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A mud city, weird pictures and gruesome carvings

seabirdThe Atacama desert is one of the world's driest deserts. It may not rain for many years at a time in some places. Yet for much of the year, it's covered by a clammy fog called neblina which blows inland off the cold sea.

Near the modern city of Trujillo, ancient peoples 'huaco' - a ceremonial pot with two spoutscalled the Chimú built a city made of mud (barro). It's called Chan Chan and has been badly damaged by the rare rainstorms but you can still see the remains of it. This huge mud city was home to around 50,000 people for nearly 500 years until 1470 AD.

Then I visited some strange rocks in the middle of the desert a long way south, not far from the white city of Arequipa. At this place called Toro Muerto, unknown people chipped simple figures on the sides of boulders. They made these pictures well over 1000 years ago. another 'huaco' with an animal handleToro Muerto is near one of the deepest canyons in the world - the Colca canyon.

Finally, I went to Sechín in a river valley northwest of Perú's capital, Lima. Here I found a ruined citadel with lots of gruesome carvings. The people who made this place lived here around 3,400 years ago. What do the carvings mean though? Do they show victims of war or sacrifices... or both? See what you think!

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The desert, El Niño and lomas.

Deserts are always dry. Right? Wrong! The Atacama is kept dry by the cold Pacific ocean currents offshore which mean that no rain clouds form. But low fog blankets much of the desert for many months. Peruvians call it neblina. From time to time, the cloud becomes so thick that a sort of thin rain (garrua) falls. This is just enough to wet the surface and cause parts of the desert to burst into life. Flowers briefly bloom and set seed before dryness returns. On certain favoured ridges near the sea, called lomas, the neblina brings enough moisture so that a few small trees and other plants can grow.

But there's a much bigger thing that happens every few years: El Niño (the Child). What happens is that the cold coastal currents get pushed away by warm waters from the Pacific ocean nearer the equator. Then sudden downpours of rain can fall, causing terrible floods and washing away crops and houses. These El Niño 'events' seem to be getting stronger and they have a serious effect all around the world. Many people now link this to global warming. To see my guide to global warming, click here.

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