561km (349 miles) N of Lima; 200km (124 miles) S of Chiclayo; 298km (185 miles) SW of Cajamarca

Trujillo, the capital of La Libertad department, is the third-largest city in Peru and one of only two of commercial importance on the entire north coast. Yet the town, founded in 1534 by Diego Almagro on the orders of Francisco Pizarro, retains the Spanish colonial feel of a much smaller town. Locals saunter along the grandly laid-out Plaza Mayor, and the downtown area is a handsome grid of streets lined with elegant, pastel-colored colonial mansions embellished by wrought-iron window grilles.

The importance of the region greatly predates the arrival of the Spaniards, however, and Trujillo is celebrated mostly for a stunning collection of pre-Columbian sites that abound on the outskirts of the city. Looming in the desert are five major archaeological sites, including two of the richest ensembles of Moche temples and ruins of the ChimĂș culture in Peru. Chan Chan, a monumental adobe complex of royal palaces covering more than 52 sq. km (20 sq. miles), is the primary draw for visitors, but archaeological tours also visit the fascinating Temples of the Moon and Sun (Huacas del Sol y de la Luna), built by the Moche culture around A.D. 500. Several of these sites have been partially restored, but they still require some imagination to conjure a sense of their immensity, the busy daily activity, and the grandeur of the ceremonies once held there.

Just northwest of Trujillo is Huanchaco, a laid-back beach resort that serves as a virtual bedroom community for many visitors, particularly younger travelers with an interest in surfing. Ideally positioned for ruins visits, Huanchaco is also a lot less hectic than Trujillo and has a better roster of cheaper small hotels, budget hostales (inns), and seaside seafood restaurants.