“This Moche god had the eyes of an owl, the tentacles of an octopus and the teeth of a jaguar,” our guide said. “Now, this creature does not exist, so how did they see it? Simple: they were really, really high.”
As we stood atop the Huaca Cao Viejo, armed with nothing stronger than a bottle of water, we were asked to do something similar: to envision a once-grand city where today there is desert and sugar cane.
It’s a challenge that greets any visitor to an archaeological site, but at the El Brujo complex, it’s a little more complicated. The Moche built their pyramids with mud bricks, and when the El Niño rains came in the late sixth century (and again many times after that), the buildings melted away. Today, they look more like half-washed-away sandcastles or dirt mounds than the towering palaces they once were.
However, this process of destruction yielded a surprising result. As the top layers of the pyramids washed down onto the lower levels, they sealed them in, protecting them from the elements.
Huaca El Brujo, as seen from atop Huaca Cao Viejo (Photo: Nick Rosen)
This proved irresistible to grave-robbers, and the Spanish colonists founded a settlement nearby with the main goal of extracting as much of the Moche gold as possible out of Huaca El Brujo and Huaca Cao Viejo. They left huge gashes in both buildings, but they also left a lot of undiscovered riches for modern generations to uncover.
The temple wall on Cao Viejo rises up five stories above the main ceremonial plaza, where human sacrifices were performed in front of the city’s residents. 1700-year old murals, still plainly visible, portray vanquished soldiers being led to the spot where their blood would be offered to the gods.
The main plaza at the Huaca Cao Viejo (Photo: Nick Rosen)
The greatest discovery at the site, however, was made by an archaeological team in 2006. In a tomb high up the side of the pyramid, researchers investigating an elaborately-painted burial chamber found the mummified remains of a fourth-century Moche ruler. What shocked researchers, and the world, was that those remains belonged to a woman.
The burial chamber, Huaca Cao Viejo (Photo: Nick Rosen)
1500 years before South America had its first female head of state, the Dama de Cao (or Señora de Cao) governed from this pyramid. Over the last six years, her story has spread far and wide: a replica of her mummy has toured the world, and NatGeo ran a widely-publicized documentary about her. Yet the Dama de Cao’s resting place is a small museum located at the base of the pyramid.
The remains of the Dama de Cao (Photo: Renzo Tasso/PromPerú)
Today, visitors can tour both the burial chamber and the museum, where the mummy is displayed along with the many precious artifacts found buried with it. After visiting the museum, it becomes a bit easier to imagine the Dama de Cao standing atop the pyramid and looking out over what was once a busy city and port.
As we leave the ruins, there is a nice breeze from the ocean, but the sun is strong. It is time to return to the present day.
Visiting El Brujo
El Brujo is about 45 minutes away from Trujillo. The simplest way to visit El Brujo is with a tour from the city. Most leave from the Centro Historico and include about two hours at the site and the museum. With a Spanish guide, the cost is S/. 30-50. Expect to pay more for a tour with an English guide.
By public transportation, the trip is a bit longer, as it involves taking a combi to Chocope, then another combi to Magdalena de Cao, a charming little town a few kilometers the ruins. From there, some people walk to El Brujo, but it’s highly recommended to take a taxi or mototaxi. They should wait for you while you visit the site.
Admission is S/. 10. Guides can be hired at the site. A small gift shop sells souvenirs and water. There are more shopping opportunities in Magdalena.