Chiclayo – Welcome to the Peruvian desert

I have to confess I have never really thought about Peru. I know it has Amazon stuff, llamas, Andes and of course Machu Picchu. I also know that’s where Paddington comes from. And on the map it looks big, really big.

As we prepared to leave Cuenca, some high speed research was required, so back to the googly star system. It turns out the famous stuff is in the South or way off to the east in deep, dark Amazonia. A night bus is required to even get to Mancora (a party beach town in the North West corner that sounds awful). And from there it’s 20+ hours heading South to Lima. Everyone we’ve met has suggested that Lima is not really worth visiting, falling into the category of nasty, traffic-clogged, potentially violent capitals with an “okay” historic center. Oh, and the coast is all desert, so not too many places in between. Shit, suddenly this looks like not much fun: a veritable bus marathon to get anywhere. There is a citadel called Kuelap off to the east, but it requires hours upon hours to get to on dangerous roads, and parts are inaccessible in the rainy season.

At this point, Dr Lenton stepped in. She discovered that Chiclayo – which is accessible via night bus from Cuenca – has some interesting archaeological sites, Pyramids even! And Trujillo, a further 3 hours south, is home to Chan Chan, a huge ancient adobe city lying between the sea and the Andes in the Sechura/Atacama desert. Huanchaco, just outside Trujillo, has a great beach but minus the twenty-something hormonal party atmosphere. And the journey  between  Trujillo and Lima would be straightforward. Two towns, a beach, some ancient culture and no journey longer than 12 hours. Bish bash bosh, as Mark and Lard would say.

Unfortunately, night bus #2, same as night bus #1. Alison turns green a few hours in, despite travel sickness pills. She only recovers around 6am as the light enters. Not fun. Overnight we’ve descended from the Andes, dumped the younger Gringos in Mancora and are barrelling down the Pan-American. Outside is desert, scrubby desert, with the odd pueblo having all low buildings, dusty brick and concrete, with political ads painted everywhere. Garbage lines the road for hundreds of kilometres. There’s a stark beauty to it all I suppose; but I wouldn’t want to live out here. The less charitable might call it a god-awful barren shit-hole. Oops, did I just say that?

Desert Scene


Chiclayo seems a bit more civilised, in the sense that it’s a lot bigger than the pueblos we’ve been seeing and home to modern buildings. We’re picked up by the hotel and ferreted away into the town centre and the fabulous Hotel Embajador. Time for a spot of lunch, so off into town. Walking down to the main plaza is an exercise in itself, as Peruvian traffic is noisy, quick and chaotic. The pedestrian is given no opening and must take their life in their own hands. Nobody slows, nobody cares about red or green lights. Policemen blow whistles for no reason, since nobody pays any heed. I mentioned frogger in an earlier post. This is it life size. Obligatory main square is very functional, with the usual trees, cathedral etc. Entirely mediocre. As we left Chiclayo, our hotel manager asked us if we’d enjoyed and liked the town. How can you answer that? It’s clearly a thriving working town (read ugly), very busy (read traffic choked) and it’s her home that she’s proud of and she’s sweet and helpful, as is almost everyone here. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If I seem a bit down on things, let me remedy that. There’s actually a lot of interest to see in the area and, if it’s not always beautiful,  it certainly lends a fresh perspective to this part of South America. This area was the cradle of two advanced pre-Incan civilisations, the Moche and Chimu who have left an archaeologically-rich legacy and clearly built some amazing structures. Unfortunately, Peru doesn’t really seem to have resources to properly protect all these places, so some are slowly decaying in the dry, dry desert. Others have been looted and, in some cases, the locals have been selling artefacts back to the museums.

Las Tumbas de Sipan

The Lord of Sipan was the boss. A highly decorated, demi-deity carried around on a bier and wielding absolute power. His priests and advisers would occasionally sacrifice one or two warriors and serve their blood to him in a cup. I don’t think he ever drank it, but it was an offering in times of crisis. He was buried in a huaca, as was his great, grandfather and possibly father: each generation adding a layer and helping create the pyramidal shape of the huaca.

The museum of his tomb hosts a great set of artefacts found in the tombs of the two lords (Sipan and grandpa), recreations of the tombs and court and lots of information on the Moche culture. It’s fair to say that these burials and Huacas are on a par with some Egyptian equivalents; we’re not talking the Grand Pyramid but possibly some of the smaller ones. The array of wealth buried with him is staggering and it always freaks me out that these types would have their close cohorts, wives and servants executed when they died, to be buried alongside them.

This is one of those times where I’ve entered thinking “another bloody museum, oh look another artefact…boring” but instead left educated (well a little bit), interested and with a diametrically opposed opinion. Unfortunately, no photos allowed inside, so I can’t show you how this came to be!

Las Tumbas de Sipan

Tucume Pyramids

After Sipan, we set off to see the pyramids, more accurately called huacas. A series of 28 huacas in the desert outside Chiclayo constructed from adobe bricks. A couple are under archeological exploration but the rest remain intact baking in the midday heat. There’s a 20-minute walk up to a viewpoint to take them all in, but the sun makes it feel a lot longer than 20 minutes. They were first properly recognised as tombs by Thor Heyerdahl of Kontiki fame. If you want a decent, real-life adventure story I’d recommend his books. His anthropological theories are out of favour these days, but his exploits to prove his theories were truly daring.




Pimentel is Chiclayo’s beach town. A 15 ($6) Soles taxi ride from the hotel the sea-front is not bad. We arrive on a hazy, grey sky day and the long pier looks amazing. A photographer’s dream. So we pay our 2 Soles (80c)to promenade. The surf here breaks off shore, so the locals walk along the pier and jump with their boards into the 3m into the waves. I guess it beats paddling out.

Pier Jumping

Old men fish, couples hold hands and daydream, children tumble around. The boards are all a couple of inches apart so Alison sticks to the more densely-planked centre, making the odd excursion out to the edges. There’s no arcade, ice cream or dodgems, just peace and people with a sepia tint.

Once we’d completed our tour, we searched for a taxi back. First chap was too expensive and, as we were negotiating, a family just jumped in and off he sped, motioning to a smaller beat up car to attend to us. This guy started his bidding at half the previous guy, which was 2/3 of the normal price. We got in. He drove like a maniac, with head turned towards us (and away from the windscreen) chatting the whole way, delivering a policemen’s lunch en route, shouting obscenities good-naturedly at other taxis and road users. The car just about held together and, as we approached our hotel, he pointed out the vegetarian restaurant we’d been searching for and then proceeded to buy us coconut cookies at a junction, backing up all the traffic and reducing his fare further. Crazy, dangerous, lovely, friendly and memorable.

So far in Peru: bleak desert landscapes, an aesthetically-challenged town and ancient civilizations. Next stop Trujillo, a little further down the coast.

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