At it’s peak, nearly 600 years ago, Chan Chan was the largest city in the Americas and the largest adobe city on earth. It was the capital of the Chimu empire which ruled the coast of northern Peru for hundreds of years. Palaces, temples, houses and workshops were connected by a maze of streets and corridors and protected by thick 10 meter high walls. The city, which is surrounded by desert, thrived thanks to the Chimu people’s brilliance in engineering. They built massive canals to bring water from faraway rivers to irrigate their fields. Inside the city they filled huge reservoirs to supply their people with fresh water. As Chan Chan’s power grew, master artisans carved beautiful friezes into it’s walls and covered the palaces with precious metals.
All this came to an end in 1470 when the mighty Incas pushed north and conquered the Chimu empire. They took the smartest and most skilled people back to their capital, Cusco, and Chan Chan became abandoned. The Spanish discovered Chan Chan in 1532 and looted the treasure that was left. They built the city of Trujillo 5km away and Chan Chan was all but forgotten.
Chan Chan is now suffering from a third invading force: climate change. As storms become more intense, compounded by the increasing frequency of El Niño, more and more of the city is turning back into desert. What is left of the once mighty city is crumbling away on the side of the Pan American highway. Portions of the city have been well preserved by Peru’s National Institute of Culture. Roofs have been built and carvings are hardened with cactus juice, but the city is spread over 20 square kilometers and most of it is exposed to the elements.
Getting lost amoungst the walls of the city that once housed 60,000 people and trying to picture the ceremonies that took place in the huge plazas is an amazing experience. It is very easy to visit Chan Chan as it’s a short bus ride from Trujillo or Huanchaco, but it doesn’t receive too many visitors. Thanks to it’s huge size you can have large sections all to yourself. If you are in northern Peru it’s a great site to visit for a glimpse at a unique and gifted civilisation that prospered in a harsh environment.