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by Irene Butler

At midnight police summoned Archaeologist Walter Alva to the village of Sipán in northern Peru. Grave robbers had been interrupted hauling rice sacks filled with gold objects out of a tomb. When Alva later uncovered 1000 ceramic pots with food for the afterlife, he knew this 1987 discovery was monumental. Under the pots he unearthed sarcophagi of kings and priests in royal splendour - the Lords of Sipán.

There are two ways to get to Sipán; fly from Lima to Chiclayo (which is 30km from Sipán), or hop a bus heading north, like my husband Rick and I, which allowed us to take in the treasure trove of sites along the 760 km route from Lima to Chiclayo.

Northern Peru is considered "off the gringo trail" since nine out of ten travellers to the country isolate their visit to the south, the draw being Machu Picchu and other Inca ruins. When we stayed a few days in the town of Trujillo (tra-hee-yo) the absence of souvenir shops and touristy restaurants spoke for itself - we were going against the grain.

The most prominent ruin in the Trujillo area is Huaca de la Luna, a 10-storey adobe pyramid of the Moche Empire, ruling during pre-Inca times. From the outside, this temple built in stages between 100-700AD, appears to be a gigantic mound of clay. Upon entering our eyes widened at the sight of many levels of mud walls with elaborate mosaics of geometric figures and mythological beings painted in magenta, gold and black.

Our guide Juan explained that each new century the Moche sealed the bodies of deceased rulers into the pyramid by completely covering the tombs with a new stepped platform, thus with archaeologists slicing through the eight-level pyramid, we were awarded this amazing glimpse of condensed history.

A few kilometres down the highway we came to Chan Chan, one of the largest pre-Inca empires. After the decline of the Moche, the Chimú civilization emerged in 900AD. By 1300AD their adobe domain Chan Chan covered 20 sq km (4940 acres). It was abandoned in the 1470's when they were overrun by an Inca army.

In its heyday this complex was believed to have sustained a population of 60,000. Dwellings are interspersed by storage bins for food, huge walk in wells, workshops, and temples. In the centre of the complex are 10 royal compounds built by the succession of rulers. El Niño rains in 1983 and 1998 badly eroded the adobe, but each time uncovered bodies with gold masks.

We then boarded a bus for Chiclayo, the bustling city that would be our base to visit The Lords of Sipán.

It was a thrill to see the rounded clay domes of Huaco Rajada, the Moche ruins edging Sipán village where the Lords were discovered after the police tangled with grave robbers. Fortunately the looting had been confined to one tomb. Alva and his team of archaeologists continue to find tombs filled with riches; the latest discovery in 2007 was chamber #14.

In the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum, where the treasures are displayed, I had the sensation of being time-warped back to the grandeur of this ancient civilization. The craftsmanship of the ornamental objects was exquisite - huge earrings in turquoise, gold balls found in the mouths, abdomen and right hand of Kings, breast plates of delicately threaded silver shells, a priest's gold sceptre capped with an ancient fruit believed to have had hallucinogenic properties.

Kings were always buried with sacrificial victims. In one tomb (carbon dated 300 AD) Alva found the skeleton of a sentry with feet cut off, believed to have symbolized eternal vigil, plus a standard bearer, three young women, a child, a dog and a llama.

The last exhibition is a mausoleum to these venerable leaders. I stood riveted at the sight of their bones arranged in wooden coffins.

The ruins near Trujillo were the perfect prelude to the dazzling finale of being steeped in Moche relics. Taking the easy way back to Lima, as our plane lifted off the tarmac, I agreed with Rick's summation, "King Tut had nothing over the Lords of Sipán".

For More Info:
Huaca de la Luna - 8 km south of Trujillo
Chan Chan - 14 km west of Trujillo. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986
Huaco Rajada excavation site - near Sipán village - 30 km E of Chiclayo.
Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum - in Lambayeque - ll km N of Chiclayo

If you go:
Panamerican Hwy from Lima to Trujillo
- 554 km (approx 9 hours)
Panamerican Hwy from Trujillo to Chiclayo
- 206 km (approx 3 hours)

AeroCondor Flights leave regularly
- Chiclayo to Lima (approx 1 hour)


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