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Ancient Lima: A Place Where Human Civilization Began

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In Lima, there’s the glorious food, busy nightlife, high-flying adventure sports, and colonial past on architectural display.  Yet unbeknownst to most travellers, this modern metropolis is brimming with a very ancient and very vibrant history.

In the historical colonial center—unfortunately—Spanish conquistador/conqueror Francisco Pizarro actually built the Government Palace (or Presidential Palace, where he lived, and where Peru’s current president resides) atop pre-Incan structures.  The Spanish actually did this a lot, in an effort to literally show the indigenous people of South America they had been conquered and would be dominated. 

Entombed mummies of ancient Wari people were unearthed at Huaca Pucllana about a decade ago. The Wari people conquered the Lima people who lived in this region for thousands of years. Until their own civilization collapsed in 1000 AD. (Photo: Outpost)

Luckily, not all of Lima’s ruins were ruined. When thinking of desert cities with pyramids, Cairo comes to mind, but so should Lima. Lima’s now concrete jungle of 10 million people was my sandy home for years. Whenever I needed a reality-check, a stroll past a centuries-old pyramid did the trick. The wide-spread huaca ruins built by the Lima civilization are well-preserved sites dotting the city. The accessible Huaca Pucllana, frequented by dog-walking city-dwellers and passersby, is in the heart of the tourist hub of Miraflores. An administrative and ceremonial center (and temple) likely constructed by the Lima culture who dominated this region in ancient Peru, it’s more than 1,500 years old—almost a thousand years older than Machu Picchu. 

Chart of pre-Columbian Inca kings and nobility on display at Huaca Pucllana ruins. (Photo: Outpost)

Photos I snapped last year of the adobe pyramid surrounded by high-rise buildings remind me of Lima’s complexity and richness. I recommend visiting in the evening for a fantastic light display and night tour of the complex, which you can precede by dinner at the fancy onsite restaurant! It’s surreal to be wining and dining in a place where excavation efforts are fresh. Even in recent years, mummy finds revealed another layer beneath this sprawling complex. 

The Huaca Pucllana pyramid/complex in center of Lima was an ancient temple and sometimes burial ground. (Photo: Outpost)

Workers’ scene at Huaca Pucllana Lima. (M Robinson/Outpost)

The last time I visited Lima, my uncle pointed out the Pontifical Catholic University campus, where my parents studied. From the moving vehicle, I saw what looked like an ancient structure through the gates. I asked about it and was casually told it was part of the Great Inca Road Network (the Qhapaq Ñan), an extensive network of trails, roads and bridges that was built up by the Incas to connect the thousands of trails and pathways already existing in this part of the world for centuries. I was dumbstruck—even for a local, Lima is full of surprises.

The Inca Empire stretched to the Pacific coast, where it engulfed structures of earlier civilizations. Centuries later, city developments and roads devoured it, but there’s a protected road section of more than 450 meters (and up to four meters high) on campus. (Here’s what the university has to say about it.) It’s mind-boggling to me that my parents walked to their classes past a piece of Inca history, but that’s Lima for you. Next to the Faculty of Art and Design and across campus, you’ll find two huacas thought to be a social center and burial site, respectively. They are currently being excavated so access is restricted, but there are guided visits to the road. 

The Incahuasi ruins near Lima. (PromPeru)

Believe it or not, Lima’s zoo, Parque de las Leyendas (Park of the Legends) is home to the city’s highest concentration of ruins, with at least 50. Only a few have been explored, revealing pottery, musical instruments and food, which are exhibited in the onsite museum. According to the Park, the land at the zoo was part of the ancient Maranga Complex, along with the Catholic University, as well as the San Marcos University, and other urban areas, encompassing more than 60 preserved sites. 

In terms of historical artifacts, most of them are safe-guarded in one of Lima’s exhaustive cultural museums. History buffs won’t want to miss both the Museo de la Nación and the Museo Larco, both of which have tremendous collections of pre-Incan, pre-Columbian, and Incan artifacts and weavings.

Stunning Pachacamac complex outside of Lima. (PromPeru)

Beyond the city, the entire region is full of unruined ruins. Venture a few hours north of Lima to the UNESCO-protected Sacred City of Caral-Supe, an enormous archaeological complex with other-worldly circular courts and pyramidal structures. Dating back nearly 5,000 years, it the most ancient city in the Americas. 

The sprawling Pachacamac complex is where the sun god Inti was worshipped. (PromPeru)

The adventure capital of Lunahuana, south of Lima, reveals Incahuasi, an Incan citadel and military gateway into the Andes, notably established outside of Cusco. From my experience, other than the caretaker, you’ll have the place to yourself. As a kid, I visited Pachacamac on a day trip from the city, but the significance of the site only recently hit me. This religious center, burial and oracle for pre-Inca civilizations, dedicated to the god Pacha Kamaq or “Earth’s Creator,” is about 30 kilometers south of Lima. 

Detail of wall at Pachacamac, Lima. (PromPeru)

A wooden statue of the god was set amid a temple complex, and according to the Museo Pachacamac, Andean cultures pilgrimaged here for thousands of years to pose a question to the all-knowing god, undergoing weeks of fasting and cleansing before even asking. Apparently, once the Incas took control, they added temples to honour their own gods, including the great sun god, Inti. But to smooth things over, they continued leaving offerings for Pacha Kamaq (even human sacrifices) here, and the Inca emperor journeyed from Cusco to join in these rituals. As the complex expanded to include other buildings, it eventually spanned more than 10 square-kilometers, making it now the largest archaeological site in southern Peru. 

An excellent day trip, it’s also the end of a longer 11-day trek from Jauja to Lima, along stretches of the Qhapaq Ñan. This pilgrimage is conducted once a year, complete with pack animals. For more on this you can read “Jauja Pachacámac by the old royal road,” in La Republica.

Those looking for ancient history are sure to make a beeline for Cusco, but with secret sites hidden among Lima’s university campuses, residential areas and even in a zoo, I recommend prolonging the mandatory big-city stopover of Lima—it’s there for good reason. 

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