The Whispers of Chan Chan

with 33 Comments

Chan Chan absorbed part of my soul and has haunted me for years.
It’s a city that will live on forever, because once seen, you can never forget it.

When I was 16, I won a scholarship financed by the Spanish Embassy in Luxembourg and embarked on a study tour with the Ruta Quetzal.

 

Our main mission was to ensure continued peace between Ecuador and Peru. As young ambassadors of peace, we trekked across both countries, slept in tents and military bases, rode in army trucks and civilian buses, and visited ancient settlements but also presidential suites.

 

6 weeks of adventures. A dream coming true. But being on the road changes you immensely. Before leaving Luxembourg, I barely spoke Spanish. When I came back, I could only think in Spanish. It took me months to readapt to “normal” life. Even now, the nomadic pulse is still beating. It would take a lifetime to write about this life-altering experience. But let’s start with a place that continues to haunt me:

 

The Enchanting City of Chan Chan

Chan Chan, Peru

 

It is an ugly truth: some travel destinations are trendy, while others never will be. How come we all know about Machu Picchu but ignore all about Chan Chan? The latter is after all the largest pre-Columbian city in South America!

 

This adobe metropolis was in fact the heart of an empire that stretched 965 km from what is nowadays southern Ecuador down to central Peru. Located close to the Pacific coast city of Trujillo, Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimú civilization, which lasted from 850 A.D. to around 1470, when the Incas conquered the city.

 

Marketing gurus might not like the Peruvian region of La Libertad as much as Machu Picchu, but one thing is sure: those who have seen Chan Chan will spread the word. Hopefully this minority can start making amends.

 

Because Chan Chan has been plundered, ransacked, hit by earthquakes, flooded, and exposed to storms caused by El Niño. It’s a city that on top of all those terrible attacks still stands, but also a city that wrongfully continues to be ignored.

 

So what did we do in Chan Chan?

 

Before heading for the archaeological site, we had spent the whole day in Trujillo and in the Huacas del Sol y la Luna. We were dirty, exhausted, and covered in desert dust. The dinner was modest, but we were happy to sit down and rest. We all began to set up our tents in a crescent-shaped bay that was part of a protected area of reeds (called totora in Spanish). We were all so ready to go to sleep.
But then, Luna, the chief monitor, gathered all members of the expedition: we would set off on a nocturnal excursion and trek to the ruins of Chan Chan!

You must be kidding?! Why do we always have to walk in the dark?

 

Looking back at this, I realize it was in our best interest. In daytime the desert-like climate would have endangered our health. The need of water increases, the pace slows down, and finally the heat waves disorient you. Whereas in nighttime, the sand is humid and the air refreshing. Of all the treks we made during this 6-week expedition, this one finally turned out to be one of the easiest.

 

350 teenagers made this journey in the dark. We all walked in silence, mesmerized by the ever-changing display of the night sky, with celestial colors and stars blending in. I can’t remember how long we walked. But what I do remember is the moment we arrived in Chan Chan.

 

The wind was howling. Gigantic spotlights had been installed at strategic locations.
Once they’d been lit up, a colossal archway with statues on each side towered in the sky.

 

Chan Chan. Photo by pirin dao via Photopin CC

 

We split up in several groups and entered the archaeological site. Soon we stepped into a huge patio, surrounded by walls made out of adobe bricks of up to 20 meters. With my torch, I lit the walls, and discovered they were carved: stylized birds, squirrels, pelicans, shellfish, crabs, turtles, sea monsters, but also the moon in all its phases, were all looking down on us. I will never forget those storytelling walls. They narrate the battles fought by humans against nature. They illustrate how the sea and the moon played an essential role in the Chimú cosmogony.

 

Unlike the Incas, who worshipped the sun, the Chimor people worshipped the moon. It was believed to be more powerful than the Sun, as it controlled the sea and the growth of crops. Animals and birds, but also children were sacrificed to the moon.

 

We continued north. Our monitor shed light into a maze of passageways and chambers. It was easy to end up getting lost in this labyrinth. Suddenly a gust of wind found its way through the corridors. We all stopped to listen to its strange mumble. It was as if the desert sang.

 

I’m not a superstitious person. But as I was captured by this peculiar acoustic effect, a film roll began unfolding in my mind. I saw Chimú warriors getting ready for battle. A group of men, dressed in ceremonial cloaks, blew into a shell trumpet.

 

Can you hear that? I asked, surprised at the sound of my own voice.

 

The girl next to me nodded. She too was mesmerized and couldn’t move. The film roll continued playing. I saw hundreds of warriors marching in perfect rows. Some women were offering gifts and tributes to the Gods. Those who followed the cortege carried weapons and amulets.

 

There’s no doubt: places like Chan Chan open you up in a strange way. They lift the lids of your creativity and unlock the power of your mind. They make you ready for what lies beyond of your comfort zone. As we pulled ourselves together and passed through the Recinto Funerario, where El Señor Chimo and his wives are buried, the same girl next to me suddenly asked:

 

How come we can’t hear the others? Where are they? Why don’t we run into the other groups?

 

The monitor just shrugged, but I had the feeling he was completely lost. And the girl was right. More than 350 teenagers were currently roaming through the ancient city, but we could not hear them nor see them. Later on I found out that the ruins cover no less than 6 square kilometers. It was impossible for us to hear a single sound besides the howl of the wind. The thick walls muffled all the other sounds.

 

We wandered now through a labyrinth of workshops where the remaining walls were too damaged to be high. That’s when at last we heard the sound of people marching close by. A second group emerged from behind a statue. Their monitor urged us to walk back to the exit: It is time, he said. We have to retreat before the desert foxes show up. Peruvian desert foxes, also called Sechuran zorros, are nocturnal. Carrion is part of their diet. He’s kidding, right? One of the boys seemed shaken up. He was certainly not the only one. Because nobody replied.

 

Chan Chan, Peru

 

Together we wandered through the narrow passageways. It was pitch dark. Everyone was silent. Listening, as the whispers of Chan Chan grew stronger. The tension was tangible. What if we wouldn’t make it in time? What if we wouldn’t find the exit? Would we forever wander and sleep among the buried mummies?

 

I kept looking behind me to make sure the others were still following. And so did they behind me. It seemed like an eternity before we suddenly saw the light at the main gate. Perhaps it was only my impression, but I had the feeling that everyone walked faster, almost ran to the gate. And then, as if by magic, the sounds of human laughter and talking reappeared.

 

Even now, after so many years, I sometimes wake up at night, wondering what might have happened had we not found that exit after all.
Would I still want to go back to Chan Chan? Hell, yes! And even more than once! Maybe not at nighttime though.

 

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The Whispers of Chan Chan, Peru © Travelwithmk.com

Follow Kerstin:

Traveler - Storyteller

Kerstin is a 30-something French teacher, born and raised in a tiny Luxembourgish village, but who used to live in Bordeaux, Paris, Athens and San Francisco with her wife Mei. Fluent in 5 languages, she's above all a huge book enthusiast, a fervent writer and storyteller, and could never refuse a good old single malt whiskey. Oh, and she also loves coffee and chocolate (not sure in which order though).

33 Responses

  1. Erika
    | Reply

    I loved the narrative of this post! I felt like I was there experiencing the silence and the whispers, learning about those that worshipped the moon and fearing the arrival of the foxes. Wonderful post and pinned it so when I go to Peru I don’t miss the magic of Chan Chan!

  2. Meg Jerrard
    | Reply

    First of all, I’m so impressed that you immersed yourself in the Spanish language and came home fluent after 6 weeks – super impressive! And goes to show how much you truly loved your ambassadorship! Chan Chan sounds incredible – I’m surprised I’ve never heard of it – funny what international marketing efforts can do for some destinations (MP) but not others. Desert climate aside, quite fitting to do a night hike to get there when the Chimor people worshipped the moon.

    It sounds like quite the experience – something deeply spiritual!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Meg. 🙂 We all came home fluent in Spanish because we were not allowed to speak any other language. One of the girls I met on the first day is from Switzerland, so we immediately spoke in German, but soon we both got yelled at. Hehe… I was a bit angry in the beginning, but when I came home I was actually glad and thankful that we were forced to speak Spanish. Otherwise I wouldn’t have learned it so fast. The only thing that I regret is not having been able to understand everything the locals said during the first week of our expedition.

  3. Mizhelle
    | Reply

    I like how you’re very passionate about Chan Chan. Maybe part of its charm is that it’s relatively unknown. I’d love to see the place one day.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Hi Mizhelle, Chan Chan was magical. I can’t say if it’s still like this today but it’s definitely worth seeing!

  4. I’ve never heard or known of Chan Chan but when I first read the title I thought I was gonna read something about a little kid. In Japan, chan is used for children, say, Hana chan. And I got thrilled while actually reading it got me goosebumps. It was quite scary like a movie but very interesting because it’s also different from the usual posts that I read such as travel guides. I like travel stories very much just like this one. What if you never found the exit, would you think to sleep there overnight? If you’re a group you’re okay but if you’re alone, oh my I can’t imagine!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Hi Cathy, thank you for your comment, and I’m glad that you like our stories. 🙂 I didn’t know that the Japanese word “chan” has something to do with children. Haha.. I think that if we hadn’t found the exit that night in Chan Chan, the others from our group would have kept looking for us. After all we were about 300 teenagers, sticking together every day and night, and all of us had to take care of the others.

  5. Jenna
    | Reply

    It is such a shame that just a few spots get all the hype—it can definitely create an imbalance in tourism. I’ve never heard of Chan Chan, but after learning more about it, I’d definitely like to visit. Sounds like you had such a wonderful adventure and that it was great opportunity to have during school! That’s really cool that even though there were 350 of you that you still felt like you were the only group there. Sounds like a really awesome experience!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Hi Jenna, yes the expedition with the Ruta Quetzal was an exceptional experience, and after almost 18 years I still like to think back. 🙂 If you visit Peru next time, you should definitely go to Chan Chan too.

  6. Valerie Wheatley
    | Reply

    We visited Peru a few years ago – I’m so bummed I didn’t know about Chan Chan then! It sounds like an amazing place to visit, I’ll have to make a trip someday. I loved your writing style – you’re such a talented storyteller. I felt like I was right there with you! Thanks so much for sharing your tale with your readers!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Valerie! I’m really glad that you like our stories and our writing style! 🙂 Chan Chan might have changed in the meantime, but the fact that so many people still don’t know about it shows that it’s still a bit of a hidden gem. When you return to Peru next time, you definitely have to go there then.

  7. Nathalie Caty
    | Reply

    I will be honest with you I never heard of Chan Chan. For 2018, I planned to visit Peru and definitely check Machau Pichau, but I rather explore a less touristy area. Things for the information.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You’re welcome Nathalie. Chan Chan is in northern Peru, so you’ll have to return to Lima after visiting Machu Picchu, and then head north. 🙂 I think it’s a different experience, but both sites are definitely worth visiting. We’ll also explore Peru this year. When will you be going there?

  8. Hannah
    | Reply

    Wow, what a tale! I had never heard of Chan Chan until reading this – but perhaps that’s a blessing? It sounds like a magical place, and do we want it to end up like Machu Picchu? I’d actually love to see a Peruvian dessert fox… although maybe not on my own in a big scary abandoned city LOL! Thanks once again for your storytelling!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Hannah. You know what? I hesitated quite long before writing about Chan Chan, to avoid contributing in turning such a gem into a tourist spot. And I actually kept this story for myself for 16 years. lol! But since Chan Chan (and Northern Peru altogether) is getting more attention these last years, I thought it wouldn’t harm to share my story now. Glad you liked it! 🙂

  9. Elaine J Masters
    | Reply

    What vivid memories! How fortunate too to be traveling on that mission although I imagine that being in such a large group would have it’s limitations. I’d love to visit Chan Chan but hope it doesn’t sucumb to the misfortune of being overrun by tourists as Machu Picchu has.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes we were a large group, but we were all 16 years old. As teenagers, we couldn’t have traveled differently than in a group. So the idea that the group was too large didn’t actually cross our mind. lol. Also, back then it was the first time that I left Europe (or even the first time that I traveled “for real”). 🙂 Since we’re currently planning our trip to South America for 2018, I’ve seen that Chan Chan has changed a lot already. It’s definitely not as touristy as Machu Picchu, but probably in a couple of years.

  10. Claire
    | Reply

    What a beautiful written piece. I’m currently in Central America and moving down towards here later this year. Thank you so much for alerting me to this. It now high on my list of places to vist.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Claire! Enjoy your trip through Central and South America! I wonder if the desert continues to sing as it did over 16 years ago! Let me know when you’re in Chan Chan. 😉

  11. Indrani
    | Reply

    Amazing story telling in this. I felt scared yet read on…
    Just think what would have happened had you all not found the exit!It is a gfood opportunity you got from the Spanish Embassy! Once in a life time kind of experience.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Indrani! To be totally honest, we had seen and done so many unbelievable things with the Ruta Quetzal in South America during those 6 weeks, that we didn’t freak out about what were to happen, had we not found the exit. Now thinking back, it was really crazy!

  12. SHRADDHA GUPTA
    | Reply

    South America just never stops to amaze me! The History in SA is beyond beautiful and Chan Chan in your pictures looks so intriguing. I didn’t even know this place existed – only to tell me that there is so much in the world to see and experience!

  13. Jenn and Ed Coleman
    | Reply

    This was probably the most entertaining thing I have read all day. What fabulous story telling and voice! I have always been in love with this region since reading about the Treasure of the Llanganates. It’s funny how certain pre-Columbian cities are famous while others are barely heard from. I think it’s a combination of how much excavation has taken place and the “tourist” appeal of the area. I haven’t heard of Chan Chan before your article and now it is firmly on the list. Thank you.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you so much for your comment! 🙂 Oh, I’ve never heard about the Treasures of Llhanganates. I’ll definitely read about it. By the way, I also saw the final resting place and the treasures of El Señor de Sipán in that area. If you go to Chan Chan, you could visit it too.

  14. Paige Wunder
    | Reply

    Wow! I’ve never even heard of Chan Chan but now I definitely want to visit! I need to get back to South America I’ve only been to Peru, you know to Machu Picchu (the one, as you say, everyone knows about 😉 ). Also, congrats on getting that scholarship when you were 16 so cool to be able to learn Spanish that way!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Haha! Well, Macchu Picchu is certainly also worth visiting! Lately it has become the victim of its own success, since the Peruvian authorities have limited the daily entrance.

  15. Tamara Elliott
    | Reply

    Wow I’d never heard of this place- you’re right, it’s so interesting how some spots become iconic, while similar sites like this one are largely ignored!

  16. Karla
    | Reply

    I love the pictures of this place. I never knew about this till this post. Thanks for letting me know, now, it is in my radar.

  17. Vicki Garside
    | Reply

    I had never heard of Chan Chan before your post – and great story, I think I’d have been quite scared to be there at night though (even if it would be better for my health)!

  18. Kathleen
    | Reply

    Wow! What a magical place. You captured my attention for sure. I’d love to visit Chan Chan someday. Maybe I will get there.

  19. Gabriela
    | Reply

    the pictures are surreal! great story line

  20. Tami
    | Reply

    Great story! You had me with you every step of the way. Honestly I had never heard of Chan Chan. It does deserve to be known.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you for your comment, Tami. Chan Chan is definitely worth being known and visited!

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