Huanchaco & Chan Chan

11 Dec

The distances and time it takes to travel on buses in Latin America never fails to astound us. You assume that half an inch on the map will take just a couple of hours but, in reality, your bus ride could take all day or longer. In these situations we’ve found that searching for a place to visit between your starting point and final destination will often form a pleasant break and help to save your sanity. Planning our 30 hour journey between Huaraz, a mountainous region North-East of Lima, to Chachapoyas, a jungle area of the Northern Highlands, we decided that just such an interlude was required.

We chose to visit Huanchaco, which is situated on the Pacific coast just 12 kilometres North-West of the city of Trujillo. Huanchaco was once a small fishing village, but is rapidly becoming a popular holiday destination with new family run hotels and restaurants popping up all the time.

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The long crescent of grey sand stretching either side of the village won’t win any beauty awards for unspoilt natural landscapes as it’s grubby around the edges with a mixture of flotsom and litter dotted along its expanse, however it’s the ocean here which is Huanchaco’s biggest drawcard.

The coast has some great waves which attract local and international surfers looking for the ultimate break and this helps to create a fun and laid back vibe. In 2012 this stretch of coast was made part of the World Surfing Reserve by the organisation ‘Save The Waves Coalition’, which is the first award of its kind for a Latin American town. Surfer dudes with wavy long hair and toned bodies dash down the beach with surf boards tucked under their arms and then make flips and turns in the crashing waves look like child’s play.

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The new generation of Peruvian families love to spend their time at the beach too. The children play with buckets and spades as you’d find in the Western world whereas the women are more reserved and traditional wearing leggings and baggy t-shirts to preserve their modesty. Standing in a line to jump the waves their faces were a delightful picture.

Fishing is still an important part of daily life for many locals here. While many of the villagers now own fibre glass boats with powerful engines, some continue to fish these waters using Caballitos de Totora as their fathers and grandfathers did before them. The Caballitos de Totora are one of the first known surf crafts made from light weight Totora reeds which are woven together. We first saw these sailing vessels lining the beach and loved the shape and design but seriously doubted if they would stay afloat let alone carry the weight of a man through the waves. We were soon proved wrong as old fishermen gave the young surfers a run for their money, effortlessly paddling out to sea and riding the waves back in with a boat full of fresh fish.

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The bountiful catch feeds the fisherman’s family and any extra is sold there and then on the shore to local restaurant owners. You couldn’t get any fresher and the quality of the fish and seafood served in local joints along the Malecon (promenade) reflected this. We pushed the boat out one evening at ‘My Friend’ restaurant, which had been recommended to us, and indulged in whole sea bass with tiger prawns served in a creamy sauce with a hint of lemon grass. Two delicious full plates (of some of the most expensive seafood in Europe) plus two large beers cost us 45 Soles – around 16 USD – what an absolute bargain and some of the most delicious fish on our trip so far.

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The biggest surprise of all for us in this resting place, was the discovery that just 4 kilometres from Huanchaco were extensive archeological ruins which were built around 1300 AD, well before the arrival of the Inca civilisation. The UNESCO World Heritage listed site of Chan Chan rises from the edge of the Pacific coast like a giant man-made mud castle and the crumbling but still impressive walls stretch in all directions covering a total area of 20 kilometres squared with an urban centre of 6 kilometres squared. The ruins looked like a heavy downpour or a big gust of wind could wipe them out but thanks to a reasonably dry and stable climate, the ruins are remarkably well-preserved.

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Chan Chan is the largest Adobe city in the world and would have once been the largest pre-Colombian city in the Americas. At its peak, Chan Chan contained around 10,000 structures from basic stables to elaborately adorned palaces and housed in the region of 30,000 people.

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The city had ten walled citadels all with residential houses, reservoirs, temples, ceremonial spaces and burial chambers. One of the citadels has been restored and offers a glimpse into the past of this remarkable city. There was only one entrance to the citadel at the Northern end and from there a maze of passageways and long walls (some of which are 10 metres high) lead to different areas.

The interior decoration has been brought back to life with local images of fish, birds, and of course, waves. In Chimu culture Huanchaco was the port for Chan Chan and the original indigenous fisherman worshipped the moon (which controlled the tides) and a golden fish called Huaca Taska.

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We stood in the middle of a large ceremonial area which was flanked by statues, and visited the impressive burial mounds and a mausoleum where the remains of a king and precious artifacts for the afterlife were discovered.

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We were also surprised to find a huge water reserve being fed by a vast network of canals. In this dry and barren land, water was the giver of life to Chan Chan’s citizens but it could also be the bringer of destruction and death with flooding a very real threat. In the end, defeat for the kingdom of Chimu came not from natural elements but from conquest by the Incas in 1470 AD. The subsequent arrival of the Spanish meant that Chan Chan slowly fell into disrepair and over many hundreds of years it was reclaimed by the sand. Luckily for us, the first excavations took place in 1969 and the history and culture of the Chimor is preserved forever.

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We left Huanchaco feeling relaxed, rejuvenated and ready to hit the road again. In fact we had another 15 hour overnight bus ride ahead of us but our frame of mind was good and we had several movies to get us through. What Huanchaco had lacked in good looks, it made up for in rustic charm, a fun vibe and historical character. Our ‘interlude’ had been well worth the stop and we were pleased we’d had the chance to get to know a small village, slightly off the usual Gringo trail, a little better.

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