Chan Chan – Capital of the Chimú Kingdom

When we travel to the North of Peru by car we always make a pitstop just outside of Trujillo at a little beach town called Huanchaco.

huanchaco art

Huanchaco is a tranquil place to break up a 2 day journey to the northern beaches…


…and it has a pretty great bakery not to be missed! (Check out my review of their Lemon Meringue Pie here)


Have your Pie de Limon to go, and then sit and eat whilst you watch the boats out on the sea, admire them on the beach…

huanchaco sunset

…or perhaps later witness a beautiful sunset.

Another great reason to make a stop here is its ridiculously close proximity to one of the most amazing, and largest, archaeological sites in Peru.

chan chan courtyard

Chan Chan.

Chan Chan is the largest Pre-Columbian city in the whole of South America, and is somewhere I had been dying to visit for a while. It’s situated very close to the sea, part way between the coast and the city of Trujillo.

I am going to try and remember some things I heard and read whilst I was there, to give you a little background on this vast complex (the overall area is around 20km, but you will actually only visit a small percentage of this called Nik An).

It was constructed by the Chimú culture (Pre Inca) and survived as a place of cultural significance from about 1100AD (I am a little unsure of this date!) until around 1470AD where it fell to the Incas. It was the capital of the Chimú kingdom and therefore it was where anything of religious or political importance took place. The main section of Chan Chan was divided up into 9 smaller fortresses with high adobe walls, each one housing many different buildings.

Chan Chan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and their website has some great information about the site, either if you want more details, or if you want to know why it was chosen to be put on the World Heritage list.

I can honestly say that I had not expected how vast the site was going to be, or in fact how many  archaeological treats it had in store for me.

I headed into the maze of rooms and courtyards completely alone. No tour, no companion, just me and my camera, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was nice to just stand and take in the atmosphere for as long, or as little, as I wanted. I never felt rushed or slowed down, so for me this was perfect.

I have visited many different sites in Peru in the past, which made me feel confident that I had enough knowledge to venture inside solo. Also, my boyfriend seems to be the font of Peruvian archaeological wisdom, so he had filled me full of facts before I even stepped foot inside. However, if this is one of your first stops and you don’t have too much experience of the different Peruvian cultures, then a tour would be extremely helpful and probably far more enjoyable for you. The guides will be able to answer any questions and curiosities that you have, and tours are often available in multiple languages, so don’t be afraid to ask!

fish signposts

If you do decide to head off on your own, just follow the little fish and you should be able to find your way.

Let’s explore….

chan chan entrance

Remember I said that Chan Chan was close to the sea? Well, see if you can spot some oceanic imagery as we wander through. And I don’t just mean the little signpost fish!

The first picture of Chan Chan, with the two statues, is the first main courtyard and it is vast. It is also completely enclosed so you can’t see what lies beyond until you head through the doorways.

Surprise after surprise!

chan chan carvings

Look at these amazing carvings on the walls of fish, in wave shapes. Beautiful marine imagery.

If you look closely you can see birds (maybe pelicans) bobbing along the ‘water’ at the bottom!

chan chan close up fish carving

The marine imagery doesn’t just stop at animals…

chan chan net carving

This carving is so deep and clear and such a beautiful pattern. Just like fishing nets spread across the walls.

This pattern actually recurs a lot throughout the complex. But this is just the beginning….the next section is just astounding.

chan chan rooms

I defy you not to become emotional when you arrive into this section of the complex.

chan chan walkway

It is utterly beautiful.

chan chan carvings

Preserved for all these years, due to the little amount of rain, and careful conservation and preservation of the people that care for it.

The imagery is still present here too, and this time we see the carvings of some sea birds (on land this time though).

chan chan walls

chan chan carvings

I can’t remember if these little ones are fish or shrimp?

chan chan rooms

I loved exploring this area, trying to find as many details as possible.

chan chan carvings

Entranced by how unbelievable the space is.

chan chan walls

However, there is still much more to see.

chan chan walkway

chan chan courtyard

I bet this one has amazing views over the wall, but you’re not allowed up there!

But maybe it’s for the best because coming up is something you’ll never expect in this vast desert complex.

chan chan oasisAn oasis.chan chan oasisA wetland full of grasses and reeds and some wildlife too.chan chan oasisSuch an unexpected beauty, where the bright green contrasts perfectly against the sandy adobe structure surrounding it.

When the Chimú were here the land was very well irrigated and therefore very fertile, which is represented here perfectly. In fact, this was actually a ceremonial well, where ceremonies would take place dedicated to water and fertility.

Next, head through the almost invisible door on the left to keep on the path through the maze!

A little further on, we find an example of a Chimú burial chamber within the heart of Chan Chan.

chan chan tombIt has been excavated down to, either by the Incas, Spanish or archaeologists looking to find what was hidden.

At the back sits a replica of what a Chimú burial bundle may have looked like.

chan chan burialThe funerary bundle actually has a burial mask attached, and for important members of society this would have been made from gold and probably sewn onto the cloths that were wrapped around the mummy’s face.chan chan wallsWe move on past some beautiful examples of the walls that divided a large section of storerooms, and into a very different kind of courtyard.chan chan courtyard

Much smaller, but very dramatic and full of niches.

Can you make out those little white triangles at the back?

chan chan statuesMore Chimú statues, hiding in the alcoves, guarding the square.

They remind me a little of the Queen’s guards in London standing at their posts, not to be moved.

This is actually one of the last parts of Chan Chan, but you will have to leave wanting to explore more and more of this amazing example of Pre-Incan culture.

There is a museum a short drive away, so you can visit either before or after, dependent on what you feel will be most helpful to you. I preferred visiting after, as it made the complex itself more exciting and surprising to me. However, you may want to learn as much as you can about the complex in the museum before you actually enter in real life.

Whatever you choose to do, your experience will be unforgettable. Chan Chan may not be as famous as Machu Picchu, but it should not be ignored on any trip to Peru, and I would definitely put it on my top 10 places to visit here!

If you go, please let me know if you enjoyed it. I would love to hear about your escapades through Peru’s archaeological marvels.

And before you go, here’s another Huanchaco mural to brighten up your day!

huanchaco mural

Museo de Sitio de Chan Chan // Av. Mansiche

This is a map showing the location of the museum in relation to the Chan Chan site entrance (Area 8 is the section open to the public), and this map shows both the Chan Chan site and the Museum in relation to Trujillo and the surrounding area. This is a map of Nik An (the section of Chan Chan that you visit) itself with the areas numbered and given names below.

All 3 maps thanks to


If you search on Google Maps for Huanchaco, search for ‘Muelle de Huanchaco’ (the pier) and you’ll be in the right part, which is west of the airport. 

And to finish.....

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