Rubble and ruins in northern Peru

The Pan-American Highway shimmers in the distance

After spending several relaxing days with the Burbanos (friends of the family) in their lovely homes in Guayaquil and Salinas, Ecuador, we headed south for Peru. Huge signs on the newly paved Pan-American highway marked the way to the frontera (border) bypassing the frontier town of Huaquillas. We happily followed these signs until we suddenly realized we were in Peru. No passport check, no car import permit, no scary looking army people with automatic weapons. The normal border procedure has always involved two steps: leaving the departure country before proceeding to enter the arrival country, accompanied by lots of stamps, lines, and photocopies of documents. Something obviously wasn’t right. Men shoveling gravel directed us onto dirt roads that led back into Huaquillas. We wound our way through a boisterous street market barely squeezing past push-carts and piles of pineapples to arrive at Peruvian immigration. While my Spanish isn’t terrible at this point, I still haven’t entirely mastered the past tense, so explaining our awkward situation was challenging. We felt a bit stupid saying that we had accidentally and illegally driven into Peru without officially leaving Ecuador or processing any of the necessary paperwork. The Peruvian officials couldn’t seem to understand us when we said that no, we weren’t trying to leave Peru to enter Ecuador, but in fact were trying to leave Ecuador to enter Peru. They eventually let us back into Ecuador and we proceeded to cross the borders in the right order with proper documentation. International incident avoided, we then sped into the wild coastal desert that spills across the northern Peruvian Pan-American Highway.

A lone tree bravely ekes out a living in the Peruvian desert

Skimming along the empty Pan-American, we swept through desolate small towns and bone-dry canyons. Shelters build from reeds and simple adobe buildings in varying states of decay occasionally interrupted the solitary landscape. We had the road to ourselves except for the rare bus or semi-truck blamming down the freeway. We enjoyed the stark beauty and rock-garden simplicity of the scenery until we reached our first destination, the small city of Chiclayo. Surrounded by archeological sites and home to several wonderful museums, we set out to visit the ruins and learn about the pre-Incan Moche people who lived here from 100 to 800 AD.

Ghostly remains of a church in Zaña, Peru

On the way to the ancient Moche pyramids of Sipán, we first passed through some more recent ruins in Zaña. Founded in 1563, this old colonial town was slated to become the capital of Peru until biblical floods destroyed the town in 1720. Cows wandered among the remains of churches poking out of wheat fields, and we meandered around the narrow dirt roads that cut through the desert. We also drove by tumble-down adobe walls and houses abandoned by all but the vultures, but weren’t sure if these were recent or older remains. The flat desert landscape was then punctuated by the strange lump that is Sipán. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, as rain and wind have worn down the truncated adobe pyramids, but it is home to one of the richest tombs northern Peru. First discovered by grave-robbers in the 1980s, it was in danger of being completely plundered until the police and a local archeological team intervened to save the priceless treasures. The 1700 year old Royal Tombs of Sipán contained fabulous ceramics, intricate gold and coral jewelry, and the remains of a Moche warrior priest and his loyal subjects. This lord was buried with women, soldiers, dogs, llamas, and took plenty of jewelry, food, and weapons to live well in the afterlife. We will continue our exploration of pre-Colombian culture as we head to the northern highlands of Peru to visit the Chachapoyan site of Kuelap.