by Larry & Judi Fenson

Trip overview
While most everyone has some familiarity with Machu Picchu and the Inca civilization, the Incas were relative latecomers in the rich archaeological history of Peru, spanning the relatively brief period from 1450-1532 when the empire was destroyed by Pizarro and the Spanish conquistadors. However, the archeological history of Peru extends back to at least 20,000 BC. The first loosely organized societies had begun to emerge by about 3000 BC along the coastal regions of Northern Peru and in the northern regions of the Peruvian Andes. By 1500 to 1800 BC, cultivation of crops and the development of ceramics enabled the establishment of more organized societies, some aided by the bountiful resources of the Pacific coast waters.

The varying geographic settings led to considerable diversity in their lifestyles, cultures and artifacts. Fortunately, extensive ruins of these civilizations have survived the ravages of time and abuse from subsequent civilizations and many may be visited today. Moreover, a surprisingly large number of fascinating, often spectacular artifacts have also survived the decay of time, destruction and looting. Large quantities of these artifacts have been smuggled out of Peru by illicit dealers and purchased illegally by unscrupulous collectors (mostly in the U.S.). An increasingly sophisticated law enforcement network has led to the recovery and return of a large number of these priceless pieces. Many of the best are now safely displayed in Peruvian museums in Lima and in others near the original discoveries in Northern Peru.

Our multifaceted trip centered around the ancient cultures of Northern Peru, combining archeology with some of the best Andean scenery in South America. We visited many of the most significant pre-Inca ruins (including three UNESCO World Heritage sites) along with some impressive museums that hold their most important artifacts. To reach these sites, we crossed truly spectacular mountain passes, traversing some genuinely harrowing roads. Our 2-week itinerary was planned and conducted by Ric Finch, owner of Rutahsa Tours, with a group of 16, in May 2006. Ric provides a detailed itinerary of the trip on his website

Highlites included:

An excursion to Mt. Huascaran National Park. Majestic Mt. Huascaran is South America's 3rd highest at 22,208 ft. Here we saw the stunning turquoise Llanganunco twin glacial lakes.

Spectacular Andean scenery, especially between Laymebamba and Celendín.

Roadside and village scenes of indigenous peoples dressed in their colorful fabrics, wearing their distinctive large hats, with the Andes as a backdrop.

Rapid, dramatic changes in the landscape, from high altitude forests to barren moonscapes to lush valleys looking almost tropical to sand dunes.

Yungay, site of a major natural disaster. A landslide from Mt. Huascaran triggered by an earthquake in which over 18,000 people (almost the total population) perished in 1970. Mt. Huascaran provided a
spectacular backdrop to this scene, glowing in brilliant pinks and oranges in the setting sun.

Sechin (1900 BC to 900 BC), the largest complex for its time in the Western Hemisphere.

Chavin de Huantar (900 BC to 300 BC), a striking ceremonial site. A seminal culture in the evolution of Andean societies. Chavin culture is regarded as the "mother civilization of the Andes" paralleling the Olmecs's role in Mexico.

Moche sites including the Temples of the Sun and the moon (Huaca del Luna) and the Sipan Pyramids. This was a powerful pyramid-building society which left stunning artifacts that would impress scholars and dazzle visitors nearly 2000 years in the future. The Lord of Sipan burial site is here.

Sican culture (750 BC to 1350 AD). Tecume is an extensive site containing 26 pyramids and other structures. It was the first Bronze Age society in Northern Peru.

Chimu culture (1200 AD to 1470 AD). Chan Chan, an expansive mud brick city that spreads across an area of 20 square km. making it the largest pre-Columbian city in So. America.

Quelap, a dramatic hillside ruins site that was home to the mysterious "Cloud People."

Sican Museum, filled with spectacular pottery, ceramics, and gold jewelry.

Sipan Museum, holding the treasures found in 3 Moche royal tombs. One of the world's most impressive archeological collections.

The Sican culture exhibited a number of the features of a strong society that produced a rich archeological treasure trove. These features include (1) a strong centralized government that generated the resources and structure to produce highly skilled artisans, (2) a sophisticated technology that made it possible to produce high quality products, (3) an articulated ideology that guided the nature of the artifacts produced and directed the burials of important members of the society in a manner that promoted the preservation of ceramic and metallic craftsmanship, (4) active trade with the people of other regions that promoted the influx of new ideas and techniques and access to a wider range of precious stones and gold. Remarkably, until the first large scale excavations were first carried out in 1988 by the adventurer-explorer Thor Heyerdahl, Tecumé had been all but ignored. And the site is still little known beyond archeological circles.

The excellent National Sican Museum is located 12 miles from Chiclayo. The Sican Museum honors and preserves the artistic legacies of this truly impressive society. The displays include high quality ceramics, metallic implements, sculptures, masks, and other body protection and adornment, and jewelry made from precious stones (e.g., emeralds, amber) and from gold.

Sipan discovery site
We visited the site of the discovery of the royal tombs of Sipán. Before we started this trip, we had read Kirkpatrick's gripping account of the saga of the Sipán treasures. These sensational finds, one of the most spectacular archeological discoveries in decades had been moved to a newly-built museum, designed for these artifacts. We fully expected our visit to this museum to be one of the highlights of our trip. We had seen a replica of one of the Moche tombs at the Museum of the Nation in Lima. Today we had a chance to visit the actual Moche site and peer down into one of the major excavated tombs which was arranged with accurate replicas of the original contents of the tomb. While we had read in several guidebooks that there was not really much to see here, we very much enjoyed seeing the actual site. We could stand near the excavation site and imagine the tense standoff between Alva, the museum director and the huaqueros (tomb robbers) who believed they were being deprived of their rightful livelihood.

Sipan Museum
Had we not subsequently visited this museum, we would continue to rave about the extraordinary, beautifully-displayed collections at the Sican National Museum. But we have saved our highest superlatives for the stunning Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum. Before embarking on this trip, we had seen the treasures of the Moche kings described as the South American equivalent of the famed treasures of Tutankhamen. We were highly skeptical of this comparison until we saw the stunning collections with our own eyes. It is hard to find words that adequately convey the beauty and workmanship of the contents of these tombs. The displays were simply stunning. No photography was allowed.


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