Lost Worlds of Peru
THE Peruvian city of Trujillo was coming to life as we arrived at its main square early in the morning. It felt vaguely familiar, reminiscent of a southern European plaza. This was no surprise, given the legacy of the Spanish conquistadors more than 180 years on.
The colourful architecture around the Plaza de Armas was distinctly colonial, complete with Spanish balconies and an 18th century cathedral. The only thing missing was the Europeans, who don't tend to come here much. While southern Peru attracts a stream of gap-year travellers and package tour groups, the north of the country is unconquered by the mass market.
That's part of the charm: the relative absence of fellow travellers makes you feel as if you've wandered off the beaten track and into the real thing.
If you come straight to Trujillo from Lima, just over an hour's flight away, the first thing you notice is the change in pace. The busy, noisy capital seems a million miles away from this laid-back city, Peru's third-most populous.
We checked into the Libertador on the main square, a handsome building with none of the soullessness of the average chain hotel. It provided a fine base from which to explore the area's history.
Not colonial history - that's still comparatively recent - and not Inca history, either. We're talking pre-Incan, the civilisations you don't tend to learn about in British schools.
Heard much about the Moche? I hadn't, and yet they're every bit as fascinating as the Incas or the Aztecs. And it was just a few miles outside Trujillo that they left two of their finest pyramids.
The Huaca del Sol and the Huaca de la Luna (temples of the sun and moon) lie just off the road on desert-like terrain. Both were built for ceremonial purposes by the Moche around 500 AD and the one open for public viewing, the Huaca de la Luna, is revelatory.
Walls are covered in intricate friezes whose faded paint tells of a bloodthirsty people big on human sacrifice and in thrall to their god Ai Apaec - a terrifying half-human, half-feline figure.
Besides the murals, the many ceramics that the Moche bequeathed to Peru are another tantalising peek at this lost world.
While many examples are on display at the local museums near the archaeological sites in the north, the best collection is probably the one in Lima's Larco Museum. This includes a mind-boggling array of erotic pottery, which the Moche excelled at fashioning. Sex, violence and death, and rituals that accompany them, were evidently integral to Moche culture, and the art they left behind powerfully evokes these forces of nature.
After a morning in the desert, we headed to the nearby Huanchaco beach resort. We were there out of season, when the fishing town lies sleepy and tranquil in the dazzling sunshine. In the summer, its hotels and restaurants play host to a stream of visitors. …