When it comes to exploring the archeological sites around Trujillo, there is no better person to ask than Percy Valladares, whose family can trace its lineage back to Chan Chan. He has dedicated the better part of his life to sharing the Mochica/Chimu culture with the world and to protecting the Cerro Campana for future generations.
As a youngster, he and his friends would run around the desert hills in and around the outskirts of Huanchaco. One his favorite spots was the vast adobe city. He would run around its mounds of sand and play hide-and-go-seek among the uncovered walls that once belonged to an ancient civilization, not knowing that his childhood playground would one day become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Now well into his 50s, standing at over six feet tall, with broad shoulders, and possessing an ageless wisdom, Valladares is, by all interpretations, the living embodiment of one of the ten recorded “Ciquics” or Emperors of the Chimu Kingdom, a civilization that grew out of the ancient Moche Culture that built the adobe citadel of Chan Chan. As a leader of his community, his charge is to protect the culture and the land.
A tour of the kingdom from the king himself
With a wave of his hand, his subjects open the doors of the city of Chan Chan. With command he speaks of the city’s large plazas, long streets, houses, gardens, temples, reservoirs and large mausoleums where his ancestors were buried along with their wives and astounding treasures.
As he passes through the restored streets that lead to the Palacio Nik-An’s centerpiece, the massive ceremonial courtyard, it’s as if the 60,000 inhabitants, who called this city home during its peak, reawakened to once again to greet their Ciquic. As Valladares makes his way around the outside wall of the courtyard, he speaks of the legends that his people carved onto those walls.
“The waves of fish swimming in schools represent the timeless fishing tradition that is still alive just down the street in Huanchaco,” he said.
He clarifies that those carvings were more than illustrations. They were also used as a calendar to track El Niño, the weather phenomenon that has affected the Peruvian coast for thousands of years. Today, El Niño is one of the biggest enemies of Chan Chan, as its heavy rainfall erodes the city’s mud walls.
Valladares is a serious man with a stern face, though with great pride he presents the mausoleums where one of his fellow Ciquis were buried along with human sacrifices and what is left of the gold that was looted years ago by Spanish Conquistadors, avarice-driven archeologists, and local thieves. What remains are the collections of stories that Valladares heard while sitting on his grandfather’s knee as a child.
A place worth protecting
Most travelers have read about or explored the Moche Route, the well-known trail of tourist destinations that are found along the northern Peruvian coast in the regions of La Libertad and Lambayaque. Along the route are archeological sites like Chan Chan, the sister Huacas of the Sun and Moon, El Brujo, Lord of Sipan, The Lady of Cao, Huaca Esmeralda, and the town of Huanchaco, which is know as the beginning or end of the Moche Route.
Huanchaco, where many of the Moche/Chimu traditions are still alive, is known as one of the earliest homes of the sport of surfing. In fact, local legend asserts that the sport was invented on its beaches and later taken to Polynesia. But the iconic symbol of Huanchaco is the caballitos de totora or reed boat, which are still woven and used for fishing to this day. Conversely, both the surfers and the fishermen paddle out under the constant watch of the Cerro Campana, the mountain that casts a large shadow over the entire town.
Cerro Campana is a mountain that sticks out of a sea of sand and desert, and is home to more than 250 species of plants and 118 species of animals. It is home to one of the most elusive animals in all of South America, the puma.
The puma isn’t the only allusive animal that has called the Campana home. As recently as a few decades ago spectacled bears, condors, and foxes were seen on the hill. Though photographers have been able to snap a few shots of these animals in recent years, they are becoming more and more rare.
The biggest threat to these animals is urban growth. That’s one of the reasons why Valladares, in his role as president of the Association for the Rescue and Defense of Campana Hill, has worked with local and regional authorities to preserve the hill as a national landmark.
For the Moche and Chimu Cerro Campana was one of the magical and mystical Apus (gods) that protected the valley, where the city of Chan Chan and modern-day Trujillo are located. From the top of the mountain, ancient priest once paid homage to their gods by performing human sacrifices. Evidence of these human sacrifices have been found inside of Chan Chan, where ceramic pots, carvings, and other clues point to a local hilltop. Though archeologists and scholars have debated the very existence and exact location of the hill for some time, Valladares has always know of its existence, because like the ancient adobe city, the hill was another one of his childhood stomping grounds.
He hopes that soon the hill will be properly recognized and protected as a sacred ritual place for the Moche and Chimu cultures, and as wildlife sanctuary, so that locals and tourists alike can enjoy it, while preserving its history and natural beauty.
From the top of the mountain
No roads lead to the mountain and cars have yet to intrude on its peak. Valladares climbs to the top of the hill, nearly 3,250 feet, and his impressive physical prowess and courtly manner are once again on display. From the top of the hill he overlooks the Pacific Ocean, the entire town of Huanchaco, and in the distance the city of Chan Chan, the city that his people built thousands of years ago.
“My grandfather told me about a right of passage that young men had to endure many years ago,” he says. “For a young man to prove that he was strong enough to fish with his father, he had to climb to the top of this hill and collect a rose to bring home to his mother. If he survived, he became a fisherman.”
Valladares bends over and picks a purple flower that resembles the bell shape that the mountain is named after.
“This is what we’re defending,” he says. “What many people don’t know is that this green ground we’re standing on is our legacy. Some people come here to see the sacrificial altar, and that’s an important part of our history, too. But the reason it was built on this mountain was to thank the gods for giving us this land.”
Valladares smiles and stands on the mountaintop for an extra moment. Before him plays out a saga millenniums in the making. As the defender of the culture and nature, he won’t stop fighting to protect what’s in front of him.
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Diego is a Colombian-American who was raised in Morristown, NJ. He started writing short fiction when he was a teenager and has pursued creative writing as a hobby ever since. After working for multiple publications in the U.S., he moved to Peru in January 2012. Since then he’s lived and worked in Trujillo, Cusco and Lima.