Trujillo’s Decapitators from Outer Space – Trujillo, Peru, South America

Outside on the street there was an eerie quiet. Hardly a car or taxi moved. And it wasn't just because it happened to be Sunday. No, today was more than a holiday. It was the final match of the mundial, World Cup. Everyone in Trujillo, including us, had gone inside to find a television.

Like the rest of South America, Peruvians take their futbol pretty serioiusly. Had a South American team been in the running, there might have been bonfires. As it was, we had a fairly sedate time, grabbing a wooden table inside the cafe of the Hotel Colonial where we ordered beers and made friends with the people seated around us.

I like soccer. I don't really watch it much or follow the teams, but over the years, I've made room for it in my heart, alongside other favorite sports like college football, ski jumping and badminton. In fact, I only have one complaint about the game and it is this. In most sports, playing through pain is considered part of the game. But in soccer, even the slightest collision will send both men to the ground, writhing in supposed agony, all but weeping openly and calling for their mothers in hopes their theatrics will draw a sympathetic foul from the referees. It's unmanly.

In any event, I had a fine time, shouting at the screen, striking up conversations during the commercials. One of the most interesting was with Carlos, a thin, dark-haired man in his 50s, who introduced himself as a newspaper reporter. He looked the part – with his tweed jacket and double cocktail. After talking with him for a few minutes, though, I realized he was actually a bit of a nut.

The issue centered around, of all things, ancient architecture. I was explaining my appreciation for Inca building techniques when he suddenly became dismissive.

"Those stones are too massive," he said, leaning over in his chair. "Some of them weigh 10 to 20 tons, and they're perfectly fitted together. You tell me how they did that."

"Good planning and a lot of manual labor," I began. But he cut me off with a wave of his arm.

"You know about the Nazca lines?" he asked.

Oh Jeezus, I thought. Here it comes. "They were for spaceships. Aliens have been visiting Peru for thousands of years."

I get more sad than angry when I hear this kind of talk – especially from locals. After centuries of colonialism and corruption, there is now a palpable sense of ownership and pride among the people for their pre-Columbian heritage. So when someone says that aliens instead of their ancestors built the country's greatest cultural monuments, it seems somehow self-loathing. Maybe I'm reading too much into it. Truth is, ancient monuments have been on my mind a lot lately – two of the largest and most impressive earthworks of the entire ancient world are located on the outskirts of Trujillo.

The morning before the soccer match, we'd taken a bus ride out to Huaca del Sol and Huaca de Luna – the temples of the sun and moon. These are two giant earthen pyramids located in a windswept desert valley about 20 minutes from downtown. You head out a wide avenue, past the auto repair shops and video stores, until the concrete buildings peter out into desert and scrub. Then you make a turn and realize the sandy hills on your left aren't hills at all. Somebody built them.

Completed by the Moche culture about 450 A.D., the pyramids were built up by successive rulers over at least eight distinct periods. The larger of the two, the Huaca Del Sol, stands 135 feet tall and is thought to contain over 100 MILLION adobe bricks,or, at least, it once did. During the 1600s, the Spanish diverted a nearby river and used the force of the water to wash away nearly two-thirds of the structure in their search for gold. The proportions are still epic, but it's not so much the size that impressed me, but the artwork. Even though the pyramids stand in a gray waste of sand, the few ancient walls that have been uncovered by archaeologists are awash in colorful paintings and elaborate molded designs. It's not by accident.

The Moche were some of the best potters the world has produced. Their jars and figurines are full of expression and humanity, depicting kings and slaves, animals and deities, as well as graphic sexual scenes. They were not shy. Nor were they timid. The Moche worshipped a deity known as "The Decapitator", whose savage face forms the centerpiece of most of the artwork on the walls. He wasn't just for show, either. The skeletons of dozens of decapitated bodies – likely sacrificial victims – have been found in the ruins.

Today the only ruin you can visit is the Huaca de Luna, where we were led up and down through a maze of levels, each of which has a distinct artistic style and geometrical rhythm. It's not a particularly fancy excavation. In places, crude thatched roofs have been built to protect the walls from rain, and often thin railings are all that separate you from a fall into a tomb. But there's no hiding the crafsmanship. Perhaps the most impressive part is outside where they've exposed a cross section of the entrance walls that show how, over time, each successive ruler put his own artistic stamp on the pyramid. It's like viewing an eighty-foot layer cake, with colorful rings of figures and serpents marching across a seven-story wall of white adobe.

In their heyday, the pyramids must have been a jaw-dropping vision. But even a glimpse of the old walls is still enough to let my imagination run back to a valley filled with adobe houses, workshops and irrigated fields of green; of streets filled with artisans and priests and warriors, all coming and going beneath massive walls exploding with electric yellows, glossy blacks, and juicy reds.

But nowhere amidst all of that do I see a single spaceship.

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