North Coast

The story of Sipán reads like an Indiana Jones movie script: buried treasure, huaqueros (grave robbers), police, archaeologists and at least one killing. The archaeological site was discovered by huaqueros from the nearby hamlet of Sipán. The Moche site is located about 30km southwest of Chiclayo. The story of Sipán's discovery is almost as interesting as the remarkable collection of artifacts that were found in its tombs.

When local archaeologist Dr Walter Alva saw a huge influx of intricate objects on the black market in early 1987, he realized that an incredible burial site was being ransacked in the Chiclayo area. Careful questioning led Dr Alva to the Sipán mounds. To the untrained eye the mounds look like earthen hills, but in AD 300 these were huge truncated pyramids constructed from millions of adobe bricks.

At least one major tomb had already been pillaged, but fast protective action by local archaeologists and police stopped further plundering. Luckily several other tombs that the grave robbers had missed were unearthed, including an exceptional royal Moche burial that became known as the Lord of Sipán. One huaquero was shot and killed by police in the early, tense days of the struggle over the graves. The Sipán locals were not too happy at losing what they considered their treasure trove. To solve this problem, the locals were invited to train to become excavators, researchers and guards at the site, which now provides steady employment for many. The full story was detailed by Dr Alva in the October 1988 and June 1990 issues of National Geographic, and the May 1994 issue of Natural History.

The Lord of Sipán turned out to be a major leader of the Moche people, indicated by his elaborate burial in a wooden coffin surrounded by hundreds of gold, ceramic and semiprecious mineral objects, as well as an entourage consisting of his wife, two girls, a boy, a military chief, a flag bearer, two guards, two dogs and a llama. Another important tomb held the sacerdote (priest), who was accompanied into the afterlife with an equally impressive quantity of treasures, as well as a few children, a guardian whose feet were cut off and a headless llama. Archaeologists don’t understand why the body parts were removed, but they believe that important members of the Moche upper class took with them in death those who composed their retinues in life.

Some of the tombs have been restored with replicas to show what they looked like just before being closed up more than 1500 years ago. Opposite the entrance is the Museo de Sitio Sipán, opened in January 2009, which is worth a visit – but note that the most impressive artifacts, such as the Lord of Sipán and the Sacerdote, were placed in the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán in Lambayeque after going on world tour. Spanish- and English-speaking guides can be hired at the gate for S40 and parts of the sight are accessible to wheelchairs.

Daily guided tours are available from tour agencies in Chiclayo for around S40, including transportation and a guide; they usually also stop at Tucumé. If you want to go independently, buses for Sipán (S3, 45 minutes) leave frequently from Chiclayo’s Terminal de Microbuses Epsel.

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