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The Northern Ruins and Peru’s Tourism vs. Conservation Battle

The Machu Picchu’s reputation does it justice—the kingdom that once ruled from its heights was every bit as grand as we now imagine. But other Peruvian ruins are getting far less attention than they deserve.

Just outside Trujillo, a city some 350 miles north of Lima, lies the ruins of Galindo. At first glance it’s little more than a mound of earth, but it used to house a central structure to the Moche, one of the most complex and mysterious civilizations to have risen in Peru.

True, the site has since been extensively studied. Researchers have dug into its grounds and chipped at its walls, revealing tough adobe cores. A deep crater lies where the central structure, a tall, tapered tower, once stood, having crumbled to the ground years before.

Other areas have been explored to no avail—one can tell by the holes, some more than four meters deep, that the researchers had abandoned them for more promising spots. But this doesn’t mean we’ve learned all we can about the Moche culture—far from it.

Huaqueros, or local looters, have run off with many of the artifacts, spurred on by a largely unconcerned government. Because of this, little is left for researchers to draw on about the Moche’s 650-year rule over Northern Peru, until its decline in 700 A.D.

Some 250 historic sites in the country’s northern half have suffered the same fate. Only five sites in the region have been given protected status, which keeps out the looters and ensures the sites’ maintenance.

Looters aren’t the only threat to these cultural treasures. Locals rebuilt their homes using bricks from the ruins when an earthquake struck in 1970, and many are still able to sneak in and take the occasional artifact to sell or display.

Local police are doing what they can to protect the sites. Montes de Oca of the Department of Environmental Protection in La Libertad, is one of three men who have taken up the task, armed with just one truck to patrol the area of about 1 million people.

Professor Ricardo Gamarra is heading the restoration of the Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna sites, where the 1970 earthquake hit. They were the Moche administrative centers and once the largest structures in pre-Columbian America.

The offer new clues into how the Moche lived. Gamarra and his team have uncovered friezes of the Moche’s mythical characters, including a Beheading Spider, the God of the Mountains and the Mythical Being, suggesting that human sacrifice played a central role.

Another stylized frieze showed a line of marching warriors with their prisoners, depicting the culture’s triumph against rival civilizations. These clues strengthen theories that the Moche had complex spiritualism and practiced elaborate if brutal ceremonies.

Gamarra is against current plans to develop an access road to the site, which would encourage tourism. He said the Machu Picchu has already been eroded from constant traffic, and the ruins of northern Peru aren’t ready for that kind of commercialism yet.