TRUJILO’S cathedral and main square sit among the colourful buildings that reflect the town’s colonial history.
THE CITY OF ETERNAL SPRING
New York, London, Paris, Trujilo…no city has a richer, more bracing multicultural heritage than this colourful city in northern Peru, where the horses dance and the shamans banish your bad spirits.
‘The climate fosters an easy-going civic mood that infuses everyone’
LAID out at the edge of the sandy lowlands that separate the Pacific from the northern Andes, Trujillo is an overlooked outpost of an overlooked country. A few hundred miles north of Peru’s capital, Lima, Trujillo is a low-slung city of 900,000 inhabitants, most often associated with the production of asparagus and shoes. And, inexplicably less often, with some of the world’s greatest food, its mightiest archaeology and a huge and happy civic festival that celebrates the most gloriously explosive cultural collisions in history.
Trujillo has dubbed itself the city of eternal spring, which you soon realize is a poetic way of saying that the thin mist hanging over the town isn’t going anywhere fast. It’s a by-product of the Humboldt Current, meteorological progenitor of what everyone here somberly refers to as ‘el fenomeno del Nino (the phenomenon of el Nino). Blue-skied morning are almost unheard of, but as the day rolls on it’s an unexpected relief, this near the equator, to find the mercury hovering forgivingly in the comfort zone.
The definitively temperate climate has fostered a low-key, easy –going civic mood that infuse everyone but the swarming, horn-happy taxi drivers. Trujillo’s backstreets are a study in faded grandeur, defined by winsomely neglected colonial houses in the Hispano-Islamic fashion. The narrow pavements are thick with vendors hawking everything from puppies to quails’ eggs, but their sales patter is scrupulously restrained. At regular intervals a recorded chorus of Happy Birthday blares out of a shop, followed by gentle applause.
The main square, the plaza mayor, exudes an appropriate sense of venerable calm. Its polished flagstones are flanked by stately palms and smart, old civic structures, painted bright blue and yellow by the colonists as a counterpoint to the milky skies. Icon-toting religious processions file regularly into the twin-towered cathedral.
It’s appropriate that one of the very few Peruvian cities given a Spanish name – the original Trujillo, back in Extremadura, Spain, was conquistador Francisco Pizarro’s hometown – should feel more Hispanic than almost anywhere else in the country. The city keeps Spanish hours: shops close in the afternoon then stay open till late, restaurants don’t fill up until 9 or 10, and elderly couples are still filing into the penas (clubs) – where the Latin music is live and the dancing obligatory – at midnight.
‘First Held in 1950, The International Spring’
GIVEN that Peru is home to by far the largest indigenous Amerindian population of any South America country, Pizarro should, by right, be despised as the foreign invader who came, saw and brutally conquered. But ethnic identity is never straightforward in this part of the world. For a start, the Incas had only been in charge of what is now Trujillo for a few decades when the conquistadors marched in, having supplanted the Chimu civilization, incumbents for the previous six centuries. The arrival of the Spanish then heralded 500 years of pan-global immigration – slaves from Africa in the 16th century, indentured hacienda labourers from China in the 17th, economic and political refugees from Germany, Italy and Britain throughout the 19th and 20th. The consequence is an energetically muddied gene pool. No-one Trujillo feels any more or less Peruvian than their neighbor, and every October they all come out into the streets to untangle the many threads in their city’s cultural DNA. The city that plays together, stays together.
Organized by local businessmen and first held in 1950, the International Spring Festival has matured into Trujilo’s big day out. The centerpiece Sunday parade sees 100-old carnival floats – sorry, ‘allegoric crat’ – trundle colourfully down avenues lined with 200,000 politely enthusiastic spectators. ‘International’ means paying garish tribute to the city’s melting-pot heritage: there are Chinses dragons, lederhosen-clad musicians and gold-masked Incan dance troupes aboard an allegoric cart dominated by a giant inflatable corn-ob. Somehow, it also means the presence of several doxen specially imported Canadian majorettes and small-town Kansas beauty queens, all wearing tan tights and expressions of deep bemusement. Perhaps they represent a commitment to multicultural inclusivity. You’d need to ask thos local businessmen.
Among the dropped batons and bowler-hatted trombonists, two svelte and graceful performers carry on their gentle artistry immune to the multicoloured chaos around. Trujillo is the spiritual home of the marinera, Peru’s national dance, and the actual home of its current champions, Ronaldo Ramirez Trujillo and Lizet Castaneda. From the formal yet sinuous grace of the dance to Lizet’s elaborate, heftily-skirted dress, the Sapnis contribution to the marinera is apparent. At the same time, there’s a lot of movement on the offbeat, and she isn’t wearing shoes. ‘The marinera is a classic mix of our cultural influences,’ says Ronaldo afterwards, ‘African slaves on the sugar haciendas saw colonial families doing Spanish dances, and mixed it with their own styles and movement. And if you look in museums, you see Incan figures making some of the poses we make.’
Most of those haciendas are still there, out in the irrigated flatlands north of Trujillo. So too are the descendants of the two horses that Pizarro brought over, selectively bred over subsequent centuries into a breed uniquely adapted to traversing the huge plantations. ‘The caballo de paso horse is like a Rolls-Royce,’ says Anibal Vasquez, an aristocratic Marlboro man who keeps a few dozen at the family’s stately hacienda in Pajian, and shows off the best of them at the Trujillo festival. ‘It has this silent, smooth gait which makes it comfortable to ride long distances.’ He insists that women still beg to be taken to the distant maternity hospital by horse rather than taking the apparently bumpier ambulance option.
The caballo de paso almost died out in the 70’s, when national pride and demand for non-mechanical transport were both at a low ebb. ‘They were seen as old-fashioned, as part of a way of life people wanted to forget about,’ remembers Vasquez, with the air of a man accustomed to having the last laugh: at auction, his horses now fetch more than the limousines he compares them to.
That much is palin at the Trujillo festival’s caballo de paso event, held at a discreet distance from town at an exclusive equesdtrian parade ground: the apparent entry requirements are a Man From Del Monte suit and a brand new Range Rover. This is the last bastion of old-money, old-school colonialism, though that hasn’t stopped a surge of populist nostalgia for the animals trotting regally around the showground. So complete is the caballo de paso’s rehabilitation that it was recently declared an official national monument, along with the likes of Machu Picchu.
The event is the essence of cultivated restraint, notwithstanding the bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label clustered on every clubhouse table at an ambitiously early hour. The horse’s small, quick steps endow a nimble precision well-suited to the dressage-type contests that predominate, and to the equestrian marinera performed as a show-closer. ‘It’s about grace, but also stamina and strength,’ says Vasquez, with a brilliant smile. ‘This horse mixes the softness of Peruvian women with the machismo of our men.’
Vasquez is a dedicated traditionalist. The sugar-cane pulp he feeds his horses is grown in the family’s hacienda, one of the very few in the valley that still harvests nothing else. The fields around are steadily annexed by a bewilderingly varied cornucopia: peach tree, garlic, star fruit, kiwi. From apples to pineapples, anything and everything flourishes in Trujillo’s doughtily benign climate, though the region’s more adventurous farmers have only just begun to realize the commercial potential of niche-market diversification. Asparagus grows here year-round, and over the past decade Trujillo has established itself as the world’s leading exporter. It’s not a low-profile business: every couple of minutes, a truck surrealy weighed down under its tousled green wig of bushy fronds rumbles past on the Pan-American Highway.
The sudden availability of what must be the world’s most complete array of ingredients has combined with Trujillo’s convoluted heritage to fuel an extraordinary surge of pride in the region’s multinational cuisine. Trujillo’s taxi drivers spontaneously rhapsodise over their country’s gastronomic splendor, insisting that a shared love of food is what unites this otherwise disparate and diverse nation. They’ll boast that Lima is now home to 23 catering academies, that Trujillo’s markets stock 2,000 varieties of potato, that Peruvian cuisine is set to be the next big thing in global foodie circles. ‘Argentina is just meat, Chile is just pasta, but we have everything. Everything!’ You get the point quite quickly, and it’s lost less tedious than having taxi drivers bang on about how great their nation is at sex or cricket. And, unusually, the taxi drivers of Trujillo are absolutely right.
The arrival of the conquistadors in Peru sparked a culinary collision whose shockwaves still reverberate. The unique indigenous staples of potato, corn and chili proved a neat fit with Spanish gastronomy, and invigorating twists were added to the mix by all those far-flung immigrants. They brought their recipes, and from olives and strawberries to ginger and rice, Peru’s climate delivered the raw ingredients. And that’s before anyone has mentioned fish, the basis of what is truly magnificent about Peruvian food in general and Trujillan food in particular.
TRUJILLO seems to shyly turn its back on the provider of this prized resource; you forget the Pacific Ocean is on the city’s doorstep until you drive out past the airport and catch it shimmering behind the dunes. A couple of miles on lies Huanchaco, a town that embrace the sea and its associated traditions, old and new: the squat, grey waves are shared by wet-suited surfers and fishermen kneeling in tiny canoes made from bundles of totora reeds in a manner that dates from pre-Colombian times.
Ceviche is the dish Trujillans nominate as their epicurean superstar, and in the incarnations served along Huanchaco’s seafront you understand why: the tender freshness of sea bass, the bite of onion, lemon and three kinds chili, the crunchy counterpoint provided by the toasted corn that accompanies it. Trujillan ceviche is fusion at its finest: native constituents play the dominant role, with strong support work from North African lemons (small, lime-like), Spanish onions and marinating techniques honed over recent decades by the nation’s many Oriental chefs.
The excellence of Trujillo’s fish cooks might also have something to do with that relationship between practice and perfection. Most pre-Columbian civilizations were enthusiastic fishermen, and a visit to the Chimu’s capital city, Chan Chan, suggests they cared about little else.
It’s an extraordinary place. Such is the scale of those mud-brick walls that even after 1,200 years of El Nino-led erosion, fro ma distance they suggest a range of mighty hills rising from the scrubby sand. At 7.6 square miles, Chan Chan is the world’s largest adobe city, home to 100,000 at its height, yet strangely ignored. There can’t be many UNESCO World Heritage sites you can have to yourself in the middle of the day. Foreign visitors are fixated on Inca sites, and the Peruvians seem overwhelmed by their embarrassment of pre-Colombian archaeological riches: one sprawling 1,500-year-old adobe pyramid complex track until the mid-80’s.
Excavation restoration work began in earnest at Chan Chan only recently, and a small team is now chipping away at the wind-sculpted detritus to reveal the vibrant reliefs on every flank of Chan Chan’s imposing administrative and religious structures. A theme emerges. There are fish, fishing nets, fishing canoes and more fish. And a pelican. ‘The Chimu trained these birds to fish for them,’ says Maria Avila Vega, Chan Chan’s principal of conservation. ‘But we do have a squirrel somewhere.’ She has been working at the site for three years, but with new murals unearthed daily, the thrill of discovery is undiminished. ‘It’s magical to find all this hidden art, to feel close to the people who made it.’
THAT bond has always been strong. Ten per cent of Peruvians still speak Quechua, a language though to predate the Incas and, despite healthy church attendance, spiritual traditions have never gone away. Amid the stacks of skinned guinea pigs and technicolour fruit at Trujillo’s Mercado mayorista (main market) lies an aisle devoted to shamanic remedies. There are deer hooves and dried frogs, herbs to lower blood pressure, soaps to raise libido. The shamanic arms-race means you can buy a love potion, a potion to Break that. There are baskets filled with hunks of the mind-altering flora so entrenched in Peruvian tradition that even the Catholics had to embrace it. The hallucinogenic cactus so prized by pre-Colombian society is today known as Sand Pedro: like heaven’s gatekeeper, it opens the doors to another world.’
San Pedro was a hit with the Moche people, who preceded the Chimu and built the region’s oldest adobe step-pyramids. As lead archaeologist at the Moche site nick named El Brujo (the witch-doctor), Dr Regulo Franco felt justified in undertaking a San Pedro all-nighter on academic grounds. ‘All the time I had a recurring vision of a puma,’ he recalls, ‘an the next week we excavated one of our most amazing finds – a headdress, decorated with pumas.’ Thus inspired, Dr Franco now offers visitors a one-on-one experience with Nofaen, a local shaman, though without the psychoactive element.
In truth, the setting is eerie enough as it is. Peruvians lived around El Brujo for 4,000 years until the late colonial era, but today the site is as dusty and bleak as Luke Skywalker’s home planet. The Moche pyramid is still turning up treasures the looters missed – in 2002, Franco’s team dug into the tomb of a female ruler, her mummy draped in gold and precious stones – but the most compelling artefacts are the blood-red reliefs that decorate the wall behind the pyramid’s yawning ceremonial plaza. On a technical level, these don’t quite match the better preserved artworks closer to Trujillo at the Huaca de la Luna-the temple of the moon. But they’re more dramatic. Naked prisoners are depicted being led to their sacrificial death; some incorporate real human bones. There’s an unsettling contrast between the brutal pageantry that took place here and the windswept desolation that now defines it.
The shaman’s lair lies some way out across the lonely sand, beyond the hollows left by shovel-mad grave-robbers. The final approach to Nofaen’s subterranean temple is a rough stairway that winds down to an ancient Moche well. Nofaen himself stands barefoot in a heavy poncho, dark skinned and red eyed. Arranged on a crud altar beside him are ceremonial accessories that blend Peru’s history with its prehistory: a postcard of the Virgin Mary, tobacco, a bottle of perfumed alcohol and a collection of burnished sticks and pebbles. Expelling the badness from your body involves applying these in a number of unexpected ways, and ends with an immersion which reveals the well’s black waters to be home to a large and inquisitive catfish. He’s probably 4,000 years old.
When Nofaen motions dismissively at your clothing and utters a brief instruction in Spanish, that innocent spring festival seems very far away. Further if you don’t speak Spanish, and only find out later that he was asking you to keep your pants on.
Machu Picchu may get all the glory, but it isn’t Peru’s only city worth exploring. Passing civilizations have left their mark along the crashing surf of Peru’s northern coast, from the adobe city of Chan Chan, to the colonial mansions of Trujillo.
Emirates flies from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to Lima, then connect toTrujillo on LAN Airlines (from US$457).
Don’t bother with public transport – buses exist but, curiously, are banned fro mcentral areas. Taxis are ubiquitous and cheap but agree a fare in advance and close your eyes at junctions.
I only had it on special occasions at home. Marmalade’s very expensive in Darkest Peru.
Modern, trim and equipped with wi-fi and cable TV, HOTEL KORIANKA is close to Trujillo’s main square and offers a decent breakfast. Best suited to those who value a quiet night more than a long lie-in – the hotel backs onto a school with a very active brass band (from US$58)
With a traditional façade and a white-painted central courtyard, the GRAN BOLIVAR HOTEL in Trujillo is steeped in ambience. It also serves the city’s best Pisco Sour – the national cocktail of lemon juice, whisked egg white and grape brandy (doubles from US$76).
The best hotel in Trujillo by far is the LIBERTADOR, situated on the main square. The smallish rooms don’t quite live up to the promise of the grand colonial exterior, but bag one overlooking the lavish pool area and you’ll have a view that atones (from US$133).
Forego your hotel breakfast, wait until 10am and squeeze in with the locals for brunch at the Salon De Te Buenos Aires. The speciality is a hefty chicarron (crunchy fried pork) bun ,brought to your table by one of the army of crisply uniformed staff (from $2; Jiron Francisco Pizarro 330-332).
Set in a rambling old mansion, Restaurant Rustica offers an authentic Peruvian buffet. Try causa (mashed yellow potato dumpling with lemon, chili and onion), pachamanca (meat cooked on hot stones) and local beer Pilsen Trujillo (buffet from $11; Jiron Bolivar 446).
Enjoy lunchtime ceviche specialities (seafood in a citrus marinade) from Restaurant Big Ben’s terrace and watch reed-boat fishermen at work($6-$24; daily until 5.30pm).
Five major archaeological sites can easily be reached from Trujillo by taxi, including CHAN CHAN, the world’s larges adobe city – though only part is open to visitors. To get more from your visit, join a tour from Trujillo such as Trujillo Tours (from $22 ) or hire a guide on-site, around $6 an hour ($3 entrance: 9am-4.30pm).
If you’ve got the energy at the end of the day, shimmy down to Restaurante Turistico Canana, a multi level, open-air dance club shaken up by a fantastic 12-piece Latin band. Warning: try to leave before 1am and the manager will personally frogmarch you back to your table ($2.80; Calle San Martin 791).
The surfing at Huanchaco beach is the best in Latin America, and at the olas Norte Surf Academy you’ll be taught by a national champion (from $47 for three days’ tuition, including board and wesuite hire,