By Mike Gasparovic

An unearthly lowing from a conch shell reverberates off the atrium walls, startling silent the initiates massed in the plaza. In the distance the hills crouch, waiting. A hush. Then, from nowhere, a roar of rushing water. The men are twitching, squinting their eyes against the light, painfully bright under the Andean dazzle. The din—where is it coming from? But everything is confused, a swirling jangle of colors and commotion, buzzing, flashing.

Suddenly a priest appears, towering over the file of novices. Not human he seems, feline, the fangs of his grotesque headdress grinning ferociously as he intones inaudible words. He leads the men; they begin to march. Up the stairs, across the threshold, and into darkness—but here there is no darkness: the walls of the underground labyrinth phosphoresce as their carvings seem to move, writhe, menace the terror-stricken catechumens. Outside the conch shell bleats again, uncanny.

Finally the jaguar-priest stops, turns, raises hands, chants a ritual formula that echoes off the stone walls, now convulsing like the entrails of a giant serpent. Utterly disoriented, the men raise their eyes: there above them is the god, leering upwards in the half-light. His contorted, malevolent face is inconceivably old, bespeaking immense power and triumph absolute—he is life itself. The initiates are trembling, feeling their own being leech out as they too meld with the alien, the animal, here in this shadow-world where all is transformation, flux, metamorphosis.

A scene out of an Indiana Jones movie? Hardly. Rather, it’s a more or less accurate reconstruction of what routinely went on at Chavín de Huantar, one of the most ancient and marvelous archaeological sites in Peru, a country that doesn’t lack for ancient marvels. Here, some 3,000 years ago, a powerful cult, under the influence of mind-altering hallucinogens, elaborated a religion that would eventually grow to dominate the Andes, making it what anthropologists have called the “mother culture” of South America—all some two millennia before the Incas picked up a single stone.

This means Chavín de Huantar is ancient Peru’s real-life temple of doom, and visitors to its underground passageways can glimpse the same sacred terrors the Chavín people once underwent.

Here’s how to go about it.

Getting There

The village of Chavín lies some three hours from Huaraz, a town situated between Peru’s Cordillera Negra and Cordillera Blanca, and a major destination for mountain trekkers. As of this date, there are no flights to Huaraz, so you’ll need to take a bus from Lima; departures occur throughout the day, with the trip running approximately eight hours.

From there, you can use one of the tour companies that throng the Plaza de Armas to get to Chavín for about 10 soles, or you can take a collectivo for twice that. Ask around in Huaraz’s downtown for details.

Temples Old and New

Arriving at the ruins, you’ll find a world where everything is charged with mysterious significance—including the geography. The complex seems to have been a kind of axis mundi, a “world axis” where all the forces of nature came together in a spiritual flash point. For starters, the ruins are perched exactly midway between the desert coast and the jungle, six days’ journey from both, right at the confluence of the Mosna and Huanchecsa Rivers. But more importantly, the complex’s central idol was a mystical nexus, yoking together the upper and the nether world. Tikuy, the peoples of the region called this coming-together of forces, and it made Chavín a major pilgrimage destination, a Mecca for the Andes.

The complex itself comprises not one but several temples, which today have letters for names (A, B, etc.) but which in the past were designated Old and New. They’re organized around a U-shaped plaza that the inhabitants copied from the ancient cities on Peru’s coast, but more intriguing is the imagery on the temples: all of it is from the Amazon region, some 200 miles away. Caymans, jaguars, anacondas, severed heads, men in the process of transforming into felines—all jungle images. Why were they here, in the heights of the Andes?

It’s the so-called Old Temple, constructed around 1200 B.C.E., that hints at the answer to this mystery. When you enter, you’re immediately plunged into the pitch-black tunnels of the sanctuary’s core, a subterranean labyrinth leading to an inner sanctum. This chamber, dimly lit by ventilation shaft, houses the Lanzón (Spanish for “lance”), one of the greatest archaeological treasures of pre-Colombian America, and an overwhelming sight when you first encounter it. It’s a 15-foot idol inscribed with images of a leering feline deity with upturned eyes, and it was probably considered an oracle, if not the god himself, by Chavin’s inhabitants, who worshipped it as a representation of the life force. This reverence for life energy, embodied in images of savage animals, was characteristic of the Amazon, and the Lanzón points tantalizingly at the conquest of Chavín by this dark vitalism.

Sacred Hallucinogens

Even more startling are the rituals that surrounded the cult. As archaeologists have reconstructed it, the Chavín religion depended heavily on the San Pedro cactus, a hallucinogenic plant that appears on engravings found at the Old Temple. Initiates would grind up the plant with mortars and pestles, snuff it up using thin tubes, and then wait in the plaza for the mescaline in the cactus to take effect.

At this point, their overlords would subject them to a kind of psychedelic multimedia show: miles of underground conduits would suddenly fill with rushing water, causing the atrium to echo with the tumult, while the novices’ eyes, hypersensitive to light from the drug, would be dazzled by the mountain sun. They would then accompany the priest into the subterranean vaults, where their vision of the Lanzón, psychotropically enhanced, would be overpowering.

The aim of all this? The same aim of religions everywhere: transformation, which is to say, escape from the individual self so as to make contact with the divine.

When you visit Chavín, you’ll also have a chance to see the Tello Obelisk, another of the sanctuary’s treasures. Named for the great Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello, who discovered it in 1919, it’s on display in Chavín’s museum, and it’s every bit the Lanzón’s equal for awe and mystery. Standing over eight feet tall, it depicts caymans on top and flying shaman figures below, as well as jaguars and jungle foods such as manioc, peanuts, and chili peppers, all in a code that scientists have yet to break. Perhaps it represents a myth of origins: the cayman, a type of creator god, gave birth to the universe, according to Amazon myths. Or perhaps it contains a calendar or astronomic code—archaeologists are still debating.

Whatever the case, there can be no debate about the importance of Chavín’s culture. In the years after the temple’s construction it spread throughout the central Peruvian coast and highlands, propagated not by force (Chavín had no military) but by the theocratic control wielded by its shamanistic priests. What those priests taught, the secrets of their vitalistic religion: all of that contributes to the preternatural aura still surrounding this uncanniest of Peruvian ruins.

Bio: Mike Gasparovic is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. He devotes his free time to studying the history, art, and literature of the Spanish-speaking world and learning about its people. He currently lives in Lima. He currently lives in Lima and wrote this article on behalf of Aracari Travel, providers of exclusive personalized tours all over Peru.

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