One of the most important archaeological sites in Peru (although, in its present state it might not seem as "complete" to the layman observer as some of the Inca stone ruins in the highlands), Chan Chan is an enormous adobe city in the Moche valley, just 5km (3 miles) from Trujillo. The great capital of the Chimú Empire, which stretched some 966km (600 miles) along the northern coast of Peru from Lima to the Ecuadorian border, is the largest complex of its kind from pre-Columbian America. The urban Chimú was the chief state in Peru before the continental conquest of the Inca Empire. Begun around 1300, it reaches all the way from Huanchaco port to Campana Mountain, an area covering more than 25 sq. km (9 3/4 sq. miles) of desert floor.

First excavated in the mid-1960s, the crumbling mud city was once home to perhaps as many as 60,000 inhabitants. In all, the UNESCO Cultural Mankind Heritage Monument comprises more than a dozen citadels and a maze of living quarters, thick defensive walls, ramps, plazas, gardens, workshops, warehouses, narrow streets, a huge reservoir, a royal cemetery, and pyramidal temples. Nine palaces were the personal domains of Chimú chieftains; when one died, he was buried in an elaborate ritual in the palace and a new royal compound was built for his successor. These were almost certainly overflowing with gold and silver riches, and were later ransacked not by the Incas, but by the Spaniards and subsequent huaqueros (grave robbers, or treasure hunters). The fragile buildings themselves have fallen victim to erosion caused by recurring El Niño floods; in 1986, Chan Chan was listed on World Heritage Sites in Danger due to both physical erosion and acts of continued pillaging.

The Chimú kingdom began around A.D. 1000 and reached its apex in the 15th century before succumbing to the Incas in 1470 and 1471, after more than a decade of resistance. Today one can only imagine what this massive complex looked like and the sophisticated society that once inhabited it. Unfortunately, no written records or documents aid our understanding of the establishment of the city or reconstruct the daily activities that took place there. Long walls are embellished with friezes of geometric figures, stylized birds and fish, ocean motifs, and mythological creatures -- although some might be considered a bit too impeccably restored. There are no doors or arches in the entire complex, and there are no stairs -- only ramps.

There are four main sites at Chan Chan, all spread over a large area that requires either a lot of walking or a couple of taxi rides. The principal complex, named the Tschudi Palace for a 19th-century Swiss explorer, has been partially restored, and a walking tour is indicated by painted arrows. The royal palace was home to a noble population of 500 to 1,000. The first area of interest is a ceremonial courtyard decorated with aquatic-themed friezes. The original walls were 18m (59 ft.) high. Just beyond the courtyard are walls with interesting friezes of fish and seabirds. The most fascinating component of the palace is the large area known as the Sanctuary, whose walls are textured like fishing nets. Although Chan Chan contains the ruins of an additional eight royal compounds, none has been restored like Tschudi, and very little can be seen or understood from viewing them.

The Museo de Sitio de Chan Chan, along the road back toward Trujillo, has a small collection of ceramics from Chan Chan and some exhibits about the nature of the city and its history. The museum is equipped with an auditorium and models of Chan Chan; an audio and light presentation is given in English as well as Spanish. The museum is at least a 20-minute walk from Tschudi Palace.

Huaca Esmeralda and Huaca Arco Iris are two smaller pyramidal temples that are rather removed from the main palace. They are included in the Chan Chan ticket, but one must go to either the museum or Tschudi Palace first. Huaca Esmeralda is in the Mansiche district, midway between Chan Chan and Trujillo (several blocks behind the church, to the right). The huaca consists of a couple platforms and some friezes that have not yet been restored; although they are less impressive than others, at least visitors get a clear chance to see original reliefs.

Huaca Arco Iris (Rainbow Temple, also called Huaca El Dragón), lies in the La Esperanza suburb a couple kilometers from Trujillo, west of the Pan-American Highway. It is in much better condition than Huaca Esmeralda, having been excavated only in the 1960s, and its well-conserved rainbow-shaped friezes are fascinating. Some have interpreted the central motif to be that of a dragon. Outer walls have reliefs of snakes and peculiar lizards. The fairly large structure has several ramps, and visitors can climb to platforms at the top of the temple.

To visit all the sites, you'll need the better part of a day. Many people choose to break up the visit over 2 days. A visit can begin at either Tschudi Palace or at the Museo de Sitio, transferring between them by bus or taxi, and then going to the adjunct temple sites by taxi.