The highly evolved Chimú civilization emerged in A.D. 900 after the decline of the Moche culture and stretched 1,300 kilometers from Chancay, near present-day Lima , to Tumbes . It was Peru’s largest pre-Inca empire, and its capital was Chan Chan, now reduced to 20 square kilometers (4,940 acres) of eroded adobe. The city was abandoned in the 1470s, when Chan Chan was overrun by the army of Inca general Túpac Yupanqui.
In its heyday, Chan Chan was an elaborately sculpted and painted adobe city with nine-meter-high walls and an intricate complex of ramps, courtyards, passages, terraces, towers, gardens, palaces, and homes for an estimated 30,000–60,000 people. One of the most important archaeological sites in Peru, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, which has helped protect it somewhat from looting.
At the center of the ruined city are 10 royal compounds, or ciudadelas, built by successive Chimú dynasties, that cover six square kilometers (2.3 square miles). Only the upper strata of Chimú society was allowed to enter these palaces, through a single north entrance that breached massive walls.
The palaces were used during the life of the king and then sealed and converted into a mausoleum upon his death, a custom also followed by the Inca in Cusco . The most often visited of these is Ciudadela Tschudi, which some say has been restored too much, but the signed pathway helps visitors make sense of it all.
From the entrance, the pathway leads into a vast walled plaza, where religious ceremonies were once held. The king sat on a throne near a ramp at the front of the square and was flanked by hundreds of priests and other court attendants, while human sacrifices were made on an altar in the center of the square. The walls are decorated with reliefs of sea otters/squirrels—a fertility symbol passed down from Moche times—and cormorants.
The acoustics of the plaza are stunning: the ocean, more than a kilometer away, roars on a windless day. From the plaza, the circuit continues down a corridor decorated with pelicans and zigzagging fish designs that probably represented the ocean tide and currents. On the opposite wall are diamond-shaped designs of fishing nets, a motif throughout Chan Chan. This passageway leads to a more intimate square with a ceremonial altar (now covered in adobe to preserve it) and U-shaped audience chamber.
One of the more surprising sights of Tschudi, given the desert surroundings, is a pool with a marsh reed at one end that was probably once a pleasure garden for Chimú royalty and a place for worshipping the moon. Unlike the Inca, the Chimú apparently valued the moon over the sun because it comes out during both day and night and controls the oceans. It was here that El Niño rains in 1983 uncovered two adolescent sacrifice victims, one with a mask of gold and another with a collar of jungle seeds used in shamanic rituals.
At the back of the palace complex is the royal tomb surrounded by niches where human sacrifices were probably placed. Most of Chan Chan’s tombs, once laden with gold and silver objects, were ransacked as early as Inca times, according to colonial documents.
Near the end of the circuit, there are warehouses and a ceremonial hall with 24 niches that were probably used for idols. The nearby Museo Chan Chan does not have much of interest except for a collection of tumi knives and a display showing the evolution of Chimú pottery.
The US$3.50 admission to Chan Chan (9 a.m.–4:30 p.m. daily) includes Huaca Arco Iris , Huaca Esmeralda , and the museum. Excellent guides wait daily in the Chan Chan parking lot. Guides generally charge US$6 for Chan Chan, or US$17, including transport, for the four Chimú sites covered in the ticket.
Wandering through the endless maze of ruins outside of Chan Chan’s Tschudi Palace is not advised, as assaults on tourists have been reported—especially during the daily change of police guard between noon and 2 p.m. The neighborhood around Huaca Arco Iris  and especially Huaca Esmeralda  can also be dangerous. We recommend a guided tour that includes all of these sites plus the museum—you’ll learn more and will be relaxed and safe.
For US$8, a taxi will make the round-trip from Trujillo  and wait while you are in the ruins. Or, if you are traveling with another person, take the Huanchaco  combi or colectivo along España or, even safer, from the main stop at Óvalo Grau where the Museo Cassinelli  is. Ask the driver to let you off at the Cruce de Chan Chan (7 km) and walk a few hundred meters down a dirt road that leads to the ruins, which is safe as long as you are accompanied by another person.