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?
No, it was not.
Chan Chan (which means Sun Sun) was built by 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).
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.
The Chimú built their capital, Chan Chan, on the desert-like northern coastline of Peru (near the current-day city of Trujillo).
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.
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.
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.
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.