It’s easy to forget that people were in Peru long before the Incas. The Inca Empire expanded at such an astounding rate not because of increased population, but because it incorporated civilizations that were already there.
Evidence of humans in Peru dates back to 12,000-8000 BC and evidence of civilization in Peru dates back to 3000 BC in Caral—which is also the oldest civilization center discovered in all the Americas. Though experts dispute the exact date of origin, one of the oldest sites in Peru is Pikimachay Cave. There is little to see in this cave, located outside of the highland city of Ayacucho, other than an impressive view of the expansive Peruvian interior. But it was here some of the earliest evidence of human civilization was discovered, including signs of agriculture.
Pikimachay Cave is more a symbol of human evolution than an actual attraction in itself. Tours tend not to visit this site, and travelers must ask combi (small mini buse) drivers to drop them off on the side of the road where the uphill path through rock and shrub begins. At the top you’ll find shaded relief inside a cave, but little else.
But for travelers looking to trace the advancement of human development in Peru from the beginning to modern day, Ayacucho and its surrounding areas is a good choice.
Photo - Axel Drainville
After taking a moment to imagine people in Pikimachay before the modern era, head to the Wari ruins 20 kilometers outside Ayacucho. The Wari culture was one of Peru’s many pre-Inca civilizations. Their rise to power started in 600 AD and continued for 500 years, during which they spent their time invading and conquering their neighbors, as well as connecting and improving their highland empire with an extensive road and irrigation system (which would be mirrored by the Incas centuries later). The ruins were once the capital of the Wari empire, housing nearly 50,000 people.
After exploring the Wari ruins, continue up the road to a present day village stuck in the past. Quinua is an excellent example of a rural Peruvian town, sleepy and isolated. The town is known for its ceramic handmade art, proudly displayed on rooftops and entryways across town. There is almost nothing to do here other than stroll along stone and dirt streets, marveling at the lack of modernization. On a hill above Quinua is the Santuario Historico Pampas de Ayacucho, encompassing a battle field and white obelisk. On December 9, 1824, the Battle of Ayacucho marketed a turning point in the war for Peruvian Independence during which a force of patriots from across South America fought and won against a larger Spanish army.
After standing in the middle of the field and reading the names on the obelisk, head back to Ayacucho, the capital city of its province. But even here, modernity is nowhere to be seen. Ayacucho is a colonial city with little excitement other than a dizzying number of churches and an impressive annual celebration during Semana Santa (Easter week). But this may be what residents want. Less than a decade ago, Ayacucho was the hub for the domestic terrorist group called Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), which caused much death and destruction across Peru during the 1980s and 90s.
Having visited one of earliest places of human existence in Peru; the capital city of a pre-Inca civilization; a battle field that helped Peru gain independence; a town where electricity is considered a luxury; and a city haunted by its troubled past; it’s time to head back to Lima. Back to the McDonalds, shopping centers, and traffic. Back to residents with cell phone and designer labels. Back to what is an important part of modern Peru, but certainly not the only part.
Keen to see Ayacucho for yourself? Check out our Machu Picchu & Peru tours here or speak to one of our Destination Experts about crafting the bespoke vacation of your dreams.
Thanks to Eduardo Zambrano for the title image of this blog.