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.
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.
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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.
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 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.