There’s no doubt that the Incas were a great civilization, or that Machu Picchu is the most spectacular ruin in South America (and perhaps the world). But the Incas didn’t come from nowhere – some extraordinarily advanced races preceded them.
Humans are known to have lived in Peru as early as 1000 BC – that’s 1400 years earlier than the Inca Empire began. It would take someone far more knowledgeable than me to condense all of that history into a measly blog post, so I’ll just describe some of the best pre-Inca sites I’ve visited in Peru while explaining a bit about the culture behind each of the sites. My list is by no means authoritative or exhaustive but I hope it inspires you to visit and include some pre-Inca ruins on your Peruvian itinerary.
This is a museum rather than an archaeological site, although there are plenty of sites near the northern city of Chiclayo where the museum is located. The tombs of Sipán and in particular the so-called Señor of Sipán are considered to be the single most important archaeological discovery in Peru in the last 30 years. The Señor himself was a wealthy member of the Moche civilisation, who was found mummified in raiment of astonishing gold in a huaca (adobe pyramid) near Lambayeque and has been described as Peru's Tutankhamun.
The Señor aside, the whole museum is utterly exceptional and a cutting edge contrast to the drab city around it. There is also a very good, but somewhat less snazzy, site museum near town. The pyramids of Túcume also make a very pleasant outing, but they have been severely eroded by the elements.
Also known as Huaca Juliana, this adobe pyramid was built by the Lima people. Although it is not as spectacular as the other sites listed here, I have included it because it is located in downtown Lima and as such it allows people who are not headed to coastal Peru to see a fine example of an adobe pyramid or huaca. This one served as an important administrative and ceremonial centre. Don’t be fooled by its pristine condition though: Huaca Pucllana has been recently reconstructed – if it had been left untouched it would be nothing more than a vaguely triangular lump…believe me, I’ve seen a few of these on my travels!
With Kuelap at least half of the experience is getting there: it’s located way up in the mountains of northern Peru, which means that it sees very little tourism pressure in spite of its awe-inspiring archaeological credentials. It is an enormous fort or citadel built by the Chachapoyas people on top of a cliff overlooking the valley of the Utcubamba river. What makes Kuelap so fascinating – apart from its sheer size and its dramatic location – is that it was only ‘discovered’ in the 19th century, and is still little understood. Much of it remains covered by earth or foliage, and there are always new discoveries being made.
With an area of eight square miles, Chan Chan, near the modern day city of Trujillo, is the largest pre-Columbian city in the whole of South America. It was the centre of the Chimú people for some 700 years, and at its peak it was home to 30 000 people. Constructed out of adobe and located on a coastal plain which receives severe flooding as a result of El Niño and is also under constant threat from earthquakes, Chan Chan is definitely not in pristine condition. Having said that, a tour around its expansive grounds is a highlight of many of our guests’ trips: certain sections have been reconstructed to give you an idea of what it was like in its prime; the irrigation system is fascinating; and the beachside location is dramatic and alluring.