it is the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Enclosed by a massive wall are 10 adobe citadels, each built by the reigning monarch to house his courtiers and household, and upon his death his royal tomb. The narrow entrance leads into a labyrinth of passageways that eventually empty into a series of ceremonial rooms, burial chambers, temples reservoirs and residences. In its heyday, Chan Chan was home to somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 residents, many of them artists and craftspeople who made the sumptuous gold work, textiles and pottery for which the Chimu were famous.

A colonial church in Trujillo

From Trujillo, head north up the Pan American highway on the way to Chiclayo, with a detour to the coast to visit the ceremonial site El Brujo, a complex of crumbling pyramids built of mud and bricks some 1,600 years ago and mostly eroded over the centuries by torrential rains. In the late-fifth century, this site was part of a grand city, featured in the 20th century in National Geographic magazine after the sensational discovery in the Huaca Cao temple-pyramid: the mummy of a female Moche priestess or ruler preserved intact, covered with tattoos and buried with a dazzling array of ceremonial and military accoutrements. Extraordinary multicolored friezes on the temple walls depict scenes from the daily lives of the Moche and the gory rituals of sacrifice.

Another stop on the road to Chiclayo leads to Hacienda Paijan for lunch, accompanied by a colorful performance of local Peruvian paso horses and their riders, who combine the art of skilled horsemanship with the northern region’s La Marinera rhythms.

Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum in Lambayeque.

Chiclayo, lively, dynamic but no beauty of a city, is a second base for exploring the remains of tombs and temples from pre-Inca civilizations. The market is fun, offering woven straw items and other handicrafts, with an interesting section devoted to “witches” herbs and charms purporting to cure various ills. Our well-located 129-room hotel is the Casa Andina Select Chiclayo, formerly the Gran Hotel and now a new member of the Casa Andina hotel group. Following renovations, facilities now include a pool, spa, sauna, and high-speed Internet. Double rooms from $75 with tax and service.

This corner of Peru became famous in the 1980s with the discovery of the 1,500-year-old royal tomb of the great Lord of Sipan (A.D. 300), which produced the Americas’ richest trove and largest cache of Moche-culture artifacts. In the tomb, the Lord himself lay buried in full and fantastic funerary regalia.

Museum in Caral.

While visitors still want to see the actual tomb at the Huaca Rajada site, time is better spent going directly to the place where the treasures are now at home: in the superb, pyramid-shaped, state-of-the-art Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum in Lambayeque. On view are impressive collections of gold, masks, jewelry, scepters and hundreds of ceramic pieces from the Sipan tomb, a discovery many call the New World’s “King Tut.”

The newest ancient attraction in the north is at Batan Grande, where the Sican culture (A.D. 1000-1350) developed one of Peru’s most important metallurgical centers. The newly opened Sican Museum—whose rooms represent excavated tombs and exhibit the burial paraphernalia found there—is yet another fabulous site museum that comes as a surprise seemingly in the middle of nowhere. A final and essential visit from Chiclayo is also from the Sican era: The impressive ceremonial center of Tucume, whose 26 enormous pyramids—the oldest actually dating to A.D. 700—sprawl across 540 acres of desert.

The ancient city-complex, Caral.

come to CARAL: the oldest city in the americas

About a 2-hour+ drive along the Pan American Highway north and nearly 5,000 years from contemporary Lima lies Caral, an ancient 163-acre religious and residential city-complex in the Supe River Valley. One of 20 sites attributed to the Caral-Supe culture that flourished for more than a thousand years, Caral was the administrative center and presently holds the rank of the oldest city in the Americas.

Dotted with rock-and-earth pyramids—six in total—two temples, sunken plazas, housing complexes and an amphitheater, Caral made headlines in 2001 when researchers carbon-dated material from the city—including the remains of a young boy found in one of the six pyramids—back to 2657 B.C., 1,500 years earlier than any other findings in Peru. Indeed, Caral seems to have thrived as a complex urban center, contemporary with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The ruins offer a front row seat to archaeology in action, as scientists continue to reconstruct crumbling pyramids and plazas; many of those archaeologists serve as tour guides, along with local people who they have trained. There is a museum on this site, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009. And a special bonus: Caral is one of the few ancient sites in Peru that offers signage in both Spanish and English.

Caral can be easily visited on a full-day trip from Lima; clients can also stop here when driving overland to Trujillo and the Northern Kingdoms beyond.

Dine Out.

dine out

One must-savor treasure of northern Peru is its cuisine. Top restaurants for delicious samplings of the Lambayeque region’s hearty, rich cuisine are Fiesta Chiclayo Gourmet and Fiesta Trujillo Gourmet. Among the specialties are grouper carpaccio with mochero chili sauce, grilled duck breast served over puree of loche pumpkin, roasted goat shank with fresh pasta,
Chiclayana rice with duck, and suspiro limeno. Hector Solis is the chef and founder of these gourmet temples, including a third in Lima; he is particularly famous for his mastery of seafood, which he serves on hot stones. And in Trujillo, La Mochica is another good restaurant pick for enjoying the regional dishes of Northern Peru.

The Plaza de Armas in Trujillo

package it

“Peru’s monopoly on grand monuments from South America’s illustrious pre-Columbian past is central to its present popularity as a top visitor destination,” states Daniel Taramona, president of Tara Tours. “But agents are generally selling Peru to first-time visitors who have relatively short vacations, say seven days, and everyone is totally focused on the treasures of the Incas south of Lima around Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. When clients book a 9-day trip, we can add Lake Titicaca and with 11 days also tour Colca Canyon and visit Arequipa. Extending travel plans to include the new discoveries of the Northern Kingdoms is a hard sell.”

That said, Tara Tours offers a 4-day Northern Kingdoms package that departs from Lima and spends two nights in Chiclayo and one night in Trujillo. Included in the tour are
private car and guide; sightseeing at the archaeological sites of Sipan, Tucume and Chan Chan, as well as a city tour of Trujillo and the fishing village of Huanchaco; accommodations in the Costa del Sol Chiclayo and at the Libertador Trujillo; and all meals and bus transportation between Chiclayo and Trujillo. The $736 pp dbl does not include air transportation Lima-Chiclayo or Trujillo-Lima. (800) 327-0080;

“Peru is our top-selling South American destination,” says Monica Irauzqui, co-founder of Yampu Tours. “And while it’s amazing how much there is to see and do in Peru, it is also amazing that travelers only seem to go once. I would say that 90 percent of our clients are one-time only bookings to Peru; however, it is also true that some 90 percent of our repeat travelers to other South American destinations come from those whose first trip was to Peru.”

According to Irauzqui, that first trip to Peru includes the essentials of Lima, Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu. Next she says is the Amazon, “and Peru is the best place to see the Amazon.”

Yampu Tours has an extensive inventory of Peru programs, including its 11-day Experience Peruvian Culture tour that sweeps the rich band of pre-Columbian civilizations. Clients start off with a 2-night stay in Lima with a city tour highlighting the Larco Museum’s great pre-Columbian collections; get an overnight in Cusco to tour major Inca monuments and attend a private pottery and textile workshop in the village of Chinchero; visit the weaving village of Willoq en-route to an overnight stay in the Sacred Valley; spend two days and a night at Machu Picchu; return to Cusco for a night, then fly via Lima to begin a 3-night tour of the Northern Kingdoms between Trujillo and Chiclayo. Depending on hotels selected (three- to five-star plus deluxe), this private tour starts at $4,338 pp, and includes all domestic air, rail and overland transport, accommodations, breakfasts, some lunches, and guided sightseeing. (877) 566-8454;

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contact information
Casa Andina Select Chiclayo:
(866) 220-4434;
InkaNatura Travel: (888) 870-7378;
Libertador Trujillo: (877) 778-2281;