Top 5 historic sites to visit in Northern Peru


Almost every trip to Peru is focussed on the world renowned archaeological phenomenon that lies in its southern region. And with good reason. The ruins of Machu Picchu inspire a sense of wonder and intrigue in all who step foot on its ancient soil, as images of a mysterious civilisation suddenly become more vivid than imaginable. However, the spectacular Inca ruins are far from the only historical site worth exploring in Peru.

Most who travel to the north of Peru do so in search of the country’s most picturesque coastline around Mancora. There is also untamed natural beauty in abundance when heading inland as the Andes mountain range gives way to the Amazonian jungle. Hidden in this relatively unexplored region of the country are some of Peru’s greatest archaeological treasures. Matching the wondrous experience of Machu Picchu but without the crowds, their baron structures and eery tranquillity make you feel as though you have discovered them for the first time yourself. Here are the five most spectacular historical sites in Northern Peru.

Kuelap

Located 3,000m above sea level, the high altitude location of Kuelpa’s circular stone structures have seen it regularly compared to Machu Picchu. The stone wall defences of the site reach as high as 20m in height in parts, with breathtaking views over the lush greenery of the Andean valleys below which are often shrouded in an ethereal mist. Many of the ruinous buildings have been reclaimed by nature, with all manner of foliage creeping out from between the limestone blocks, giving Kuelap a tangible sense of antiquity that is almost mythical.

The settlement was constructed by the Chachapoya, or “Cloud Warriors”, whose epic cultural remains evidence a society befitting of such a name. Walking amongst the crumbling structures, of which there are over 500, you will see stones with intricate carvings depicting local flora and fauna which give a more immersive insight into the workings and beliefs of the fascinating civilisation that once lived here. Formerly only accessible by a 3 hour hike, the recent completion of a cable car system is forecast to cause a boom in tourism, meaning it would be best to visit Kuelap sooner rather than later.

The Tombs of Revash

To the south of Kuelap, hidden in a natural crevice carved into the side of a dramatic cliff are a collection of what one would assume are small cottages. However, these precariously placed buildings are in fact funerary buildings created by the Chachapoya people who ruled the region until the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. The architectural relics of this ancient civilisation are painted in shades of white and red which have retained their vibrancy to this day, causing them to dramatically stand out from the greys of the cliff and greens of the encroaching foliage.

The graves are thought to have been built for people of great importance, given their comparative opulence to a typical burial at the time. Due to looting over the centuries, the mausoleums were relatively empty when they were rediscovered in the 19th century, but are thought to have once contained treasures that the Chachapoya considered to be of great value. The site is reachable via a 40 minute trek through jungle along a well maintained path before the otherworldly cliff-side visage is revealed in front of you.

Chan Chan

Formerly the largest city in pre-Columbian South America, Chan Chan is now considered one of the greatest examples of how a Chimu city would have operated. Triangular in shape and located in an arid section of coastal desert west of Trujillo, the archaeological site is home to a number of brilliantly preserved ruins, including walls carved with depictions of local wildlife integrated into traditional linear patterning. The adobe remains of this great ancient city merge lifeless desert and urban civilisation in an unimaginable combination. Some of the walls still stand at 18m tall, giving some impression of the city’s former immensity when it was built during the 9th century.

Some of the innovation used in the design of the city is mesmerizingly ahead of its time. This includes an intricate system of canals for irrigation and wall carvings used for improved acoustics, to allow for public speeches to be heard more clearly. The gargantuan significance of this archaeological site was recognised when it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. Few places in South America offer such a vivid opportunity to step into the land of a civilisation long lost to time.

Huaca de la Luna

On the opposite side of Trujillo is an archaeological discovery that is equally as impressive but in a totally different manner. From the outside, Huaca de la Luna’s beige adobe structure may not seem like much, but within its walls lie some of the best preserved ancient murals on the continent. Tiered walls display a multitude of differing patterns, whose colours have been well maintained due to lack of exposure to the sun. A vibrant depiction of the Moche culture which cultivated parts of Northern Peru’s coastline between 100AD and 700AD, the murals provide an on site treasure whose immaculate preservation is rarely matched by cultural equivalents across the globe.

Considered by archaeologists to have been built for ceremonial and religious purposes, evidence suggests that Huaca de la Luna was used to perform human sacrifice during its prime. A chilling sense of the deaths experienced here can be felt when visiting the site where bodies were later hurled from the Huaca. Beside Huaca de la Luna, travellers can find Huaca del Sol which served as a military base and burial ground for the Moche elite, but unfortunately isn’t open to the public. Those who wish to gain a greater perspective on Moche society should pay a visit to the Museo Huacas de Moche, where artefacts from the two nearby sites are on display.

Carajia

On the cliffs of the Utcubamba Valley looms the eery visage of seven – formerly eight – sarcophagi stood shoulder to shoulder, staring over the valley that they once ruled. Built to represent the human form and up to 2.5m in height, the statuesque coffins are uniquely patterned in shades of red, yellow and white, two of which with human skulls displayed atop their figures’ heads. Examined for the first time in 1985, they remain the largest set of Chachapoyan sarcophagi remaining intact today, despite the eighth figure toppling during an earthquake in 1928.

The exact reason for this ceremony, which in many ways mirrors the Tombs of Revash, is still unknown. However, it is believed that the cliffside placement was an act carried out to prevent looting of the items that the mummies would have had with them at their burial. The intricacy of the sarcophagi and prominence of their position suggests that those inside were people of great importance. The humanoid forms are facing east, meaning that they face the sunrise each morning, considered by some as an attempt to help them in the afterlife. The lifeless ceramic faces’ ominous stare over the ghostly quiet valley 700 feet below is an image that will fascinate and cause chills for any standing below.

Matt Gannan is the CEO and Owner of Tucan Travel. Tucan Travel operate cultural tours in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, Asia and Europe, as well as tailor-made holidays in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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Comments (10)

  1. Sally Arnold says:

    The Tombs of Revash sounds like the Indiana Jones adventure movie that Hollywood never get round to making. In my book they look definitely worth the 40 minute trek. That walk should save the tombs from the dangers of overtourism, it is only a minority of travellers who’ll make the effort of walking 40 minutes out and 40 minutes back.

  2. Hannah says:

    Wow, this post really exceeded my expectations. I know Machu Picchu is the obvious attraction in Peru. However, I had no idea of the beauty elsewhere in the country. At least when it comes to ancient burial sites and more, this was truly fascinating! I had to look up the Chan Chan site and will be reading more about it. Also, the sarcophagi at Carajia really blew me away. Would really love to see that one day.

    • Matt Gannan says:

      Thanks Hannah, that’s really great to hear. Peru has so many wonderful sites and I hope you get out to visit one day :)

      All the best

  3. Olivia White says:

    I’d still want to see Machu Picchu just to say I’d been there done that, but I like the idea of exploring the lesser traversed places too. Chan Chan looks so fascinating. Very well preserved judging by the picture, considered the time and elements it has had to endure. There’s so much history to take in from all of these structures. The Carajia sarcophagi are rather creepy, seems like they could be easily overlooked too so it’s good to know they’re there as they’re pretty impressive (but still rather eerie!) Definite chills.

    • Matt Gannan says:

      Morning Olivia,

      Absolutely, Machu Picchu is wonderful and I highly recommending visiting. It’s always good to know what else a country has to offer and with a place like Peru with so much history – it would seem a lot!

      Have a great day

  4. Emma says:

    As much as I would love to see Machu Picchu one day – these places look equally as fascinating in their own right!

  5. Katherine says:

    Kuelap looks beautiful, will definitely have to add it to the list of places to visit when I go to Peru. Interesting to hear about some of the lesser known sites

  6. I. Vaughn says:

    One thinks immediately of Machu Picchu when traveling to Peru. It’s one of the most popular ancient structures in the world and naturally people gravitate towards it. But knowing that there are other historic archeaological sites in Peru means there are more placesto explore! And this is good news. You don’t spend just a few days in a place anyway, so finding more things to do is definitely a plus. Chan Chan looks interesting, but I would go for Kuelap and Tombs of Revash first since they are close together and could be visited in a day.

    • Matt Gannan says:

      Machu Picchu will always be special – it really is an incredible ancient structure. I’m glad we can highlight that Peru also has many other wonderful ancient places to see, the country is bursting with archaeological wonders!

      All the best

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