Exploring the Remote Peruvian Town That Was Once the Largest City in the Americas

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The view is much different today.

For a minute, pretend that you don’t know what the traditional definition of beauty is when it comes to a destination. Push aside your thoughts of blue waters, sandy beaches, and palm-tree lined roads. Instead, look up Chan Chan—a pre-Colombian city in Peru. The endangered town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

Not only is it fun to say, but Chan Chan is also home to some major history. The area is an archeological dig site and you would assume so after a few minutes in the area. According to Smithsonian Magazine, more than 600 years ago, Chan Chan was the largest city in both North and South America, but today it’s more barren desert scene than bustling hub. Don’t get me wrong; Chan Chan is beautiful for so many reasons and one of them is its ability to make you feel like you’re on a different planet altogether.

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In the past, access to water was a major issue for the area. Today, intense rainfall threatens to take away what remains of the city forever. While there is no written record of the city and its citizens—the original locals had no written language—you can still see the outline of the canals that were built to bring water from the sea to support the people and plantlife in Chan Chan. This canal system was the heart of Chan Chan, an intelligent way to allow the local people and wildlife to thrive, if only for a relatively short amount of time.

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Related: Inside Peru's Hidden Desert Oasis

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The palaces and compounds are the only areas that bear any resemblance to their past lives now. But in the city’s heyday in the 15th century, Chan Chan also housed various work centers (think textiles and woodworking) and farms along the outskirts of the main city center. There’s only one place visitors can enter: Tschudi Palace. It’s the only restored structure and looks vastly different than its surroundings, with a gift shop and visitor center. The walls throughout the Tschudi Palace and the other structures are all part of the ingenious building techniques. The 10-meter-tall, four-meter-thick walls were constructed with the intent of surviving earthquakes. You’ll also spot holes in various spots along the walls, an attempt to thwart strong sea winds in some cases and in others a way to bring a slight breeze into the compounds.

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If you’re heading to Peru, there’s a good chance you’re looking to see some ancient ruins in person—most likely at Machu Picchu, the floating Uros Islands, or in Cusco. But don’t limit yourself. Chan Chan offers a different view, one without the greenery or intense mountain hike, a boat ride through calm waters, or a bustling city center of historic structures in use, but it’s just as awe-inspiring. It’s like walking into the past, as you stroll through the massive mud brick gate.

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There are a few ways to get to Chan Chan, the easiest is from the nearby city of Trujilo. From there, you can grab a bus directly to the site. You can also take a bus from Lima, but it’ll cost you $22 and take between 10 and 12 hours to get to your destination. Once you get to Chan Chan, there is a small entry fee (less than $4). If you’re looking to hire a guide, expect to pay another $10 or so. Fun fact: Your entry fee also gets you access to Peru’s largest adobe pyramid, the Moon and Sun Temple in Trujilo, so don’t miss that. You can read more about Chan Chan and how to plan your visit on Peru Hop.