When the hills get interesting...

Driving north through the arid landscape of Peru it was hard to imagine any civilisation flourishing in a climate that alternated between the chill blanket of the Pacific fog to the heat and wind of the coastal desert. But the hills masked a wealth of cultures of different epochs that had risen and faded away with the fluctuations of nature or the borders of their neighbours. Occasionally the tedious lines of the Panamericana were disrupted by green slashes in the form of steep canyons or wide river valleys carved by Andean rivers. Here was where the Moche, Chimu and Sican cultures could survive on distant mountain water and the bountiful fish stocks courtesy of the Humboldt Current’s upwelling.

In Huanchaco we found our own oasis complete with pool and peacocks where Axel could tackle the serious bolt problem on the Russian's engine before we could tour the archaeological sites nearby. Meantime, I learnt more Spanish, took a few surf lessons (the fishermen here ride the waves on reed rafts or 'caballitos') and made endless fruit salads starring 'Marc Edwards' mangos.

 The pre-Columbian City of Chan Chan, or Jan Jan in the Chimu language (meaning 'sun sun'), was only a kilometre or two down the road. So we visited it in between trips to the mechanic while the metal sleeves for the engine block were being made up. The settlement had covered a huge area of 20 sq km and had housed 50 000 people at its peak, making it the largest pre-Columbian city in South America. The part we could visit was a fraction of that, being just one ciudadela (or Citadel) out of the ten or more in the core area. The citadels were strictly 'VIP's only' with a single protected entrance to their massively walled maze-like compounds. The rabble had to do with simpler housing outside of those huge walls. Despite not being personages of great importance with our ticket we were allowed to roam the audiencias (courts), wachaques (wells), huacas (temples) and corridors marvelling at the mud plaster friezes. The Chimu's seafaring life was freeze-framed in smooth symmetrical lines onto their adobe walls in the form of waves, fish and seabirds giving the stodgy mud walls a magical appearance.

Once Axel was happy with his hand-bored repairs we test-drove the sidecar to Huaca de la Luna and its neighbour Huaca del Sol. They date back even further to the culture preceding the Chimu, the Moche (1 to 800 AD). The bigger Huaca del Sol had suffered greatly from the Spanish looters with only a third of the original remaining (the small Santa Catalina river had been diverted to better wash out the gold!). Its bulk seemed a formless, eroded lump of mud until we rounded the corner and saw its pair. The smaller but lesser damaged Huaca de la Luna was the religious centre of the Moche and must have been a fantastic site in its day with its three large platforms covered in checkerboard motifs in black, white, red and ochre. Those had long since faded away but inside, under the renovations and rebuilds, were many beautiful friezes which had maintained their strong colours. The grinning Moche god 'Decapitator' was a motif repeated throughout and a gruesome reminder that human sacrifices had been made here.

With the Russian fixed we were ready to move on. Planned was a side trip to Cajamarca where the Inca Atahualpa had spent his last days but this was aborted as our overly sensitive Russian was not to be put through the kind of torture that the road proved to be. So, disappointed and dusty we arrived in Chiclayo and headed for the coastal town of Pimentel. We found a wacky conglomeration of pyramids and themed rickety shacks pieced together by Mario, a half-Japanese Peruvian, and any number of backpackers who felt the urge to be creative. Mario gave us a big welcome in the form of giant prawn kebabs in a spicy marinade. Yum!

From Katuwira Lodge we visited the last resting place of the Lord of Sipan, a Moche Huaca similar to those of the Sun and the Moon. The burial site itself was quickly perused but the real treasures lay in the Museum in Lambayeque. There every gleaming golden ornament was displayed to perfection by spotlights in darkened rooms. El Senor de Sipan’s riches had been painstakingly uncovered bead by tiny bead. He had been most definitely VIP and had been lavished with fantastic bead chokers, gold jewellery, textiles and of course a couple of llamas, a few soldiers and wives as accorded his status.
Browse the discoverer - Walter Alva’s website to find out more: http://sipan.perucultural.org.pe/

One last stretch of Panamericana before the border crossing to Ecuador passed by many suspiciously Huaca-like mounds and that straight monotonous road found my imagination soaring on dreams of other Lords resting under brown but interesting hills.