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Chan Chan and the Dragon Temple

Written on: Wednesday October 17th, 2007

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Trujillo, La Libertad, Peru

Author: Julie


This morning we lazed around knowing our tour to Chan Chan and the Dragon Temple was scheduled only for 2:30. We left our hotel around noon hungry for pizza. We tried to find a pizzeria but to no avail. As we were standing at a corner of a street deciding where we wanted to eat, a man approached us offering his help, thinking we were lost. We asked him if he knew if there was a pizzeria in the area. He said he knew of a restaurant nearby that served pizza and that he would walk us there. We walked and followed him, then walk some more, walk right out of the old city area along. At this point, we were hungry and willing to eat at the next restaurant we would see. He said we were close, to give him 3 more minutes and we would be there. Well, when we finally arrived we saw it was a ?Restaurante Turistico? where all the tours group stop for lunch. We were quite willing at this point to eat anywhere so we walked in and so did he. Thinking that at this point he would leave, we said our thanks for his help and wished him good-bye but he sat down with us. None of us were willing to be impolite so we didn?t say anything and that?s when we realised we had been slightly scammed. He was an independent guide and he pulled out his tour guide brochures launching into a sales pitch on the tours he was offering. The waiter came along and he ordered for us, including ordering for himself. The food came and it wasn?t very good, but we were willing to take anything to eat quickly and get away from him, even if it wasn?t the pizza he had said they served here. Throughout the meal, Kevin who was sitting closest to him was forced to make small talk while the rest of us smiled a lot and tried to ignore him. We asked for the bill as soon as the last plate was taken away and quickly paid up. Outside the restaurant we hailed a taxi to the bus terminal and said our final good-byes. Only after did we realise that he got his meal for free for bringing us to the restaurant, and there was no pizza on the menu! 

Our next stop was to buy bus tickets. We accompanied our friends as they bought their bus tickets for that evening to Lima then we headed to another bus terminal to buy our tickets to our next destination: the Cordillera Blanca and the city of Huaraz. To our dismay, we found out there were only night buses scheduled. Not having much choice we bought our tickets knowing we were in for a very long night the next day. We?d heard many horror stories from other travellers about how uncomfortable they were and how little sleep there was to be had. 

We returned to our hostel with 5 minutes to spare before our tour began. Our driver arrived and we found out we had the same tour guide as yesterday. I was hoping for someone else since, as efficient as she was, she could only provide us with a bit more information then what was freely available on the information signs around the ruins. We were a large group, with 2 vans and car. We loaded up and headed to our first site: Huanca del Arco Iris aka as The Dragon Temple or The Rainbow Temple. Our drive was quick as the ruins were at the outskirts of Trujillo, in the opposite direction of the Huanca Del Sol y Luna complex we had visited yesterday. The drive did provide us with a little moment of excitement as the local bus drivers were striking and blocking the main road to the ruins. Buses were parked in all directions, with political slogans written on the windows, the drivers were standing around chanting slogans, and waving menancingly towards any cars that tried to get past their convoy. Our driver approached them carefully, rolled down the window and said one word ?Turista?. Immediately, they all began yelling ?Turista?, waving us forward, buses were moved, people smiled at us and let us past. It was strange to know that we were given special treatment because we were foreigners. Tourism dollars are the main source of employement in Trujillo.

We turned down a quiet city street in a residential area, then turned in to a parking lot with large metal doors. I was wondering where we were until we went past the gate into the grounds for The Dragon Temple. We paid our entry fee of 11 soles each and followed the tour guide to a small museum to the left of the main structure. She quickly gave us a history lesson on the Chimu (c.850 ? 1470) people who built this temple and the Chan Chan complex. They were the descendant of the Moche people, who had immigrated to this geographic location to escape the killer flooding caused by the El Nino phenomena in other areas around Trujillo. The Dragon Temple was excavated in the 1960s, much later than other temples in the same area providing for excellently preserved walls and friezes. The temple is known as The Dragon Temple or the Rainbow temple although archeologists prefer the former to the latter. Both names comes from the beautiful friezes along the walls: long-bodied lizards and arching rainbows.

In 1983, during an El Nino event, the friezes were extensively damaged but a large amount of restoration work has been done since. Only a few of the friezes are still completely intact, with most of the others having been retouched or recreated based on moulds taken from the originals. The originals can be distinguished by their rounded outlines, which is lacking the sharpness of their reconstructed neighbor. Only a few years ago, large woven mats like the ones we had seen at Huanca Del Sol y Luna roofed the temple site. This was to protect the mud and adobe from further damage caused by the heavy rains. Unfortuantely, during a lively fiesta with fireworks, the mates caught on fire and quickly collapsed. For safety reasons, the remaining roofing materials were taken down.

The site is not large and encompasses a large wall surrounding the main structure with only one entrace for safety, a large main structure with a ramp leading to the roof terrace, and rooms that could only be accessed from above. The temple was possibly used for fertility rites or infant sacrifices. It is suggested that the rooms were storerooms for grain and stock animals or the more exotic suggestion of they were for young virgins held for the edification of the priests and other nobles.

It was a quick visit and next we left for the main Chan Chan complex. We left the residential areas and entered what at first looked like a desert valley to slowly reveal itself as a never-ending field of ruins. Chan Chan or ?Sun Sun? was the imperial city of the Chimu form 850 AD to 1470 when they were conquered by the Incas. Chan Chan was the center of an empire that covered 621 miles of the Pacific coastline and they controlled about two-thirds of all of the agricultural land along the Pacific coast of South America.  It is the largest adobe city in the world, America?s largest pre-hispanic mud-brick settlement and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. At the height of the empire, it is estimated that up to 100,000 people resided in this city and covered 20 square kilometers. The city is composed of nine walled citadels (royal palaces) lined with precious metals which housed ceremonial rooms, burial chambers, temples, reservoirs and some residences. Each of these citadels has a rectangular configuration with a north-facing entrance, high walls, and a labyrinth of passages for easy defense. The walls themselves were constructed of adobe brick, and were then covered with a smooth surface into which intricate designs were carved. These citadels, it is believed, were the living quarters, burial places and warehouses of the aristocracy. The bulk of the city's population, however, lived outside of the citadels in much more modest quarters. The ruins we were seeing were the homes of the local inhabitants. They lived in modest 2 or 3 room homes which are now reduced to crumbling 2 foot walls demarking where these homes once stood. The walls gave the impression of a well organized city with streets and avenues.

We visited the Tschudi citadel, named after the 19th-century Swiss explorer who discovered it. Chan Chan, unlike most other coastal ruins in Peru, is located extremely close to the Pacific Ocean. The carvings at Chan Chan depict fish, pelicans, and nets for catching various sea creatures. The first section we visited was the ?Sala del Altarcillo?, a sunken ceremonial patio. Around the patio were benches at various heights. The king and his priests sat on the highest roofed benches while the lowest members of the population sat on the lowest exposed bench. The patio was used for various religious ceremonies that could be attended by the general population. It was the closest enclosure or ?room? that could be reached by the main entrance. The next section we visited was dedicated to the cult and offerings of the divinities. These rooms had alcoves with wooden idols and the walls were decorated with birds, crosses, circles and nets. The hallways that led to these rooms were narrow with 10 foot high walls, each had one entrance and one exit for security. The 3rd area we visited was the water reservoirs. The Chimu were experts in water management and had found ways to funnel the water from the rains and from the mountain rivers through aqueducts to these man-made reservoirs. Our guide explained that the reservoir had been empty for the past 20 years till the last El Nino rains in 1998 which filled it up to the brim with the help of the 1200 year old underground aqueduct system. The last section was the mausoleum of a Chimu emperor. When the early explorers had found the tomb, his treasure trove of ceremonial objects had already been removed by huaqueros (grave robbers) but his skeleton and those of his priests, attendants, and possibly wives were still there. Unfortunately, the tour ended too quickly for us as there seemed to be much more information to be known about this fascination civilisation which fell to the Incas. We loaded back into the cars and headed for the beach town of Huanchaco to see local fisherman ride their famous cigar-shaped boats called caballitos (little horses) made from reeds but the transportation strike forced us to end the tour early. 

We returned to our hostel, spent the evening watching a football match between Peru and Venezuela. The little restaurant next door to our hostel which could seat 32 people was packed with about 40 teenagers with faces painted in the Peruvian colors cheering their team. It was great to experience the local fanaticism for their national team. In the stressful, dramatic moments some would yell at the TV, others would hold their hands over the mouths, others would not watch fearing the worse, and during the good moments they would all yell with abandon, cheering on their heroes. It was fantastic! I could only imagine what it would feel like to be in a large stadium surrounded by 60,000 cheering fans. Time passed by and 10 PM came by quickly. We bid our new friends Slade and Kristen a good trip and hoped we would see them again.