The traces of human civilisation in Peru date back some 20,000 years, to nomadic peoples who crossed into the Americas via the Bering Straight during the last Ice Age. From these beginnings to the Mochica and Nazca peoples living in the first centuries AD, to the famous Incas of Machu Picchu, today visitors can trace that history back thanks to a wealth of fascinating archeological sites in the country. While Machu Picchu deserves its place at the top of the fame table (and gets the hordes of visitors as a result) there are several other ancient sites in Peru well worth your time. Here are some of our top picks.
Must-see ancient sites in Peru besides Machu Picchu
120 miles outside Lima, Caral offers a fascinating insight into early organised societies. The ancient pyramids here are thought to be the oldest evidence of civilisation in the Americas, some 4,000 years older than the Incas, and even older than the great pyramids of Giza. The site covers around 150 acres and features two large circular plazas sunk into the ground, plus the remains of six pyramids (along with evidence of residential structures), the largest of which is 154m tall. Archeologists have uncovered numerous musical instruments, including flutes made from animal bones, that hint at the importance of musical to this early society.
Remains of an ancient civilisation in Caral © Quismanco/Shutterstock
In Peru’s north, Trujillo is home to several important Inca sites, including some which have only been discovered in the past decade or so. Most famous are the staggeringly huge sun and moon pyramids (Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna), the former of which is the largest adobe structure in the Americas. These temples are believed to be the centre of the Moche (or Mochica) culture between 400 and 600 AD.
Huaca del Sol was used as an administrative centre – there’s evidence of dwelling as well as a large graveyard. Incredibly, what you see here is only about 30% of the total size of the pyramid in its original state.
Huaca de la Luna is thought to have served a ceremonial purpose, and is distinguished by its well-preserved friezes (some still with their original colour intact) and stylised depictions of a face thought to be the god Ai-Apaec, master of life and death. Worship of Ai-Apaec has frequently been linked with human sacrifice, and archeologists have found the dismembered remains of over 70 sacrificial victims here.
A frieze at Huaca de la Luna, one of the most interesting ancient sites in Peru © WatchtheWorld/Shutterstock
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Between Trujillo and Chiclayo – Peru’s financial centre – there are many temples and archeological remains, including some of the best ancient sites in Peru. One not to miss is the Complejo Archeológico El Brujo, nestled among the sugar cane plantations that hug the coast.
The complex is made up of Mochica-built adobe temples and gained famed after the on-site discovery of a tattooed mummy in 2006, known as the Señora de Cao. Clearly an important shamanic leader, the 1,500-year-old señora has intricate depictions of spiders, fish and snakes inked into her hands and arms. The complex is named after her – “El Brujo” means “The Wizard”.
You can see her for yourself at the on-site museum, which also houses the multiple pieces of gold and silver jewellery inlaid with precious stones that were found alongside her body.
This city is Peru’s bustling financial centre, so it’s perhaps fitting that just a short distance outside the city you’ll find a huge haul of buried pre-Colombian treasure. To find it, make a beeline for the Museo Nacional Tumbas Reales de Sipán.
The gold and silver found at the Temple of Sipán is housed here – one of the richest tombs ever discovered in the Americas. The most important grave site discovered was that of El Señor de Sipán (the Lord of Sipan), buried with many precious decorative objects inlaid with precious stones and shells, including his main emblem, a decorative staff. The tomb itself is recreated inside the museum, and is sure to give you an Indiana Jones-like thrill.
The recreation of the Lord of Sipan's tomb at the Museo Nacional Tumbas Reales de Sipán © marktucan/Shutterstock
Perched in the Andes some 2,334m above sea level is Chachapoyas – the name even means “the Cloud People” in Aymara. There are some fascinating sites nearby, including the Karajía Sarcophagi. There are over 250 sites featuring these human-shaped clay coffins in the region, hidden along narrow cliff ledges to discourage grave robbers. Of these, Karajía is the only one accessible to visitors. You’ll find 6 coffins here, housing the remains of important chieftains and shamans with their prized possessions. The heads of the sarcophagi resemble the monumental moai found on Easter Island. These eerie coffins are among the most unusual ancient sites in Peru.
The most famous site in the region is Kuelap, a seemingly impregnable citadel balanced on top of a limestone mountain, dating back sometime between 500AD and 1493 (the exact date is unknown). Archeologists estimate that as many as 700,000 tonnes of stone were hauled up here to build the fortress. Measuring 700m long and with 20m-high walls, it must have been a formidable sight when it was first constructed.
The ruins contain the remains of 500 round stone houses, hinting at the importance of the site in its day. Keep an eye out for the small stone tunnel used as an ancient guinea-pig hutch. Another curiosity is the pile of approximately 2,500 small stones found at the north end of the citadel – it’s believed they were fired from slingshots at the clouds to attract rain. Visitors can hop on the cable car from Tingo Viejo to access the site (and save some energy!). As you travel back down from the site, turn to look back and you might see the human skulls and bones hidden in the rock face.
The citadel city of Kuelap in the mountains of northern Peru © Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock