Peru: the road to ruins

It's not all about the Inca sites, says Alan Murphy, discover more on a tour of Peru

7 mins

Peru is an archaeologist’s paradise. A myriad of pre-Hispanic ruins cover the length and breadth of the country. These ancient attractions could not possibly be covered in one visit, so here is a list of the best known sites – a kind of archaeological top ten.

Inca sites

Machu Picchu

Peru’s best known site is one that never fails to excite – even on a second or third visit. It straddles the spur of a jungle-clad mountain with steep, terraced slopes falling away to the fast-flowing Urubamba river below. This ancient citadel was ‘discovered’ by the US explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911 and was the only major Inca find to escape 400 years of looting and destruction. Its precise function remains something of a mystery but recent studies suggest that this was no remote outpost. Machu Picchu was the centre of an extensive Inca province and its location imbued with an abundance of spiritual power, and therefore an important ceremonial centre.

Machu Picchu can be visited in a day, by train from the ancient Inca capital of Cusco. It is best appreciated, however, as the climax of the magnificent three to four day Inca Trail, which begins at Km 88 on the Cusco to Machu Picchu rail line. The trail passes several Inca ruins along the way and some parts are on original Inca paving. Another, shorter, trail starts at Km 104 and joins the main trail about an hour before Machu Picchu.

Cusco and The Sacred Valley

Aside from Machu Picchu, there are many other interesting Inca ruins in the Cusco area. For a good example of Inca masonry, check out the ruined ceremonial centre of Sacsayhuamán on a hill in the northern outskirts of Cusco. The impressive walls are made from massive stones weighing up to 130 tons and fitted together with absolute perfection. Every year on the 24th June, the Inca festival of Inti Raymi is celebrated here.

Thirty kilometres north of Cusco is the small Andean town of Pisac, standing at the eastern end of the Urubamba Valley, or Sacred Valley of the Incas, as it is more commonly known, which runs west all the way to Machu Picchu and beyond. Set on the mountainside high above the town is a superb Inca fortress.

West from Pisac, on the Cusco-Machu Picchu rail line, is the well-preserved Inca town of Ollantaytambo. A flight of terraces leads up above the town to an unfinished temple built by the Inca Pachacuti and representing some of the finest Inca architecture in the country.

Pre-Inca sites

Most people associate Peruvian history with the Inca Empire, but the Incas were very much the new kids on the block in terms of Peru’s archaeological heritage. Before them came many equally influential cultures whose advanced architectural and artistic styles and techniques were much copied by South America’s last great indigenous civilisation. Most of these pre-Inca sites are found along Peru’s long stretch of desert coast.

Nasca Lines

450 kilometres south from Lima, etched on the dry desert plain, is a series of huge lines which form the shape of a monkey, hummingbird, spider and many other animals, plants and geometric designs. These massive figures, some up to 100 metres in length, were made by the highly developed Nasca civilisation between 200 BC and 600 AD.

The lines can only be properly appreciated from the air, giving rise to many competing theories as to their origin and function. These range from the fantastical notion that the lines were a landing strip for extra-terrestrial craft to the more mundane belief that they represent some kind of giant astrological calendar. Whatever their real function, the lines have to be seen to be believed.

Flights over the Nasca plain can be arranged from the nearby eponymous town for around US$50 per person.

Sites around Trujillo

The city of Trujillo, on Peru’s northern coast, is the base for visiting Chan Chán, the largest adobe city in the world. The crumbling ruins of the imperial city, which covered 28 square kilometres, consist of nine great compounds built by the Chimú kings. The Chimú ruled this part of Peru with a bloody iron fist from around 1440 AD until they finally surrendered to the invading Incas in 1471, after an 11-year siege of their capital, Chan Chán.

Many centuries before the Chimú, the Moche ruled most of Peru’s northern desert coast, until around 700 AD. As well as producing some of the most beautiful ceramics to be found in the country’s museums, the Moche constructed many huge adobe pyramids (known as huacas).

Only a few kilometres from Trujillo is the massive Huaca del Sol and its next door neighbour, Huaca de la Luna. Even more impressive is El Brujo (the wizard), which was one of the most important Moche ceremonial centres. The El Brujo complex lies 60 kilometres north of Trujillo and consists of three pyramids – Huaca Prieta, Huaca Cortada and Huaca Cao Viejo. Murals uncovered at Cao Viejo are considered one of the most important archaeological finds in South America in recent years. These ancient examples of interior design should carry an ‘18’ certificate as some depict scenes of ritual combat, human sacrifice and even lines of bound prisoners showing signs of genital mutilation.

Sites around Chiclayo

If the Trujillo area seems full of archaeological treasures, then the desert around Chiclayo, 200 kilometres further north, is bursting at the seams. At the twin pyramid complex of Sipán, excavations over the past decade have uncovered some of the finest examples of pre-Columbian jewellery, pottery and textiles yet found on the continent. Five royal tombs from the Moche culture have been revealed, the contents of which are housed in the Brüning Archaeological Museum in the nearby town of Lambayeque.

About 35 kilometres north of Chiclayo lie the ruins of Túcume. This vast city, built over one thousand years ago by the Lambayeque people, consists of 26 pyramids, platform mounds, walled citadels, residential compounds and a ceremonial centre. One of the pyramids, aptly called Huaca Larga (big pyramid), is the largest adobe structure in the world, 700 metres long, 280 metres wide and 30 metres high. Excavations currently going on at the site, led by the famous Norwegian explorer-archaeologist, Thor Heyerdahl, are challenging many conventional views of ancient Peruvian culture. Like Peru’s myriad of other pre-Inca sites, these excavations represent only the tip of a vast, unexplored iceberg.

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