A couple of years ago I went to an exhibition at the MALI in Lima about the archaeological site of Chavín de Huántar and ever since I’d wanted to visit. Luckily, visiting the Cordillera Blanca meant that this was finally achievable!
Chavín de Huántar is situated just east of the Cordillera Blanca and it was a religious and cultural centre between approximately 1200 BC and 400 BC. People of all cultures and religions could come here to use the site, so it did not belong to a particular group.
It was also a place where people would trade objects from around Peru, as archaeologists found remains of shells that could have only come from the coast, meaning people travelled great distances to come here.
Some of these incredible carved shells are on display in the museum as they played an important role in the ceremonies performed here.
What began as a small circular ceremonial space and temple, grew and grew over the years as the centre became more popular.
It eventually consisted of not only the original spaces but with a much, much larger flat topped pyramid temple (5 floors high) alongside and a huge square shaped ceremonial area in front of that with different staircases leading away from it.
As always, the construction of these sites never fails to amaze me and the result of perfectly cutting and laying the different shaped stones over many years is always unbelievable.
In the larger ceremonial square, there is also a large stone with dome shaped dips carved on the top. When filled with water, this was believed to reflect the constellation of Orion in it perfectly.
The system of waterways here are also an incredible feat of engineering for the time and meant that the whole temple had access to fresh water from the rivers running alongside it.
The priests also used the system to project the noise of the echo of the running water into the ceremonial square through holes in the ground, making it sound like something god like and other worldly.
The priests here were seen as all powerful and able to communicate with the gods through taking hallucinogenic plants which supposedly transformed them from men into anthropomorphic beings like a puma or jaguar.
This transformation was depicted by stone carvings each called a Cabeza Clava displayed around the outside of the whole temple.
Nowadays there is only one left on display on the temple, and the rest have been removed and many are displayed in the museum.
Aside from the Cabeza Clava, there are other incredible pieces to see on site.
From a distance you can admire the carvings on the main temple doorway of two anthropomorphic figures (one male, one female), plus falcons above.
There are also carvings on a set of steps of serpents sliding across them, and a tall stone obelisk (now on display at the museum). I find it incredible that these carvings are still present over 2500 years later!
One of the most stunning pieces is the Lanzón. It’s a very tall piece of carved stone, almost completely intact (aside from a top section), and it is located inside the original stone temple from 1200BC. You can see it through glass at the site, but no pictures, however there is an exact replica in the museum if you want to study the carvings for longer or see it all the way around.
It has been completely protected down there with no real erosion, so its almost perfect. I couldn’t actually believe it. It’s still in situ as it would have been all those many years ago and it made me feel slightly emotional knowing that I was standing somewhere that has remained almost unchanged for all those years.
Unfortunately, sometime between 500 and 400 BC there was some kind of devastating event that led to the collapse of some of the buildings including the facades. This led to the loss of power of the priests there, as people thought the gods were against them and didn’t see them as the all mighty people that they once had believed them to be.
Chavín was then used instead by other cultures as a residential site instead and it lost its importance as that major centre that it once was.
I highly recommend a visit to Chavín, not only to see the incredible structures and carvings from the outside, but also to explore inside the temples themselves and imagine what it may have been like thousands of years ago.
There are so many rooms and it would be easy to get lost inside, but each area has holes that let air and light, or water inside, so everything is very well connected.
You must enter with a guide, you cannot explore alone, and our guide Luis was fantastic. He gave us so much information and did not rush us at any point when looking at the different sections of the site. It may be worth going with an organised group if you want the tour in English, as when we went there were only Spanish speaking tour guides available.
Also, you have to make time to visit the museum afterwards. It is on the other side of the town from the site but it is extremely good and a perfect accompaniment to visiting the site itself.
There are so many objects that have been discovered at the site on display, from pestle and mortars to jewellery and shells, and also many pieces of carved tablets, incredibly well preserved.
The drive from Huaraz to Chavín is so beautiful once you have crossed the river and passed through the town of Catac. The views across the plains are gorgeous, but after this section as you head into the mountains is the best part for me. There’s a huge lake on route which has the most dramatic backdrop (whatever the weather), and then clear, winding roads head into the mouth of the mountain pass, through the tunnel and out the other side with more spectacular views awaiting.