Visitors to Peru usually have one archeological site in mind: Machu Picchu. It’s one of the largest and most complete pieces of Inca civilization in existence, so it has good reason for attracting large numbers of tourists. But Machu Picchu is actually one of Peru’s newer ruins. Although Inca monuments are often mistakenly referred to as “ancient,” the Inca didn’t come to power until the 15th century, which is only about a hundred years before the Spanish arrived.
Peru has many extremely ancient archeological sites. In fact, some of the earliest evidence of humans living in cities comes from Peru.
The following sites are worth visiting not just for of their visual appeal, but also for their historical and archeological importance. If you’re planning a trip to Peru, be sure to include at least one of these sites on your itinerary.
Kuélap – The Amazon
Kuélap is a site in the Amazon built by the Chachapoyas people, who successfully fended off the Inca for many years. Archeologists date Kuélap’s construction to the 5th or 6th century, and it remained in use until the 1500s. Kuélap is located at the top of a hill, and offers staggering views of the surrounding area.
It’s also the largest stone ruin in South America (take that, Machu Picchu!). Located in the midst of a dense rainforest, visitors will feel like real explorers as they hike to the monument. It’s not easy to find, so it’s advisable to hire a guide.
Although Kuélap is often compared to Machu Picchu, its isolated location makes it a much less popular stop for travelers. Get off the beaten path, and see the stone fortress left behind by fearsome Amazon warriors.
This site will soon be much easier to access—there are plans in the works to construct a cable car to the site. Try to see it now before it gets as crowded as Machu Picchu.
El Brujo – North Coast
Go to the El Brujo archaeological complex to see the burial site of the Lady of Cao. El Brujo was built by the Moche, the people who dominated the northern coast of Peru from 100 AD to 800 AD. The Lady of Cao is the nickname given to one of the female mummies that was discovered at this site. Her arms are covered in tattoos of snakes and spiders, and she was buried with warrior clubs. The Lady of Cao was probably a ruler, or an important priestess. This rewrote what historians knew about women in Moche culture.
62 other bodies were found at this burial site, along with the remains of women sacrificed at the time of the burial. You can tour the site and then visit a nearby museum devoted to the Lady of Cao. There you’ll see her mummy (as long as it’s not on loan by another museum) and the finery that was buried with her.
Cerro Sechín – Casma Valley
Cerro Sechín was abandoned sometime in 800 B.C. The temple is closed to visitors, but you can stroll through the dusty complex and admire the intricate engravings on the huge walls. These grimacing figures are an interesting window into early Peruvian culture. Almost nothing is known about these early people, and all we have left of their civilization are these carved megaliths.
In the same archeological complex you can visit the Sechín Bajo ruins, one of the oldest-known structures in the world. This is some of the first evidence of humans living in cities, and dates all the way back to 5,500 B.C. There is not much of the structure left standing, but the Casma Valley is a beautiful place to contemplate the origin of human civilization.
Huaca Pucllana – Miraflores, Lima
Incredibly, you can find some of Peru’s most interesting archeology in the middle of a bustling city. Huaca Pucllana is located in Miraflores, one of Lima’s most upscale neighborhoods. It was left behind by a civilization called the Wari. Before the Inca dominated Peru, the Wari people had the largest, most influential kingdom.
Inside the monument, you’ll see exhibits on the religious ceremonies that the Wari performed. Several mummies were discovered buried in the walls of the 7-storey structure. Some burials, like that of the Lady of the Mask, were completely intact upon excavation. Sites like these gave historians profound insight into Wari culture.
When you’re done touring the site, you’ll be in a perfect location to walk to some of Lima’s trendiest restaurants.