Among Peru’s large cities, Chiclayo stands out as an underdog with a humble beginning. The city began as a mule watering spot between the opulent cities of Ferreñafe, Lambayeque, and Zaña, which were founded by the Spanish between 1550 and 1565. But in a twist of history, these once-proud Spanish towns have withered while mestizo Chiclayo has boomed in recent years as the commercial hub of northern Peru.
There is not much colonial architecture in Chiclayo, but there are a few things you will not find elsewhere: a crooked street layout based on winding farmers’ lanes and a witches’ market that sells potions and amulets.
Chiclayo is northern Peru’s number-one travel destination because of the Moche and Sicán cultures, which built elaborate cities and tombs in the surrounding desert from A.D. 100 until the arrival of the Inca in 1470. The Moche tombs of the royal lord and priest of Sipán were unearthed in 1987 and 1991, respectively, stunning archaeologists with their complexity and beauty.
They were finds as important in Latin American history as the unearthing of Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt. After several world tours, the gold objects from these tombs and three other royal tombs are on display at the state-of-the-art Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán in Lambayeque.
The Moche empire declined around A.D. 750 and a new culture known as the Sicán (or Lambayeque) emerged to build Batán Grande, a complex of pyramids 57 kilometers outside Chiclayo. In 1991 Japanese archaeologist Izumi Shimada discovered two royal Sicán tombs, filled with beautiful gold masks, jewelry, and solid-gold disk earrings that rival those of the Lords of Sipán. The objects are now on display at Museo Sicán in Ferreñafe, another fascinating, well-designed museum that is a must-see.
Around A.D. 1050, the Sicán, frustrated by an El Niño-spurred drought, set fire to Batán Grande and built the even more elaborate city of Túcume, which is 33 kilometers north of present-day Chiclayo. Túcume’s 26 adobe pyramids, reduced by time to dirt mountains, are spread through a dramatic desert at the base of Cerro Purgatorio.
Other sites of interest around Chiclayo include Zaña, an affluent colonial city that is now a ghost town of stone arches, columns, and church facades; Huaca Rajada (Cracked Pyramid), the twin adobe pyramids where the Lords of Sipán were found; Monsefú, a market town known for its woven straw and cotton goods; and Santa Rosa, a beach and fishing village with caballitos de tótora and a few good cebicherías.
It is possible, but not recommended, to see both the Sipán and Sicán museums in a single exhausting day. A better option is to follow the cultures and visit the Sicán sites—Batán Grande, Museo Sicán, and possibly Túcume—in one day; the Sipán sites—Huaca Rajada, Museo Tumbas Reales, and finally Museo Bruning—another day; and on a third day visit the optional sites of Zaña, Monsefú, and Santa Rosa.
Getting to Chiclayo
Flights arrive at Aeropuerto José Abelardo Quiñones Gonzáles (Bolognesi s/n, tel. 074/23-3192, 7 a.m.–11 p.m. daily), which is two kilometers east of downtown. Taxis should not cost more than US$1.50.
Many buses to Chiclayo travel only at night. Bus terminals are spread out along Bolognesi, five blocks or more from the main park. For traveling to and from Lima, we recommend three companies: Oltursa (Balta 598, tel. 074/23-7789, www.oltursa.com.pe); Cruz del Sur (Bolognesi 888, tel. 074/22-5508, 6 a.m.–10 p.m. daily); and Linea (Bolognesi 638, tel. 074/23-3497, www.transporteslinea.com.pe, 4:30 a.m.–11 p.m. daily). Linea also has regular buses to Chimbote, Piura, Cajamarca, Huaraz, and Jaén. Movil Tours (Bolognesi 195, tel. 074/27-1940, www.moviltours.com.pe) has two buses a day to and from Chachapoyas (US$9, 10 hours) or Tarapoto (US$11, 13 hours).
If you would like to hire a car for the day, Juan Arrieta Huancas (Peru 167, tel. 074/25-2128, movilidadarrieta [at] latinmail [dot] com) is an honest and cautious taxi driver.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition