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Desert Life: Exploring the Ancient Cities of Northern Peru

Machu Picchu draws tens of thousands of tourists to Andean Peru each year to marvel at the skill of the Inca who built the city and the natural beauty of the mountains that surround it. It is far and away the most famous pre-Columbian city built by South America's indigenous people.

But Machu Picchu is just a part of what Peru has to offer. Far away from the snow-capped Andes, the country's northern coast was home to great cities that rose from the desert. Both the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon, built by the Moche civilization, and the adobe city of Chan Chan, built by the Chimu civilization, still stand in testament to the art and ingenuity of these peoples.

The temples and Chan Chan are easily reached from the charming city of Trujillo, Peru, whose brightly painted houses and warm-but-not-sweltering climate make it a pleasure to visit.

The Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon were built by the Moche culture between 100 and 800 CE. Beautiful frescoes line the interior walls of the Pyramid of the Moon, which was probably a religious center. Also noteworthy is the construction of the adobe walls, which were specially designed to withstand shocks in this earthquake-prone area.

Only the pyramid of the moon has been restored. The pyramid of the sun, which was partially destroyed by the Spanish while looting gold from its graves, lies across a barren stretch of earth that was once a bustling city. House foundations and tiny shards of pottery are still visible, but everything that rose above the sand is utterly gone, making it a prime place to ponder the passage of time.

The adobe city Chan Chan, also a short drive from Trujillo, sits off the main highway down a long road through astonishingly monotonous desert. All along the roadside the melted-sandcastle masses of once-large buildings, destroyed by rain and wind, rise from the earth. The section of the city that has been restored and opened to tourists looks very different-large plazas and mazes of pathways seem to stretch in every direction.

Chan Chan, built in the 9th century, was the largest city in the Americas before the Spanish arrived. The Chimu decorated it with reliefs that showed the natural world around them-fish, crabs and pelicans adorn the walls and doorways. They also turned the city into a major population center of more than 30,000 people by constructing an irrigation system that routed waters from nearby rivers through their fields.

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Given how decayed many of the buildings outside the tourist center at Chan Chan have become, it's clear that much restoration was undertaken to revive parts of the city open to visitors. These restored spaces offer great opportunities for imagining the splendor of the city at its peak, when it was decorated with gold and silver, filled with workers and the largest city in the Americas. Yet despite work to protect it, the site is still at risk from heavy winds and rain due to El Nino weather patterns.

The arrival of the Inca, who had already built Machu Picchu further south in Peru, signaled the end of Chan Chan. The Chimu civilization was conquered and dispersed around 1470, less than 100 years before the Inca Empire was in turn crushed by the Spanish.

Machu Picchu will always be special, particularly because it is made of stone that has withstood the passage of hundreds of years. But the worlds of the Chimu and Moche are also well worth exploring for those who want to experience more of the indigenous civilizations of ancient Peru.

For more information on Chan Chan:

If you go:

-Keep an eye out for the hairless Peruvian dogs that are kept at Chan Chan - the Chimu domesticated them hundreds of years ago.

-Ask your guide at the Temple of the Moon if he's heard about ghosts walking the walls under the stars.

-Guided tours are available at these sites in several languages, but have a chat with your guide first to make sure you can understand each other.