Out of all the ruins around Trujillo, none are more infamous than Chan Chan. Literally translating to “Sun Sun”, this sunny city was the capital of the Chimú culture from 900 to 1470 AD. Chan Chan was the largest pre-Columbian city in South America, and is the second biggest adobe city in the world. Located in the mouth of the Moche Valley, the city of Chan Chan spanned a shocking 20 square kilometers. Its impressive size and intricate artwork showcases the power of the Chimú kingdom.
In many ways, this ancient city is an intriguing anomaly. Against all odds, Chan Chan managed to support a robust population that even outdid the Cusco-based capital of the Incas. Before the Spaniards looted it, Chan Chan had an impressive amount of wealth. Despite coordinated efforts by both the Peruvian government and international organizations, this city is in danger of further decay. Thanks to increased humidity from climate change and El Niño, its mud bricks need constant preservation.
Between the looting that continues on new excavations & climate change, Chan Chan is faced with multiple threats. Even in the midst of frantic excavation projects, archeologists are fighting an uphill battle. As humidity levels continue to rise, the city’s mud bricks continue to decay. All these factors make visiting Chan Chan more urgent than a simple bucket list fantasy picture. This vanishing culture contains valuable clues to pre-Columbian Peruvian history that echoed throughout the Americas. To highlight the importance of this ill-fated city, we compiled a brief overview of the Chimú culture. Prepare to get an intimate glimpse of one of the most historically important places to visit in Peru!
Visiting the Ruins of Chan Chan
Lying just 5 km outside Trujillo, Chan Chan is a portal to another world. This massive mud brick city highlights the ingenuity of the Chimú culture. When the Mochica civilization was wiped out by droughts in 700 AD, the coast of Northern Peru was left wide open. As the Chimú came to power in 900 AD, they picked up where the Mochicas left off. Utilizing a four-tiered hierarchical system that was based in their capital Chan Chan, the Chimús built an empire. At its height the kingdom of Chimor stretched from above the Moche Valley all the way to Lima and incorporated Arequipa.
While the Chimú were fierce warriors, the secret to their success was their irrigation and farming techniques. Like the Nazca culture, they utilized walk-in wells to access water in the middle of the desert. Combined with collecting river water in reservoirs, the Chimús were able to harvest enough water to maintain vast farmlands. While other tribes starved, the Chimús cultivated papayas, cotton, sweet potatoes and beans. This abundance allowed the Chimús to create irrigation systems that connected resources to their satellite communities.
Aside from creating sexually explicit ceramics, the Chimús are known for utilizing Spondylus shells. Since they were viewed as symbols of divine power, these bizarre shaped shells were treasured even more than gold. While their fascination for the shells is odd, the process of harvesting them was even more complex. Chimú divers had to descend over 50 meters deep into the ocean off the coast of Ecuador to retrieve these coveted seashells. This was achieved by attaching stone weights to trained divers who were tossed off the sides of ships. While the diving process is well documented in their artwork, the lengths the Chimús went to collect these shells is absolutely fascinating. Spondylus shells can be found inside of tombs throughout Peru, which proves that they were a valuable trading item.
To control the underground wells, the entire Chimú society revolved around a strict bureaucracy. The royalty class who controlled the water supply lived in the urban center of Chan Chan, an area filled with elaborate architectural feats called cuidadelas. These plazas, burial platforms and storerooms were covered in intricate artwork that depicted fish and other animals. While the center of this bustling city was occupied by royalty, the rest was filled with artisans that produced crafts. The population of Chan Chan is estimated to have reached 60,000 people. This makes it the biggest pre-Columbian city in the Americas, and this robust size is why it quickly became a target.
Unfortunately, the wealth of the Chimor kingdom didn’t go unnoticed by the Incas. Intrigued by the possibility of incorporating them into their empire, the Incas set their sights on their Northern neighbors. Fifty years before the Spanish arrived, the Inca emperor Topa Inca Yupanqui conquered the Chimús in 1470. The final Chimú emperor Minchancaman was moved to Cusco and their gold and silver was used to adorn the Incan sun temple Qurikancha. This was an exceptionally ironic end to a culture that believed that the moon was a more powerful god than the sun.