Chan Chan, Peru – largest Pre-Columbian city in South America 2


Chan Chan was the biggest city in South America in Pre-Columbian times.

And who do you think it was that built it?

Was it those much-admired, vainglorious, empire-builders: the Incas?

Statue, Chan Chan, Peru

Photo credit: Benjamin White

No, it was not.

Chan Chan (which means Sun Sun) was built by the Chimú.

Architectural detail, Chan Chan, Peru

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The Chimú

The Chimú culture came into being sometime around 800 – 900 CE, rising from the ashes of the once-mighty Moche culture (the Moche Empire reigned between 100 CE and 750 CE; it’s thought that the Moche Empire collapsed following a particularly fierce and prolonged super El Niño).

Architectural detail, Chan Chan, Peru

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The Chimú, like the Moche before them, were famed for their exquisite ceramic pottery. They were also skilled workers of copper, bronze, and silver, and were filthy rich with gold to boot.

Mud brick city, Chan Chan, Peru

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Chan Chan

The Chimú built their capital, Chan Chan, on the desert-like northern coastline of Peru (near the current-day city of Trujillo).

Outer walls, Chan Chan, Peru

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Chan Chan grew to contain over 10,000 structures; it measured over 20 square kilometres in size, and housed 40,000 to 60,000 people.

The city was triangular in shape, and surrounded by outer walls up to 18 metres in height.

Outer walls, Chan Chan, Peru

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The dense urban centre of Chan Chan contained ten ciudadelas: extravagantly built compounds that housed the city’s upper class. The ciudadelas included plazas, temples, ceremonial rooms, and burial platforms.

Mud brick city, Chan Chan, Peru

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Chan Chan was a thriving city from its foundation in 850 CE up until 1470 CE, when those pesky empire-builders, the Incas, attacked and captured the city.

The Chimú Empire never regained its feet. Chan Chan’s time in the sun was over.

Mud brick city, Chan Chan, Peru

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Fifty years later the Spanish turned up and looted what remained of the city. In 1535 CE, conquistador Francisco Pizarro (who destroyed the Incan Empire) founded the city of Trujillo just five kilometres away.

Chan Chan was abandoned; its adobe walls left to erode, bit-by-bit, with each passing El Niño.


Practical information and how to reach Chan Chan:

The easiest way to explore the ruins is to hire a taxi in Trujillo, and to ask the driver to wait for you while you roam the grounds. It’s also possible to jump in a collectivo and disembark at the park entrance on Av. Mansiche, from which point it is a 1.5km walk to the ruins.

Read more on the Chan Chan in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.


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Ancient pyramid in the heart of Lima – Huaca Pucllana

El Malecón, Miraflores – killer views, perfect sunsets.

The Mansions of Miraflores, Lima


Posts on the Peruvian Amazon:

Yanayacu River, Amazon Rainforest – screamers, hoatzins, and pink dolphins

Night Safari, Amazon Rainforest

Iquitos – architecture of the Amazonian rubber boom

Things to do in Iquitos


More on Peru:

Machu Picchu – short-lived sanctuary of the Incan Empire

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