Chalkmarks Beach you to it: The sandcastles built long before Machu Picchu

FOR more than a millennia, these sandcastles have stood out on the Peruvian desert beaches under the burning sun.

They are the ruins of the ancient city of Chan Chan, which means Sun Sun, built by the Chimú, who lived around the same time the Roman Empire ruled Europe.

They were royal palaces made from adobe brick with brilliantly carved walls that have survived being battered by winds, heavy rains and earthquakes. The Moche and Chimú were masters of the sand whose structures look more futuristic than ancient.

For me, they raise a lot of questions: how did these primitive people build these palaces? Why did they leave them? How have they survived? And the biggest mystery all: why don’t visitors flock to see them? 

It’s beyond me how a sandcastle can last so long. They’re incredible. It doesn’t make sense.

While there are reams of books written about Rome, Greece and even the Incas, archaeologists know little about this piece of the puzzle in world history but clearly the Chimú were doing some amazing things.

The Moche mark the beginning of civilisation in South America. They are credited as being the first most sophisticated culture, thriving for 700-years – from the 1st to the 8th century. This is around the time the Maya was at its peak in North America – around the 6th century.

The Chimú succeeded the Moche for more than six centuries from 850 to 1470 and for reasons unknown they gave way to the Inca Empire, which ended after around 100 years when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1532 led by Francisco Pizarro González, by then in his mid 50s.

A year later, they defeated the last Incan Emperor Atahualpa, whom they burnt at the stake. They named the country Peru whose meaning remains unclear. Pizarro lived with an Inca princess and never returned to Spain. The exact year he died is unknown but he sleeps in the Cathedral of Lima. His remains were found in 1977.

The details might be vague but the Chimú built one of the oldest cities on this side of the planet and it’s thought that there are more palaces of Chan Chan lying along the coastline – waiting to be discovered – making it the largest ancient city in South America.

What we do know is that visiting them is very easy compared to seeing Machu Picchu – the Incan citadel high in the Andes. There’s no hike necessary, no waiting list or high entrance fees.

At just a stone’s throw from the capital Lima, the ruins can be visited by car travelling north along the Pan American Highway that skirts the Pacific coastline.

Not only do these sun-baked palaces pack a real historical punch, they’re still being uncovered. Time detectives are yet to understand who these people were so now’s the time to take a look around while the stories remain invisible and untold. 

Leaving Lima, the ancient line up starts with the Moche temples, Huacas del Moche. Here there’s the terraced platform Moon Temple and the pyramid Sun Temple reaching up 43metres.

Next in the archeological zone comes Huaca Esmerald and nearby is Huaca del Dragon – both were built early in the Chimú culture, estimated to be 1,100 years old.

Half an hour farther north comes the impressive Chimú palaces of Chan Chan, the world’s largest mud brick citadel, with the sound of the Pacific Ocean roaring in the background. It’s thought that each residence had its own king and when he died they abandoned the palace and built another. It’s also thought there are more than a dozen yet to be discovered.

The last impressive ruins lie north of Trujillo (the city named after the Spanish home town of Pizarro). They are the Moche El Brujo and Lady of Cao whose tomb was found in 2005 with a well preserved tattooed woman ruler.

The Moche’s most famous warrior is known as Lord Sipan, whose mummified body was discovered in 1987 at Huaca Rajada. The Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipán is near the city of Chiclayo.

There’s something else you should know too. The scenery along the Pan American Highway is stunning. You’ll pass some of Peru’s best beaches including Huanchaco and Lambayeque.

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