What is Chan Chan?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan
Man with a backpack
Man with a backpack

Chan Chan is an enormous ancient city in Peru. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1986. Chan Chan is considered endangered by UNESCO, as driving rains have caused substantial damage to the sandstone structures. Chan Chan served as the capital city for the mighty kingdom of Chimor until the 15th century.

The kingdom of Chimor was a powerful kingdom of the Chimu people, which ruled over the entire northern coast of Peru from the 9th century to the end of the 15th century. It was far and away the largest kingdom of the era, and at its height encompassed roughly two-thirds of the Andean people. Chimor was a powerful kingdom when the Inca began to ascend in the region, but even they were ultimately no match for the powerful Inca.

Chan Chan was a mud city, built with adobe and covered with a smooth plaster that could then be carved. It covered more than 11 square miles (18 sq. km), making it the largest city in South America before Western contact. At its height, more than 30,000 inhabited Chan Chan, and it served as the imperial seat for the Chimor until their defeat by the Inca.

Chan Chan is surrounded by walls some 60 feet (18m) high, and is roughly rectangular in shape. It contains ten enormous citadels, also walled, which have some residential spaces inside, but are predominantly for rooms for religious rites, burial chambers, and food and water storage. Chan Chan is something of a labyrinth, with so many enormous walls, and the Inca would later borrow many of the layout concepts for their own cities. Chan Chan also contains some ten-thousand distinct dwelling places, making it an enormous residential center.

The walls of Chan Chan are carved all over. These carvings take two main forms. One is quite realistic, depicting different animals, while the other shows the same subjects, but in a much more abstracted style. The carvings at Chan Chan focus predominantly on scenes of the ocean, with fishing nets, various fish, and sea birds all playing a large role.

Chan Chan is well worth a visit for any traveler in the region. This city is absolutely enormous, and the scope of it is really conveyed by being there. At one point in history it was truly among the largest cities in the world, and the maze-like wall structures and seemingly endless dwelling places all help reinforce that feeling.

Chan Chan is arrived at by coming through the city of Trujillo. A taxi can be hired to take you to the entrance of the site, and buses also make the trip regularly. The site is accessible on foot, and it can easily take a day to get a good feel for the entirety of the place. The ticket for entrance also includes entrance to a small museum that can help give some background on the site, as well as two other nearby and fascinating ruins, the Huaca Arco Iris and the Huaca Esmerelda.

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Discussion Comments

Sandra Williams

Chan Chan archaeological zone in Peru is being largely threatened by changes in climatic conditions. Due to heavy rains and strong winds, serious damage has been wrought on the historic structure.

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