No Indiana Jones-style story is complete without temples, sacrifices and mummies, writes Ben Groundwater.
There's a sordid past in the dirt beneath our feet, in this ground littered with shards of pottery and the white flash of decaying human bones. It's ancient history, but it's also the recent past. It's human sacrifice and grave robbery; battles for power and the worship of ancient gods.
Today, however, the Huaca de la Luna is quiet. There's barely a sound except for the crunch of boots on dirt as we climb the bare path towards the temple, a huge mass of grey bricks that could be a mountain from far back. Up close, however, it begins to reveal itself.
The adobe bricks are better preserved up the top and are shaped to form a rough clearing, a square that lies in the shadow of a mountain once revered as a god. "This is where the Moche people conducted their human sacrifices," whispers our guide, Mercedes. "Many, many bodies were found in this place - maybe 70. The people were taken as prisoners of war and then made as sacrifices."
Mercedes points at a platform raised above the dirt. "The prisoners were made to drink a hallucinogen made from cactus. Then their throats were cut and the blood was collected in containers. They use this blood for their ceremonies."
And that, right there, is our introduction to the Moche empire, an ancient Peruvian civilisation that spanned 700 years and would eventually give birth to more famous descendants such as the Chimu and the Incas. The Moche once inhabited vast tracts of coastal northern Peru and their history and legacy is only just beginning to be uncovered from the dusty desert floor.
This is a different side to Peruvian history. Where the Incan ruins, the likes of Machu Picchu and the city of Cusco, were long ago uncovered and explored and marketed to mass tourism, the Moche empire remains something of a mystery. Work is still being done on the ruins we're stepping over in northern Peru - gold and priceless pottery is still being exhumed; the grave robbers have only recently been chased away.
This temple, Huaca de la Luna, marks the beginning of the Moche Route, a comprehensive guide to the Moche civilisation that winds its way through northern Peru's tombs, temples and lost cities. It begins in Trujillo, a university town with a Spanish colonial history and ends 200 kilometres to the north near Chiclayo, a bustling centre with a large marketplace and very little tourist infrastructure.
Lying in the shadow of Cerro Blanco, the mountain once thought to be a god, Huaca de la Luna has more to offer than a clearing littered with the bones of the sacrificed. This site was in use for about 650 years and was never renovated, but rather built on, with old levels filled in and a new temple built on top every 100 years of so. The result today is an onion-like pyramid of many layers, most of which are only just now being peeled back by archaeologists.
At the top of the temple, a row of bricks has been excavated to reveal a wall of murals, renderings of the mountain god the Moche people revered. To one side of the temple is the most impressive site of all, an entire facade, six levels built over hundreds and hundreds of years, decorated with Moche designs. It's the most visually striking demonstration of the civilisation's artwork that you could hope to see.
On a far smaller scale, but no less impressive, is the Moche people's pottery and jewellery, much of which is still kept at museums at the temple sites along the Moche Route. The museum at Huaca de la Luna features pottery exhumed from the surrounding area, most of it shaped to represent the animals, gods and even people that the Moche revered.
A strange thing happens as you gaze at this pottery - at the renderings of human faces from thousands of years ago - you begin to recognise them. The faces that have been moulded and frozen in clay are remarkably similar to the ones you see living and breathing on the streets of Trujillo and Chiclayo today. It's a connection to the past so uncanny that it's impossible to miss. The Moche empire might be long dead, but it's clear that its legacy lives on.
From Huaca de la Luna, the Moche Route winds north past Trujillo and the lost Chimu city of Chan Chan, a huge complex of walled palaces used by the nobility of old. It then follows the Pan-American Highway further north and that's when things get really interesting.
No Indiana Jones-style story of grave robbers and ancient tombs is complete without a mummy. Maybe an ancient empress, a demi-god with long tresses of hair and arms covered in snake tattoos. You can picture her being worshipped by the masses, this now withered figure - you can see her as a figure of immense power, clad in the gold jewellery she was buried with, striking fear into the Moche masses from her perch high in the temple above.
And here she is: Senora de Cao, whose remains were discovered almost completely intact at El Brujo, a temple and burial site up the highway from Trujillo. Senora de Cao now lies peacefully in the small museum next to the temple, along with many of her jewels and much of the pottery uncovered at the site.
The story of her discovery is an interesting one. El Brujo was always popular with grave robbers. One day about 25 years ago an archaeologist spoke to one of these robbers, who told him of the murals painted on the walls at El Brujo. The scientist's interest was piqued - it sounded like a burial site. Fifteen years later, the mummified body of a Moche high priestess was exhumed.
Excitement lies in the fact that these discoveries on the Moche Route are all so recent, all within the last 25 or so years. There are still archaeologists combing the dirt at El Brujo with brushes and spades, and it's a similar story a few hours north at Tucume, a huge complex of 26 pyramids used by the Moche and later civilisations such as the Sican, the Chimu and the Incas. Scientists are still peeling back the layers of history at the site, to this day uncovering more pottery, more gold.
The jewel in northern Peru's metaphorical crown, however, is the one that rounds out our journey up the Moche Route. In 1987 at Huaca Rajada, near Chiclayo, Peruvian archaeologists made an incredible discovery: the tomb of an ancient ruler who would come to be known as the "Lord of Sipan". The find was akin to the Tutankhamen of the pre-Incan world, a major tomb preserved in the earth and miraculously untouched by grave robbers.
The treasures found in Sipan - including gold headdresses, precious stones and ornate necklaces - were so important that, in breaking with tradition, they've been moved to a museum off-site in Chiclayo. The Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipans is set out to resemble an ancient temple, and houses not only the gold and silver found at Sipan but the remains of the king himself. The museum is the perfect way to round out at introduction to pre-Incan culture, displaying the civilisation's finest works of art. It speaks of a sordid past, but a fascinating one.
The writer was a guest of PromPeru.
TRIP NOTES MORE INFORMATION
LAN Airlines has six flights a week from Sydney to Santiago, with connections to Lima and Trujillo. Return fares from $2893. There also are three direct flights a week to Santiago in code-share with Qantas. Melbourne passengers fly to Sydney or Auckland to connect. lan.com.
In Trujillo, the colonial-style Libertador hotel has well-appointed rooms on the city's main square from $130 a night. See libertador.com.pe. In Chiclayo, rooms at the recently renovated Casa Andina cost $80 a night. See casa-andina.com/select-chiclayo.
Be Peru offers five-day guided "Northern Cultures of Peru" tour packages that take in the Moche Route and Chaparri Eco Lodge for $1725, twin share. The cost includes transport, a tour guide, all meals and four nights' accommodation. See beperu.com.
THREE STOPS ALONG THE WAY
Northern Peru isn't just about tombs and museums — it's also about beaches.
This seaside town is a favourite among foreign tourists, with its mix of affordable accommodation and casual bars and restaurants. One of the main drawcards is the chance to see the caballitos de totora — traditional fishing boats made out of totora reeds that are still in use today.
What from the outskirts seems like a dusty one-horse town is actually a pleasant little coastal village, with more of the caballitos de totora and unfortunately a few overly enthusiastic restaurant touts. It's worth negotiating them, however, to go for a walk along the town's long wooden pier.
As with the two towns mentioned above, Pacasmayo is a popular surf spot with a clean, reliable break. Non-surfers, however, will be drawn to the boardwalk, a long beachside stretch with plenty of restaurants and reasonably priced accommodation options.