07.01.2006 - 10.01.2006
With considerable reluctance, we left Vilcabamba early in the morning, to catch the first bus to Piura, and then, after a night, Trujillo, Peru. We stayed at the guest house of Clara Bravo and Michael White who were knowledgeable guides of the nearby ruins. Located in a quiet residential area about a ½ mile from the center of town, their house can best be described as a work in progress, at least when we were there. They initially put us in a room that was literally still under construction, promising that the window in the shower would be finished by the end of the day. Not wanting to alienate our hosts, who we intended to hire as guides, we accepted this. They offered to serve us dinner at whatever time we wanted, nothing if not flexible. In the kitchen a couple of mestizos or cholas, as they are called in Peru, were already hard at work. The meal was served shortly thereafter, a late lunch as it turned out, in the couples own cluttered dining room, while Michael watched soccer on the tube.
They were a rather unlikely pair, though just how unlikely would take us a day or two to find out. Clara is a diminutive Peruvian, of mixed race, highly educated, a speaker of several languages including English, who had been involved in the exploration of Chan Chan. She seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of energy for dealing with the obvious chaos of running her household and guest house. Running is perhaps the wrong word since it appeared as though no one was actually in charge. Think Faulty Towers. Guests arrived and left at all hours of the day and night, and meals were served without any schedule. In a room in the front of the house, their grown daughter was running her own restaurant in the evenings, catering to the locals. A couple of workman seemed to come and go in a somewhat desultory fashion, and so the “construction” proceeded at a snails pace. Michael is a middle aged Brit, who also spoke Spanish, German and Italian, all with an English accent. He seemed to cope with all the chaos by blocking it out. He was friendly enough once you engaged him in conversation, and also extremely knowledgeable. In fact we thought he was going to be our guide for both days, but that turned out not to be the case.
The center of town, Plaza Mayor, was choked with traffic, and the cars looked to be 10-30 years old. There was a mix of old and new buildings, including a cathedral dating to 1666, and the impressive looking Hotel Libertador. For the most part the city seemed as if it had seen better days, though probably never had. Located on the desert coastal plains, it was dry and dusty despite the green palms and irrigated trees. Although it had over a million people, it seemed provincial, though later I learned that it had been a hot bed of radical politics in the 20's. When we returned to the guest house, a Romanian couple was still there, as well as Jack, who made a point of telling us he had a pension from a branch of the Canadian coast guard. He looked and sounded like a burnt out biker/aging hippie, with a pony tail, Harley t-Shirt, and several tattoos on his arms. His Scandinavian girlfriend was much younger, and had a more innocent look. It seems they had spent the last year living in a shack in Vilcabamba growing a few of their own vegetables, and most likely, though they didn't mention it, imbibing the local hallucinogenic cacti. Perhaps some of the hippie types had moved on to Peru. We all had dinner together, not particularly good, but dirt cheap , and then went to our room. The window in the bathroom was of course still not in, but Clara had rigged up some curtains that looked as though they might fall down at any minute. Unfortunately just as we turned out the light, her daughter's restaurant directly underneath us, began to fill up and the music and noise was pumped in through the air shaft.
We were up early, not an effort since I hadn't slept much, and set off with Michael for the Moche Pyramids. The enormous Huacas del Sol and del Luna, dating from around 500AD and constructed with millions of adobe bricks, are impressive. Built over the course of several hundred years, they were both houses of worship and sacrifice, and home to 15,000 nobles. Some 20,000 others lived in the surrounding area.
The landscape is lunar, as it is extremely dry and desolate, though only a few kilometers outside of Trujillo. Stark rock mountains are all around. It is hard to believe anyone actually lived here, and it was only possible through the construction of irrigation ditches which brought water down from the high glaciated mountains.
The pyramids are decorated with elaborate red and gold geometric designs, some abstract and some of deities.
It is a testimony to just how dry the climate is that the original colors have lasted this long. Michael, who told us more than we wanted to know and could possibly absorb, took us home for lunch and then we returned in the late afternoon for the completion of the tour.
The next morning we were up early again and sat around after breakfast waiting for Michael, who apparently was still asleep. Clara kept telling us not to worry , that he would be with us shortly. Another hour went by and then he finally did emerge , obviously in a bad mood and yelling at Clara for not getting him up at the proper time. This dispute went on for perhaps 15 minutes with Michael getting louder and louder, and then saying to Clara that it was going to be too hot now. and he was not going to take us. Clara, argued back, just as vociferously though with less volume, eventually said she would take us. Nothing like being in the middle of a domestic dispute conducted half in Spanish and half in English. While this was going on, we made the decision to spend the night in Huanchaco, the seaside resort adjoining Trujillo. That way we might at least get some sleep.
Chan Chan, though not as old as the pyramids, dates from about 1200AD, but is even more inspiring. It is the largest adobe city in the world, consisting of more than nine compounds built by the Chimu Kings.
They ruled an empire that stretched for miles along the Peruvian coast, and the ruins of more than a dozen towns and a vast viaduct still remain. The walls and courtyards of Chan Chan, go on as far as you can see, and likely more of them remain buried and overtaken by other buildings built on top. It is hard to take it all in.
Many of the high, thick, and sometimes triple walls surrounding each compound are intricately carved with geometric patterns, as well as fish, and other animals.
Amongst all the brown and sand, there are small green oasis' of ponds and greenery, the site of ancient irrigation ditches and wells.
The dull roar of the surf in the distance can be heard echoing slightly between the buildings, like when you put your ear against a shell.
Clara proved to be an excellent guide and somewhat less obsessive with facts than her husband. She told us several stories about the culture and the history of the excavations, and then we simply walked amidst the adobe walls, sensing the presence of the once mighty kings and their subjects.
At the time, I had no idea that there are more recent ghosts that haunt Chan Chan. However, in 1932 there had been a massacre of over a thousand people. Most were Apristas, or members of the APRA (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance), a socialist and reformist party found by Victor Haya de la Torre in the 20's. Many of them were lined up and shot in Chan Chan, after the failure of a revolt against Sanchez Cerro, the dictator who was trying to wipe out the APRA and its supporters. According to Carleton Beals, writing in the early 30's, Chan Chan was a “charnel house. It's pestiferous stench rose to high heaven for miles about, even to Trujillo.” (Fire in the Andes, taken from The Peru Reader, p260, Duke University Press).Trujillo was and maybe still is ardently Aprista. Beals notes that there were signs with the APRA logo carved in desert plants and house, even on some high Andean precipices outside of the city. I noticed a few of these signs during our stay here, but did not appreciate their significance.
For many years the APRA party represented the progressive wing of Peruvian politics, but their image was tarnished considerably by the regime of Alan Garcia, the first elected APRA president in l985. He was defeated 5 years later amid charges of corruption and incompetence, after presiding over an increasingly bankrupt country with hyperinvation, in the throes of the Shining Path insurgency. He was followed by Alberto Fujimora, who recently was extradited from Chile and convicted of war crimes. Ironically, as with a number of other seemingly corrupt Latin American politicians, Garcia has been resurrected and recycled , and went on to win the most recent presidential election.
So it seems that Chan Chan's history goes beyond whatever violence may have been committed by its Chimu rulers hundreds of years ago, followed by the Incans who conquered them, then the conquistadores of course, and it stretches all the way to the 20th century.