Everyone knows of the impressive Machu Picchu ruins in Peru from the Inca Empire - and it is one of the major reasons to visit Peru. But there were many more Pre-Columbian cities in South America than that. Also, the Incas weren't the first empire and civilization in this region. They were just the last one standing before the Spanish arrived and the largest to have existed in the region.

Chan Chan is located in northern Peru and during its heyday, it was the largest city in all the Americas. Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimu civilization and it was the seat of power for this empire. It had a population of around 60,000. For its time Chan Chan was a fabulously wealthy city (even if it lacked a good water source).


History And Background Of Chan Chan

Chan Chan: The Facts

  • Located: 300 Miles North Of Lima
  • Record: Largest City In The Americas At It Heyday
  • Made Of: Adobe (Mudbrick)
  • Cause Of Decline: Conquered By The Incas

Throughout most of its history, Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimu Empire north of the Incas. This ended when the Incas took over the Chimu Empire and incorporated it into their own in 1470. One of the damaging parts of this conquest was that the Incas took many of the skilled craftsmen from the city. This takeover was just 62 years before the Spanish arrived and began their conquest of the Inca Empire.

  • Conquered: 1470 By The Incas

The city is famous for its size and the quality of its buildings. It is filled with palaces and temples and these are adorned with elaborate friezes - some of which can measure in the hundreds of feet. The city is home to ten thousand individual structures.

After the Incas took over the city, it started its long decline. By 1535 AD the Spanish under Francisco Pizarro founded the new Spanish city of Trujillo close by. This further sidelined the city as it continued its descent into oblivion. To make matters worse, by the time the Spanish arrived it was still a rich city and was consequently plundered by the Spanish. Some of the buildings had silver and gold in them, so the Spanish extensively mined it clean out of the city.

Related: 20 Things Tourists Do At Machu Picchu (That Locals Can't Stand)

  • Ransacked: In 1535 By The Spanish (It Was A Shadow Of Its Former Self By Then)

Water And The City

One of the city's great weaknesses was the lack of a suitable water source. Today it is the scant but real torrential desert rains that threaten the city. Every time it rains, the city erodes a little more. Still, while this is a major preservation problem, the city is located in an exceptionally arid part of the desert with annual rainfall averaging less than a tenth of an inch. The city managed to flourish much like some of the cities in Mesopotamia by building large networks of irrigation canals and wells. They even diverted water from the Chicama River that was some 50 miles away.

  • Visa Requirements: Peru Is Visa Free

Society And Human Sacrifice

The Chimu civilization followed a strict hierarchy and one that men were certainly not all created equal. And the society was stratified with the supreme monarch, then the privileged highly skilled classes like priests and craftsmen. The workers below them live to serve these classes. The Chimu mythology reinforced the social hierarchy. Their myths proclaimed that the world was populated by the sun which created three eggs. These were a copper egg for the masses, a silver egg for the ruling elite's wives, and of course a golden egg for the ruling elite.

  • Ritual Practices: Like The Aztecs, They Practiced Human Sacrifice

Some parts of their culture seem barbaric today. An example of this was human sacrifice. When the king died, his first wife/sister would have her heart removed as a sacrifice. All his other remaining wives would then be poisoned without ritual. The king's palace would be transformed into his mausoleum and his successor would have to build his own palace - a total of 9 royal palaces were built due to this practice.

  • Tip: Hire A Guide, They Are Cheap And Very Informative And Will Bring Mudbrick Ruins To Life
  • Getting There: Easiest From Trujillo. From Lima By Bus For $22 And 10-12 Hours

Related: 15 Inca Structures And Sites You Can Visit In Peru Today

The Ocean

Much of the food source of Chan Chan came from the Pacific Ocean. While most ruins in Peru are inland from the sea, Chan Chan is very close to the coast. Along the coastline is the Humboldt Current, this current pushes nutrient-rich water up to the surface. This gives rise to one of the world's richest stretches of coastline rich in marine life. The most common friezes in Chan Chan are that of the seafood they feasted on like crustaceans, fish, mollusks. This was seen as evidence of the love and care of their gods providing for them.

  • Admission Fee: 11 Soles or $3
  • Cost Of Guide: 35 Soles or $11
  • Included: Admission To The Museum And The Moon And Sun Temple In Trujillo

While Macchu Picchu is built in the lush mountains and made of stone, Chan Chan is in the desert by the sea and constructed of mudbrick. The contrast couldn't have been greater. Furthermore, it was the Incas that brought on the demise of what was the largest city in the Americas.

Next: Thinking About Hiking The Inca Trail To Machu Picchu? Here's What To Expect