Chan Chan – The largest pre-colombian existing city


(Approximate reading time: 7 minutes)

Who of you people thought about Buena Vista Social Club when you read the headline? I had exactly the same reasoning and thought about the most famous song of the Cuban band when I had the option to visit Chan Chan?

“How can I visit a song from Buena Vista Social Club”?

You can. And you should as well. Chan Chan is the largest still existing pre-colombian city in South America. To save myself some time I will quote Wikipedia here to give the basic infos:

“The name is probabilly derived from the Quingnam “Jiang” or “Chang” which means Sun, from which Chan-Chan would be literally: Sun-Sun. Chan Chan is believed to have been constructed around 850 AD by the Chimú. It was the Chimor empire capital city with an estimated population of 40,000-60,000 people. After the Inca conquered the Chimú around 1470 AD, Chan Chan fell into decline. In 1535 AD, Francisco Pizarro founded the Spanish city of Trujillo which pushed Chan Chan further into the shadows. While no longer a teeming capital city, Chan Chan was still well known for its great riches and was consequently looted by the Spaniards. An indication of the great Chimú wealth is seen in a sixteenth century list of items looted from a burial tomb in Chan Chan; a treasure equivalent to 80,000 pesos of gold was recovered (nearly $5,000,000 US dollars in gold).

In 1969, Michael Moseley and Carol J. Mackey began excavations of Chan Chan; today these excavations continue under the Peruvian Instituto Nacional de Cultura.”

Can you believe how big the areal might have been, if they are busy since more than 50 years with the excavations? Although these figures of 40,000 – 60,000 habitants might seem to our nowadays time a quite small amount for a city you should not forget to imagine how difficult it must have been these days for the Chimu to control and lead the life of their people. In our times, architects and construction workers build skyscrapers to solve the problem of missing living space and use modern techniques and the aid of machines. But the Chimu hadn’t had these possibilities and needed to build everything from hand and maybe smaller primitive mechanical facilities.

And this is the next big thing, that stunned me. How could it happen, that such a huge city was forgotten for such a long time? People think when they hear about Peru always about the Inca and Machu Picchu. Probably because they were in charge of the reign when the Spaniards arrived. But the Inca were only in charge for 62 years (below in yellow color on the graph). That’s not quite long, is it?

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Timeline of ancient high civilizations in today’s Peru

But for me as well the people of the Chimu were complete unknown and I’ve never heard about them before. Apparently they had 570 reigning years in what we call now Peru. Neither do I know anything about the people of the Moche. Looks like there is much more to learn for me!

Anyway, let me now after this far too long introduction talk a little bit about the day itself. I was in a very bad shape and upset my stomach two days before. In the overnight bus ride from Cajamarca to Trujillo (The next bigger city) I didn’t sleep at all and haven’t eaten much. So all in all my energy and motivation level was at this day of the travel the lowest and I needed some external motivation help from my travel companion Dimixtrix.


I traveled with no one else as much with the bus as with Dimixtrix

He convinced me to stay for one more day in Trujillo and visit Chan Chan and Playa Huanchaco. Without his help, I would’ve probably taken the next bus back to Lima and would’ve missed a wonderful tourism destination.

From Trujillo you can take busses who drive to Huanchaco. On half way there is the entrance of Chan Chan. We didn’t inform us upfront and haven’t planned enough money and time for a full visit at Chan Chan. But as a recommendation to everyone I would say, that you can plan 4 – 5 hours time, if you use the service of a tour guide and transportation service. And this you should definitely do, because the areal is too spacious to walk and the opening times of the archaeologic site of Chan Chan are limited from 9AM to 4PM. Cheap tour guides can be found at the entrance, one operator requested 40 Soles from us, what are not even 10 Euro for four hours of work. A good deal, but we didn’t use it, because we had different plans for the afternoon. 


Chan Chan is placed at a huge areal and we had to walk for 3 kilometers under the hot sun from the street to the entrance. It was definitely worth it and I wished that I would have been in a better shape to do the full tour. So we could only see two of the four possible sights (Plaza Ceremonial and the museum). But still what we saw was impressive. It didn’t happen often in my life that I visited archaeological sites, but this time I somehow could imagine how difficult it was to live as a civilian 1,000 years ago in Chan Chan. As distinguished from the pyramids in Egypt – Which are a good comparison because they were built as well in a desertic area – the stone ruins of Chan Chan were not in a good condition.

After the temple area, Dimixtrix and I walked the way back to the road and took a visit to the museum. In front of the entrance was a friendly desert dog sitting and enjoying the sunshine:

Chimu were proud people and carried their kings on a palanquin:

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All in all I wasn’t really feeling it this day because of the sickness I carried around. But still not sick enough to pose for a few pictures:

Yes, it is definitely worth to visit Chan Chan. It’s more than just a song from a Cuban band.

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