Peruvian Heritage Beyond Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is the most famous cultural site in Peru—and understandably so, given it was named one of the new 7 wonders of the world. But Peru’s cultural heritage extends way beyond Machu Picchu. As well as plenty of other Inca ruins, there are numerous pre-Inca archaeological sites—including the mysterious Nazca Lines—as well as more recent colonial structures to explore.

Caral, Peru
Just a few hours north of Lima, you can visit the sacred city of Caral-Supe, an ancient archaeological site that marks the earliest known instance of complex civilization in the Americas. The ruins at this UNESCO World Heritage Site date to approximately 3,000 B.C., and they are remarkably well-preserved for their age. Caral was almost certainly developed by a highly religious society, as evidenced by the stone monuments and pyramids, the the sunken circular courts, and the remnants of homes that likely belonged to the city’s elite. The physical setting is as striking as the cultural setting: the 626-hectare city is perched on a dry desert terrace overlooking the lush Supe River Valley, framed by mountains, close to the sky. You can hire a tour or take a car to visit this site on a day trip from Lima.
Santo Domingo s/n, Cusco 08000, Peru
This Cuzco corner presents a notable juxtaposition between ancient Incan and Spanish colonial architecture. Since the Incas worshipped their sun god, Inti, above all others, this temple in their imperial capital was the most important of the entire realm. It was here that they brought the idols of all peoples they assimilated, to offer them representation as they demanded allegiance in Cuzco. When the Spanish arrived, they tore down much of the temple and built a monastery on top of it. However, the walls that do remain provide stunning examples of pre-Hispanic engineering, particularly the rounded outer wall that can be seen from Avenida del Sol.
Jirón Lampa, Cercado de Lima 15001, Peru
Centuries-old catacombs decorated with human bones pepper the crypts at this Franciscan monastery dating to 1774. Decked out in impressive Spanish Baroque architecture, the canary-yellow church and monastery also house a remarkable library with some 25,000 antique texts (some predating the Spanish Conquest) and are flush with romantic courtyards and cloisters. Don’t forget to look up: A magnificent Moorish-style cupola, carved of Nicaraguan cedar in 1625, oversees the main staircase.

The Nazca Lines are massive geometric and zoomorphic designs laid out in the middle of the coastal desert of the Ica region. These 2500 year old sand etchings are so big that you can only see them from the air. Their origin is a mystery. Archaeologists have been unable to agree about why the Nazca people built these lines, how they were able to construct recognizable shapes without an aerial viewpoint, and how the lines have survived to this day. Many theories have been put forth, from UFOs to the idea that the local culture used these designs as a celestial calendar. The true story notwithstanding, it is definitely worth hiring a small airplane to see the Nazca Lines from on high.
The Chavin civilization is considered one of the first major pre-Inca cultures. The Chavin de Huantar, which was constructed beginning around 1200 BC, may have been a hub of this culture. Archaeologists believe that the site once served as a ceremonial and pilgrimage center for the religious Andean communities of the time. You will find buildings and plazas decorated with lush anthropomorphic and zoomorphic symbols carved in bas-relief on tombstones, columns, beams, and monolithic stone sculptures. Some of the most famous lithic art pieces include The Chavin Lanzón, the Raimondi Stela, the Tello Obelisk, the Circular Plaza, and the tenon heads. You must take a full-day tour from Huaraz to get here.
Sacsayhuaman is an impressive Inca fortress on a steep hill that overlooks all of Cusco. The ruins are humongous, but archeologists believe that the original site was as much as four times larger. What remains today are the impressive outer walls constructed in a zigzag formation across three levels. As with many Inca sites, the walls are made from massive, irregularly-shaped boulders that stick together like a jigsaw puzzle without any additional support. The stones are laid together so tightly that a sheet of paper will not fit into many of the cracks. As the night comes down, this is a perfect location to appreciate the stars.
Jr. las Mercedes
At 9800 feet (3000 meters) above sea level, this is one of the Chachapoya culture’s most important archaeological sites, a military fortification protected by stone walls as high as 65 feet (20 meters). The compound includes traces of over 450 circular residences, all but identical, a main temple, a cemetery, and sundry other structures and enclosed spaces. Take the cable car—Peru’s first—to get there, at 20 soles or $6 round-trip.
Built of mud and adobe, Chan Chan—the nine-square-mile former capital of the Chimú empire (850–1470)—was the most expansive city of its time. Wander along pathways with a guide to see wall reliefs that depict creatures from the nearby Pacific. You’ll learn where various community activities, including human sacrifices, took place.
Plaza Independencia, Callao 07021, Peru
Callao has been one of the most important ports in South America since the colonial era. This seaside district of Lima still echoes a rich maritime history, and historically-minded visitors will find much to explore. Be sure to check out the 18th-century Real Felipe Fortress, which was built to defend the area from pirates. The Naval Museum also provides a fascinating look into the region’s past. Afterward, take a walk through the La Punta neighborhood, which maintains a timeless, laid-back feeling with its beautiful beach and its bevy of restaurants.
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