Colonial Trujillo is the country's third largest city and the most important city on Peru's north coast. Located eight hours' drive - or a one-hour flight - north of Lima, it makes a great base for the exploration of wonderful Chimu and Moche archaeological sites, as well as the popular beach town of Huanchaco

And every January, Trujillo is host to the Northern Marinera Festival, a week-long celebration of Peru's national dance, which is closely associated with the city. 

History: When Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru in 1532, his first order of business was conquest. Because the Inca had only recently subjugated the Chimu people, Pizarro decided to ally himself with the Chimu and build a major city in their territory. In 1534 he sent conquistador Diego de Almagro (1475 - 1538) to found a town near the Chimu capital of Chan Chan. Named after Pizarro’s birthplace of Trujillo in Spain, the city is one of the oldest colonial cities in Peru.

Trujillo declared independence from Spain in 1820, the first city in Peru to do so. In honor of this, it became the capital of the Department of La Libertad five years later. 

Architecture: Without access to timber and stone, the Spaniards built Trujillo with the best material available: adobe (mud brick). They constructed low, thick walls that kept buildings cool in the desert heat and relatively resistant to earthquakes.

Like much of the country, however, Trujillo has been regularly damaged to a greater or lesser extent by earthquakes. All the buildings date from after 1619, the year one quake completely destroyed the city. Earthquakes in 1759 and 1970 also caused substantial damage to the city.

The city’s churches and mansions display the bold ornamentation typical of the Baroque style, turning even more fanciful in the 18th century under the influence of Rococo.

In the 19th century, the delicate cast-iron railings that covered street windows became the most distinctive feature of Trujillo’s architecture. Traditionally painted white, they gleam brilliantly against the multi-hued pastel shades of the buildings in the city centre.

The best way to see Trujillo’s compact Colonial center is on foot. The traditional names of many of the city’s central streets are displayed on large, ornate plaques; the current names (used on maps and in mailing addresses) appear on smaller, simpler signs nearby.

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Aside from the Colonial architecture, a walking tour of Trujillo should be sure to include a visit to the Cassinelli Museum, which houses the best collection of ancient pottery in Trujillo, which the owner bought from huaqueros (grave robbers) over nearly half a century: several thousand ceramics from various cultures, including pieces that whistle like birds, some that represent the daily life of the Moche, and others that depict sexual practices (these cerámicas eróticas are shown on request only!). 

Environs: While Chan Chan may be the jewel in the crown of Trujillo's archaeological attractions, there are a number of other Moche and Chimu ruins that are well worth visiting. 

The Moche Huaca de la Luna is 8 km (5 miles) southeast of Trujillo. Although the smaller of a pair of temple platforms (the other is the Huaca del Sol), it is the more important, because of the polychromatic reliefs that were first discovered in 1990.

The temple is really a series of superimposed structures built over six centuries. When one temple fell out of use, the Moche simply built another on top of it, burying old murals and creating new ones, and leaving behind a mosaic of altars and walls.

Huaqueros have looted the temple, and tombs recently found in the burials were those of sacrificed prisoners rather than of important nobility, but archaeologists suspect that noble tombs still lie undiscovered.

The main temple has a 75 m (245 ft) long facade consisting of seven steps, each nearly 3 m (10 feet) high and decorated with a row of larger-than-life images. Some of the images depict humans, such as parades of armed warriors and naked prisoners, but most show mythical beings such as spiders and dragons holding decapitated human heads, or Ai-apaec, the decapitator god. Smaller temples on the site feature complicated murals of priests and animals or giant grotesque faces.  

Several hundred yards away stands the badly damaged Huaca del Sol. The largest adobe building in the world, it was constructed with an estimated 140 million bricks.

The Huacas de Moche Museum. 

The Huacas de Moche Museum. 

Between the two huacas lies a flat area containing the foundations of hundreds of rooms dedicated to a variety of industrial, religious and residential uses. Archaeologists are currently excavating the buildings, which have been used as the model for the excellent site museum which can - and should be - visited along with the archaeological site itself. 

Huaca Esmeralda, in a dodgy district between Chan Chan and Trujillo, is a two-tier Chimu platform in poor condition and best visited with a knowledgeable guide.

Huaca Arco Iris, a better-preserved Chimu temple, 4 km (2.4 miles) north of Trujillo. Visitors can climb the ramps leading to adobe panels and niches.

The highlight at El Brujo, a fascinating coastal complex 60 km (37 miles) northwest of Trujillo, is Huaca Cao, a Moche pyramid in which archaeologists unearthed a 1,500-year-old, tattooed, female mummy. 'The Lady of Cao' was wrapped in a cotton funerary bundle with pieces of gold and jewelry, indicating her high status. Her grave contained numerous clubs and spears, unusual in Moche culture.

In previous Moche burials, women were sacrificed to accompany a nobleman into the afterlife. No one yet knows why this noblewoman was tattooed or why she was buried with so many weapons.  

The temple platform where the mummy was found is decorated with reliefs similar to those uncovered at Huaca de la Luna.

From the summit, you can see Huaca El Brujo, a much larger Moche site, and the oldest garbage dump in Peru, coastal Huaca Prieta. Archaeologists have deduced much from these 5,000-year-old discards.

How to Visit: Trujillo, with its good connections to and from Lima, and the attraction of pre-Colonial ruins and Colonial architecture, coupled with a coastal location, make it a wonderful start or end point to our longer overland itineraries: 

It is also a great destination in its own right and gateway to some of Peru's best surfing, so included in the following shorter itineraries: