Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl noticed that the upturned prows of the caballitos are remarkably similar to those found on rafts built by Polynesians, and in 1947 he set out on a 4,300-mile odyssey in a small balsa boat called the Kon-Tiki. Aided only by stars, ocean currents, and the prevailing winds, Heyerdahl's remarkable journey proved that centuries ago Peruvian mariners could have explored Oceania. "The world thinks Polynesians were the first Pacific Ocean explorers, but in fact, Peruvians may have been the first," Toledo says between bites of freshly caught sashimi. "How else can you explain the fact that early European explorers found potatoes, a vegetable native to Peru, on Easter Island and in the Galápagos?"
In addition to its rich fishing and surfing, Peru's arid north coast is also home to two of South America's earliest civilizations. The Mochica dominated the region from the third to the seventh centuries and were known for elaborate ceramics, anthropomorphic paintings, and truncated pyramid temples. They were supplanted by the Chimú, who ruled from the 12th century until their defeat by the Incas just prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The Chimú were accomplished engineers who built aqueducts, many of which carried water to the fortress city of Chan Chan. Located 10 minutes northwest of Trujillo, Chan Chan in the 15th century had 50,000 residents, covered 28 square miles, and was the largest adobe citadel in pre-Hispanic America. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that exists largely intact. The city walls, elaborately decorated with embossed geometrical figures, zoomorphic shapes, and mystical imaginings, funnel visitors into a series of labyrinths that link nine palaces, several pre-Columbian shopping centers, and terraces of town houses many modern Peruvians would be happy to call their own.