Northern Peru

Zaña, the Peruvian ghost town that still lives

By Nick Rosen

300 years after it was supposedly destroyed and abandoned, life goes on in this “ghost town” near Chiclayo.

Zaña, the Peruvian ghost town that still lives

San Agustín Convent, Zaña. All photos by author.

When we arrived in Zaña, guidebook in hand, we asked the mototaxista to take us to the ghost town.

He looked apologetic. “The thing is, as you can see, the ghost town has a lot of people living here. But come on, I\‘ll take you to the ruins.” He led us two blocks from the village\‘s Plaza de Armas, to the haunting skeleton of the old San Agustín convent.

The “ghost town” is his hometown, his parents\’ hometown, his grandparents\’ hometown, but he was used to hearing that no one lived there. “Everyone says it\‘s a ghost town because the Spanish left in 1720, but we blacks never left.”

Today, Zaña is a heterogenous village of about 1,000 people, located 40 kilometers south of Chiclayo. In the late seventeenth century, however, Zaña was the most important city on the northern coast, surpassing even Trujillo. It was not just a center for trade, but also for agriculture, and a large number of African slaves were brought to the river valley to work the land. Zaña had estates, mansions, and hulking churches to rival anything in Lima.

The nave of San Agustín

But then the pirates came. In 1686, British pirates were lured by the stories of Zaña\‘s wealth, and sacked the city. This scared away some of the wealthiest residents, but others went about rebuilding and improving the town. Until March 15th, 1720.

On that day, the Zaña River, fed by El Niño rains, overflowed its banks and destroyed the town. The church and colonial officials blamed the slaves, whom they accused of bringing down the wrath of God with their dancing and traditional religious practices. The Spanish settlers all packed up and headed to Trujillo or Lambayeque, while many of the slaves and mestizos stayed on, slowly rebuilding the “ghost town.”

Today, Zaña looks like a lot of small villages in Peru\‘s coastal desert, except for the massive ruins of the seventeenth century churches popping out from its dusty city blocks. The most magnificent of these are the ruins of the San Agustín convent.

The massive convent was started in 1586, and was built in a Gothic style. Visitors can still see much of the nave, the frescoes on the walls, the niche where confession was held, and the columns which once supported the convent\‘s massive cloisters.

The cloisters of San Agustín

There are smaller ruins, as well, peaking up from the sand just outside town: San Francisco, La Merced and Matriz. Each has a unique history, and a guide arranged at the entrance of San Agustín will be happy to explain it to you.

Zaña is more than just ruins, however; it is a town with a still-beating pulse, and that pulse has a distinctly Afro-Peruvian rhythm. As a center for slavery, Zaña had a large African population, and today, despite the arrival of Chinese laborers and migrants from the highlands, there is still a large Afro-Peruvian population.

This is reflected at the town\‘s small Afro-Peruvian Museum, the only one of its kind in the country. The museum tells the story of slavery, but also of the African cultures that live-on in Latin America today. Of particular interest is a room devoted to the musical instruments of Latin America\‘s black population.

Chains used on the slaves. The Afro-Peruvian museum.

Zaña puts those instruments to good use during cultural performances. This November, it will host a celebration of Afro-Latin music and dance.

Zaña has also preserved its culinary legacy. The star dish is arroz con chancho, a local twist on the Lambayequean classic of rice-and-duck, in which the duck is replaced with roasted pork. The region has also adapted many Chinese dishes, due to the arrival of Chinese laborers in the late-nineteenth century. Zaña also enjoys local fame for its candies. They can be purchased from a store across the street from San Agustín; the octogenarian proprietress makes them by hand.

We had come to Zaña expecting a ghost town, but we found something different: a living town where history and tradition had never died.

Zaña is located a few miles off of the Panamericana, south of Chiclayo. The turn-off is by Mocupe. If visiting by public transportation, combis leave from the Epsel station in Chiclayo throughout the day and take about 90 minutes to reach the village. There are a few basic boardinghouses, but it\‘s recommended to stay in Chiclayo.