The Chavin Culture spanned a great many years (1200BC to 200BC) in the history of this area. There are many theories about the origin of this culture but thanks to archaeological investigations performed over the years we know that there were three main periods of construction; the Urabarriu and Ofrendas (850 – 460 BC), the Chaquinani (460 – 390 BC) and the Janabarriu (390 – 200 BC). Chavin de Huantar was a religious and ceremonial center and not a populated city. Only priests and certain elites stayed at the center.
Before visiting the archaeological site itself, I recommend that you visit the museum located on the edge of town. The museum is new and modern with excellent displays of artifacts from the site. I was surprised to find out that the building of this museum was a condition put on the return of artifacts that were taken from Chavin de Huantar to museums in Lima. The ceramics, conch shell and stone carvings on display are stunning works of art. They also have a life size replica of the Lanzón (large stone idol representing their Supreme Deity) and the real Tello Obelisk (an obelisk carved to represent an important origin myth to the Chavin). There are startling stone carvings of heads which decorated the exterior walls of the temples. These heads represented the transformation of the priest into an animal while in a hallucinogenic state. Some say they were installed on the walls of the temples to frighten away would be thieves or intruders. Looking at these fearsome works of art, I could easily see this being a part of their function.
Leaving the museum we headed to the archaeological site of Chavin de Huantar itself. As you enter the site you might think to yourself, “What is all the fuss about?” The entrance is set away from the main views of the site and a little hike is involved in getting you to the actual front of the temple complex. For me personally, other than the actual buildings themselves, three of the most impressive things I saw on this tour were the Raimondi Stone (a flat carved relief of the Supreme Deity done in the late period of the Chavin Culture), the Lanzón, and the Tello Obelisk. They have the original Obelisk in the museum, the Lanzon is still in the Temple and a replica of the Raimondi Stone is at the entrance to the archaeological site. An interesting story about the Raimondi Stone is that it was being used as a table top by a local when it was discovered by a visiting archaeologist. While he was eating his lunch, he reached under the table to feel the surface out of curiosity. Surprised by what he felt, he immediately stood up and asked the proprietor to help turn the stone over. There before his eyes was a carved representation of the God worshiped by the Chavin Culture. Of course its use as a table top came to an end immediately.
A complex located around the temples was inhabited by people who were artisans, servants to the temple, workers and some who were engaged in agriculture. It is also known that the heavy use of hallucinogens such as the San Pedro Cactus, the Vilca Seed and Epena were a part of their religious ceremonies. As part of the tour you are allowed to enter the main temple into an area called the maze or the galleries. Tall people beware! The scar on the top of my head is testament to what can happen if you get a little careless. You are also allowed to enter another area of the temple and view the Lanzón. It is very imposing and you can’t help but wonder how this very large carved stone idol was put into place. The temples and central plaza stand as tribute to this amazing period of time in Peru. Their understanding of engineering and architecture which is demonstrated by these structures is astonishing. Drainage systems and water ways built to provide an assortment of loud sounds like applause and animalistic roars are also a testament to this fact. During their span of time, the religion of the Chavin spread to all parts of Peru. Offerings found at the site are proof of that. Our guide was very knowledgeable and although the tour was only in Spanish, I was able to understand some of the history he was trying to impart to us. English speaking guides can be obtained with several of the tour companies if desired.
Since we had arrived so late, by the time the tour was finished, it was dark. This made the ride back to Huaraz on those mountain roads even more exciting. Our driver was excellent though and we made it back to Huaraz safe and sound. I am sure I would like to return and spend a little more time on the trip to and in Chavin de Huantar. I understand that you can get a taxi to take you there for a very reasonable price, especially if there are two or three of you sharing the cost. The great cultural heritage left by the ancient peoples of Peru and the beautiful vistas that surround you here, are an immense treasure. I hope that everyone gets the chance to see not only Chavin de Huantar but all that this remarkable country has to offer.