Chan Chan, The Largest Pre-Colombian City In South America

The Chimu State or also called the Kingdom of Chimor was an Andean civilization established in Peru around 850 AD. It was one of the cultures conquered by the Inca in 1470. Its capital, Chan Chan, was the largest pre-Colombian city in South America. Located today in the region of La Libertad approximately five kilometers west of Trujillo.

This ancient city covers a staggering twenty square kilometers with a dense urban center of six square kilometers. It was the imperial capital called home for over fifty thousand people.


Wall in the Huaca Dragon or Arco Iris. Image Credit: wikipedia
Wall in the Huaca Dragon or Arco Iris. Image Credit: Wikipedia

The ruins of Chan Chan are in a fairly good condition, mainly due to the fact that the region does not have much rainfall it was a city built of adobe brick, one of the biggest adobe cities in the world in fact. The center of the city is incredible, the design and architecture present at Chan Chan can be compared to other incredible sites in Peru.


Archeologists have discovered pyramidal temples, cemeteries, gardens, reservoirs, and symmetrically arranged rooms in the center of the city that consisted of several walled citadels.


The economy of this incredible city complex was based on agriculture supported by a complex irrigation system which was much needed in a region that was extremely dry. The area where the city stands today is believed to have been extremely fertile due to the irrigation system that brought water from the Moche river. Extensive agricultural areas and signs of the irrigation system have been found further to the north, east and west of the city. Archaeologists have baptized this ancient city as an absolute masterpiece of town planning.

The access to a regular water supply was critical in the foundation of the city, and its existence depended solely on the development of a complex irrigation system. The ancient city of Chan Chan was first excavated in the 1960’2 but an extremely large section of this city is still uncovered. Among their citizens, archeologists suggest that highly gifted craftsmen lived in Chan Chan producing fine textiles, gold silver, and copper objects.

The Chimu empire was well known for their extremely well-planned cities, having large, flat-topped buildings for the nobility and incredibly well-decorated adobe pyramids that served as temples. their temples were decorated with golden items that were fabricated by their extremely talented goldsmiths, who were even recognized by the Incas.

According to archaeologists, their extensive knowledge in irrigation, architecture, and design could have been attributed to the fact that the Mochica, a culture that predates the Chimu, migrated from Central America into this region bringing this extensive knowledge from a more advanced civilization, like the Maya. Legend has that Chan Chan was founded around 850 AD by the figure of Taycanamo, who came by boat accompanied by a royal fleet.

After having established the city, Taycanamo left his son, Si-Um in charge of the city and disappearing into the western horizon. Another legend, perhaps more mythological says that the city was founded by a dragon, creator of the sun and the moon, whose earthly manifestation was a rainbow. Unlike the Inca who worshiped the Sun, the Chimu culture viewed the sun as a destroyer most likely due to their desert environment. The Chimu worshiped the moon.

The first European to have set foot on Chan Chan soil is believed to be Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro around 1532. The city was looted and pillaged by Spanish treasure hunters in the past, and by Huaqueros (‘grave robbers’) in the modern day. Even though the Huaqueros are a threat to this ancient city, the harsh conditions that govern in the region represent a greater threat, mostly due to “El Niño” phenomenon which has caused considerable damage to this historical city. Chan Chan was added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on November 28 of 1986.

Even though it is now located among ruined walls and gateways, the Tschudi temple-citadel is possibly one of the must-see places if you plan on visiting this ancient city. By sitting in one room and whispering, you can actually bear witness to an unusual acoustic sound effect, making this simply designed council room amplify all sounds, making the rooms seem like they are connected.

One of the most beautiful Chimu temples, Huaca La Esmeralda which was accidentally discovered in 1925, is located just a couple of kilometers before the Tschudi Temple, this sacred temple located on the very edge of the town, is believed to have been built in the twelfth or early thirteenth century.

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