Peru's coast is one of the most arid regions on Earth, and yet is one of the "cradles of civilization." Why? Intermintant rivers flowing from the Andean highlands leave ribbons of green valleys that Peru's ancient civilizations expertly utilized through irrigation. What's more, the cold water current that runs along this coast is home to the most fertile fishing waters in the world.
Nowadays the ultra-bleak landscape is interrupted by urban sprawl emananting from these same river-based centers. I gave up the Andean highlands for this? I sometimes ask myself. The draw, however, is a series of major archealogical sites, many of which have only recently been discovered and are still undergoing excavation, making this region one of the most exciting archaeological zones in the world.
Several civilizations, namely the Moche, Chimu, and Sicán, built, by ancient standards, huge cities and pyramid complexes. Túcume, a site I visited near Chiclayo, for instance, includes the remnants of at least two dozen Sicán pyramids in the shadow of a small mountain. The Chimu city of Chan Chan was the largest city of the pre-Columbian Americas.
The primary reason these cultures are not as world-famous as the Aztecs or Mayans is that their structures where built using adobe bricks rather than stones. El Niño weather patterns - infrequent periods of extreme rain brought on by a cyclical influx of warm water currents - have severely damaged these sites over the centuries (and are the most likely cause of decline for several of the cultures that flourished here.) Most of the pyramids are barely recognizable as such, resembling little more than sandy hills. Add to that the wholesale pillaging of the Spanish conquistadors, and it's not at as aesthetically impressive as one might hope.
However, beneath these sand-piles lies a different story. Archaeologists have begun to uncover what local graverobbers (huaqueros) have been exploiting for years; huge treasure troves of ancient artifacts. At Sipán archaeologists discovered several intact tombs of royalty and other aristocrats, with massive amounts of finely wrought jewelry, much of it in solid gold and silver. Sipán itself is counted among the most important archaeological finds of the last few decades, and among the most important in South America ever. The artifacts were important enough to merit their own state-of-the-art museum, built by the Japanese (which, while wonderfully done, sadly does not allow photography.)
In addition to staggering amounts of precious metals, many of the sites include stunningly preserved adobe friezes. The Huaca de la Luna, near Trujillo, is a massive site undergoing extensive excavation, and gives us the best idea yet of how beautiful these structures once were.
Considering the number of currents digs, and the wealth of known but unexplored sites, we should expect a steady stream of major discoveries ahead, and for the fame of this region and its cultures to grow.