Trujillo, Peru – “Life will punish those who react too late” is a quote by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that could easily apply to archaeologists in Peru. Grave robbers, or Huaqueros as they are known here, often plunder ancient tombs before archaeologists have a chance to protect them. But despite the damage caused to the country’s ancient heritage, visitors will still find plenty to discover in this South American nation. The northern part of Peru is rich in cultural artefacts such as 1,000-year-old gold jewelery pieces, ancient mummies, grave offerings, ceramics and precious metals. Long before the Inca empire was founded, the Moche, Chimu and Lambayeque civilisations built huge urban centres that today not only attract archaeologists but grave robbers as well. The fictional character of Indiana Jones would have been well suited to the region between the cities of Trujillo, Chiclayo and Chachapoyas.

But in one recent instance the archaeologists beat the thieves: in 2006 archaeologist Regulo Franco discovered the mummified remains of a woman decorated with tattoos of snakes and spiders in the clay pyramid at El Brujo north of Trujillo. The find is known as the Lady of Cao and is the second most important archaeological discovery in recent decades in South America after the tomb of the Lord of Sipan in 1986.

“The Lady of Cao died very young. We think she died shortly after the birth of a child,” says Denis Varga, an archaeologist who is uncovering magnificent frescos at the site in El Brujo.

Historians were surprised to discover that a warlike people such as the Moche were ruled by a woman. Regulo Franco calls the Lady of Cao the Cleopatra of South America in recognition of her status.

She died about 1,700 years ago but today she has begun a new life as a tourist attraction. At the end of April this year the Cao Museum opened in El Brujo where the mummy and many of the ceramic objects and jewellery found in the tomb are on display.

The mummy’s discovery has helped to reveal many details about the Moche civilisation that existed in Peru from 100 AD to about 700 AD. Like in other South American civilisations human sacrifice played a big role in Moche life: in order to have largest harvests in a region that is normally very dry the Moche were prepared to sacrifice dozens of their warriors by throwing them from cliff edges.

Another tourist attraction in northern Peru is the adobe brick pyramid Huaca de la Luna, the Shrine of the Moon, about three kilometres south east of Trujillo. Opposite the temple stands Huaca del Sol, the Sun Temple. At 41 metres the structure is the tallest temple in South America.

The pyramids were made from adobe bricks and today look like enormous piles of clay scarred by grooves cut by water flowing down their sides. Thanks to the climatic change known as El Nino the region around the temples is visited by torrential rain every few years.

That also applies to the ancient city of Chan Chan which was once home to 100,000 Chimu people in the 13th and 14th centuries. Chan Chan stretches for approximately 24 square kilometres and was the biggest pre-Columbian city in the Americas as well as the largest clay brick city in the world. Today, large expanses of Chan Chan look like the surface of the moon.

The jumping off points for a visit to northern Peru’s archaeological sites are the cities of Trujillo and Chiclayo. Nowhere else do so many adobe brick pyramids rise from the earth than in the region surrounding Chiclayo. The neighbouring city of Lambayeque is home to the Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipan where the remains of the Lord of Sipan are on show.

The 10-hour bus journey from Trujillo over the Percuya Pass to Chachopoyas is also well worth the effort. The further east you go the greener the landscape becomes. Only a few tourists bother to make the trip to this part of the country which has some of the most spectacular archaeological sites in all of South America.

They include the ancient fortress of Kuelap, which matches the site at Machu Pichu in terms of importance, but which is rarely visited due to its inaccessible location.

Kuelap is older and larger than Machu Pichu and is a breathtaking sight to behold. In part because it is situated atop a 3,100-metre-high mountain that looks down upon Utcubamba Valley but also because visitors must walk 30 minutes from the car park through thin air to reach the fortress. Kuelap was constructed long before the Inca empire by the Chachapoya civilisation that grew maize, beans, linseed and potatoes in the valleys.

Wisps of cloud and mist cling to the fortress ruins which are surrounded by a 20-metre-high wall of polished sand and limestone. Three small and easy to defend tunnel-like entrances allow access to the structure which contains 450 ruined buildings. Not until 1475 did the Incas manage to overcome the fortress’s defenders.

Trees, roots and vines cover parts of the site lending a mystical touch to the place. In contrast to Machu Pichu and Cusco where there are hordes of tourists, Kuelap is largely empty. That might change in the near future, however, as the regional government has begun to improve the road network from the coast to Chachapoyas.