Peruvian Archeological Sites: The Tip of the Iceberg?

Our guidebook confidently listed the Sipán ruins in northern Peru as an archeological site not to be missed, mentioning it in the same breath as Machu Picchu. Sipán? I’d never heard of it. In my one-month whirlwind tour of Peru 23 years ago, I came to Chiclayo, the largest town near Sipán, and kept going. Reading further into the guidebook, I began to understand why. Apparently Sipán, the elaborate royal tombs of the Pre-Inca Moche culture, was discovered months after I passed through the region. The question my wife and I asked each other was: if Peru has been densely populated for the past few hundred years and Sipán was found just over 20 years ago, what else is out there?

Our bus arrived in Chiclayo around nine o’clock in the evening and I left my wife, kids and bags at the bus station and went searching for a hotel. It is always preferable to have a reservation when entering a strange city, but sometimes it’s just not possible. When we don’t, we’ve found the best course of action is to have either my wife or I head out and find a hotel fairly near the bus station, while the remaining three family members stand sentry over our belongings. I chose the first place I checked out, an inexpensive, clean, centrally-located hotel with a friendly manager. We freshened up, walked around the Plaza de Armas, changed money and ate a delicious meal of chicken brochettes on skewers. After dinner, we went to bed, ready for the next day’s assault on Sipán.

We woke early, intending to take the bus to the ruins. As we sat in the bus waiting for it to fill up, we got progressively longer answers every time we asked how long the bus would take, so we jumped out and got in a taxi instead. We drove on a dusty road through flat fields of sugar cane and I could see why Sipán had been undiscovered for so long...nothing on either side of the road remotely suggested an archaeological site. The ruins themselves weren’t discovered by any Bingham-esque explorer, but by looters from the Chiclayo area. It was only when a local archeologist began to see Moche culture artifacts flood the local markets that he realized that there had been a major discovery made nearby. Not long afterward, local authorities found the Sipán tombs and the windfall ended for the looters, who were not too happy about their gravy train derailing.

We arrived at the ruins after 50 minutes and were treated to the underwhelming site of about 3 or 4 large semi-eroded, earthen mounds. The mounds themselves looked like any other of the nearby mounds that we’d passed and we wondered how many more of them contain priceless artifacts. Perhaps there’s still hope for the Chiclayo looters, after all. We toured a small on-site museum and learned that the site was a series of burial tombs for the royal Moche family, filled with valuable ceramics, exquisite jewelry and Moche-era (200 BC to AD 850) skeletons. The pyramids were constructed with thousands of adobe bricks and burial chambers were laid over one over the other, but to grasp this you needed to see graphic reconstructions in the Lambeyeque museum we visited later that day. To the casual observer, Sipán looked like just another dirt mound rising out of the sugar cane fields.

A few months ago, I saw an article about the discovery of a scale model of a ancient Peruvian city that was never found and I emailed it to both of our kids. I thought that since they now spoke Spanish, were comfortable trudging around in the third-world, had an interest in Pre-Columbian cultures, and had visited dozens of Peruvian and Bolivian archeological sites, they were each well on their way to becoming the next Indiana Jones. After visting Sipán, we’re sure that there are plenty more sites out there waiting to be found.

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