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The most underrated archaeological sites in Peru

The Incan Machu Picchu is definitely the most known archaeological site in Peru. But did you know that there were numerous other civilizations living in this area? And many of them left their track till these days. Read the most amazing stories about archaeological sites in Peru…
The most underrated archaeological sites in Peru

Who were the people of ancient Peru?

The fascinating country Peru that attracts millions of foreign tourist every year has unbelievably rich biodiversity and is home to 90 microclimates and 30 out of 32 world climates. Its varied geography is ranging from the high Andes Mountains to the Amazon Rainforest and all the way to the coast, accommodating a huge number of animal and plant species. Thus there is no surprise that such diverse land was also home to numerous ancient civilizations.

In Peru, we can find their tracks till these days everywhere – in the mountains, in the rainforest and also at the coast. You probably know the most famous one – Incas and their mysterious Machu Picchu. But did you know there were many others? We can admire and try to solve the puzzle of incredible lives of ancient Peruvian people by visiting their temples, graveyards and urban areas that remained preserved till these days. Read here the most amazing stories about rarely visited archaeological sites in Peru.

Ancient ruins of Inca Empire in the Sacred Valley

Timeline: 1438 – 1533 AD

Culture: Inca

Location: Cusco region, Peru

Archaeological sites: Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Pisac, Choqueqierao and many more

The famous ancient empire centred in the Andes Mountains

The Incas are probably the most famous ancient Andean culture in Peru, all because they’ve built the famous Machu Picchu. Many people though don’t know, that the Inca Empire lasted only for about 100 years, that Incas were actually aggressive conquistadors who swallowed or destroyed many other cultures living not only in Peru but also in Bolivia, North of Argentina, Ecuador and Colombia. With their military power, they’ve created an ancient empire centred in the Andes Mountains in Peru. So why did they fall so hard under the swords of the Spanish Army? The Spaniards had most probably help from the other subordinated cultures, which were promised freedom from the Incas. We all know now, that the Spanish domination didn’t work the best for them either. Nevertheless, Inca’s ruins are probably the most beautiful archaeological sites you will find in Peru.

Though the most famous Inca’s ruin Machu Picchu is massively visited, there are many other Peru ancient ruins that are worth to visit and you won't find many other tourists there. The ancient ruins of the Incas are mostly located around Cusco and in the Sacred Valley, as it was the centre of their empire. My personal favourite here is the temple in Pisac. It is said that it’s even bigger than Machu Picchu and I would believe it, as crossing from the top to the bottom takes around 4 hours. The ancient city of Pisac is divided into 2 parts – the upper part contains the urban living area with many buildings in the typical Inca architecture, and also a view at the biggest Inca cemetery found till now. The hidden gem is though the lower part with religious buildings and temple of the sun made from beautiful pink granite – many organized tours don’t go to the lower part, but I highly recommend you not to skip it, as it’s the better half of this archaeological site in Peru. Read more about the Inca’s ruins in Sacred Valley.


Choquequirao, the new discovered archaeological site in Peru

Historical site built during the Inca domination of South America, Choquequirao is often referred to as “the other Machu Picchu”. Similarly impressive in scale and situated 98km west of Cusco in the Vilcabamba mountain range, this citadel was lost to the wilderness for even longer than its sister site, only being explored as late as the 1970s. At present, just one third has been excavated from the encroaching jungle, making this a truly unmissable archaeological site in Peru for wannabe Indiana Jones types.

The site, whose name in the local Quechua language means “Cradle of Gold”, comprises rows up rows of Inca terraces, many featuring llama symbols, plus an extensive array of water shrines and temples. Experts believe that Choquequirao was likely a place of worship for Mama Cocha, the goddess of the sea, while it probably played an important role in protecting the final Inca, Manco Capac when he fled the Spanish conquistadores to take refuge in Vilcabamba.

Beyond the feeling of truly stepping back into time through visiting, Choquequirao is incredible due to the sheer fact that only about a dozen or so people enter the site each day. This is mostly due to the fact that it’s a challenging two-day hike to get here. That’s all set to change when the Peruvian government builds a long-slated cable car system to get visitors from to the site within just 15 minutes - so plan your trip here sometime in the next year if you want to avoid the crowds. Read more about trekking to Choquequirao. By Steph from Wordly Adventurer


Image Source: Wikimedia

Sillustani - mysterious Peruvian landmarks

Timeline: 1200 - 1400 AD

Culture: Colla tribe

Location: Lake Titicaca, Peru

Archaeological sites: Sillustani burial towers

About 40 km from Puno, you will find a wonderful and unique graveyard. The funeral towers you will see here were built by the Colla tribe, ancient Peruvian people who were conquered by the Inca in the 15th century. Though a graveyard might not belong to historical places in Peru you wished to visit, the funeral towers look amazing: they are almost perfect cylinders. It is hard to imagine how they even made these in such a perfect shape. However, a bit damaged or a bit collapsed, they are still in good shape and give a great impression. The Sillustani funeral towers are called chullpas and were used to bury the important people in this civilization like priests. The signs give you some information in Spanish, but it’s better to hire a guide if you have the option.

How to get to this special archaeological site in Peru? You can take a tour from Puno. But this means you will be at Sillustani together with all the other people. You can also try and find a collectivo which will bring you there for a small amount. Ask your hotel for help to find them. We personally took the taxi with the four of us. Our taxi driver knew a lot about these Peruvian landmarks and spoke English, so he offered to give us a guided tour if we paid his entrance ticket. If you can get a guide, please take it, so worth it! By Manouk Oord, Groetjes uit Verweggistan


Image source: Wikimedia

Ancient Peruvian people called Warriors of the Clouds

Timeline: 750 - 1450

Culture: Chachapoya

Location: Amazon, north of Peru

Archaeological sites: Karajía Sarcophagi, Kuelap Chachapoyas

Kuelap – the city in the clouds

Kuelap is a fortified city built high in the mountains sometime between the sixth and sixteenth centuries, potentially making it three times older than Machu Picchu.  The Chachapoya ancient Peruvian people who lived here were also known as the Cloud People or Warriors of the Clouds and looking out across the mountain tops it is easy to understand why.  The Chachapoyas apparently built their city as high as they could to be closer to the gods – and perhaps for the beautiful views!  A huge wall surrounds the remains of the city, with just one narrow entrance protecting its inhabitants from intruders.  Nature is now starting to reclaim Kuelap, as trees and bromeliads grow all over the site around the remains of terraced houses and temples.  The buildings have unique patterns in the stonework and walking around the city amid the trees as the mist fell was quite magical. 

Part of what makes Kuelap so special is that it is firmly off the tourist trail; close to the town of Chachapoyas in Northern Peru.  Chachapoyas is about 12 hours from the coastal city of Trujillo, and about 22 hours by bus from Lima, so many visitors don’t bother to make the trip and Kuelap was almost empty when we visited.  The opening of a new cable car has made access easier, but I don’t imagine Kuelap changing drastically any time soon.  Although it lacks the grandeur of Machu Picchu, the isolation and views from the mountains make it just as special. Read more about visiting Chachapoyas in Peru. By Claire Sturzaker, Tales of a Backpacker.


Mummies of the warriors in Karajía Sarcophagi

The Chachapoya people, also known as the Warriors of the Clouds, once ruled their own nation in the cloud forests of the Amazon region, until they were conquered by the Incas. The most enigmatic of the remains of their civilization is the larger-than-life-sized painted sarcophagi, called "purunmachos", that they placed in remote, almost impossible to reach places inside gaps in the cliff face at Karajía.

The painted sarcophagi are made of clay, sticks and grass and stand up to 2.5 meters tall. They are estimated to be 600 years old, and, remarkably, some of the painted decoration survives to this day. The sarcophagi hold the mummies of Chachapoya warriors, and the skulls of their defeated enemies were placed on top. If you look closely, you can see two skulls in the photo.

The Karajía site lies about 60 kilometres north of the city of Chachapoyas and is most easily visited on a day tour from there. Several companies run this tour, which is often combined with a visit to a nearby cave to see stalagmites and stalactites. On the tour, a vehicle will drive you as far as a town called Cruz Pata, and from there it's a 40-minute walk to the site.

Karajía and the north of Peru, in general, sees far fewer visitors than the more famous sites like Machu Picchu. It also provides a rare glimpse into a culture that few people know anything about. Wendy from The Nomadic Vegan.


Image source: Flickriver & Flickr

The incredible sand palace Chan Chan

Timeline: 800 – 1470 AD

Culture: Chimu

Location: Pacific coast north of Lima, near city Trujillo, Peru

Archaeological sites: Chan Chan

Chan Chan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian era in Peru and was home to an ancient Peruvian people called Chimu before they were conquered by the Incas and incorporated into their growing Empire. The architectonical masterpiece of Chan Chan city is spreading over 20 km2 but only a small area of its original size is excavated, the rest still lies covered by the brutal desert of northern Peru.

The main excavated area lies just a few kilometres from the city Trujillo and it represents one of the temples of the royal family. As our guide explained us, it’s believed that there are at least 9 temples in this area, as the custom of that time was, that when the king died, he was buried inside of his temple with all his wives. The temple was then sealed and the new ruler had to build a new temple. Probably the last temple from this interesting tradition is now available for visitors and walking among its tall sand walls is truly remarkable.

Getting to the main Chan Chan archaeological zone is rather easy, as there are many collectives driving by to the nearby villages, so you just have to tell the driver to stop at the entrance. By the entrance, there are numerous guides offering their services and as we’ve learned that hearing the story of the place is much better than just looking at it without knowing, we immediately hired one – this time an English speaking guide, who told us a lot of interesting information about this archeological site in Peru. Read more about visiting Chan Chan.


The colourful walls hidden in the sand of the Moche temples

Timeline: 200 to 850 AD

Culture: Moche

Location: near city Trujillo, north of Peru

Archaeological sites: Huaca de sol, Huaca de la Luna

Not far away from the Chan Chan temple lies another landmark of Peruvian history - Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna, two temples made by the Moche civilization, the ancestors of the Chimu people from Chan Chan. As there is not enough money for archaeological works in Peru, only the Moon temple – Huaca de la Luna, was excavated and studied so far. But the findings are mesmerizing – inside as well as outside of the building were found well preserved colourful wall murals. As our guide was explaining us, these murals are so well preserved because as the temple was growing bigger, the lower floors were filled by mud bricks and another floor was added on top of it. The same goes for the outside walls – the layers of paintings go several layers deep, always covered by new, though similar pattern.

These murals are speaking about human sacrifices, blood offerings to the gods as well as combats. Supposedly, warriors would come from all over Peru to fight for God’s love, the loser would be sacrificed in the name of the god. Another interesting thing is the female mummy found in this place, which was buried together with golden plates and weapons – things which were usually reserved for an important male. Who knows, what other secrets are hidden in the other temple – Huaca del Sol, which is still covered by layers of sand…

Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna are nearby Trujillo, but to get there you would need to have a car or rent a taxi, as there is no public transportation going there. Nearby the archaeological site is also a museum with objects found in the temple as well as many info boards (also in English) and is definitely worth the visit. Read more information about the mysterious priestesses of the Moche.


The puzzling meaning of the Nazca lines

Timeline:  100 to 700 AD

Culture: Nazca people

Location: near city Ica, south of Peru

Archaeological sites: Nazca and Pampa geoglyphs

The Nazca lines are a group of over 1,300 lines, shapes and figures ‘drawn’ in the desert by removing darkened earth to reveal paler rock and sand beneath, in effect creating a ‘negative’ image.  There are drawings of a hummingbird, a condor, a spider, a monkey and a parrot, plus triangles, trapezoids, spirals and long lines.  The symbols can only be fully seen by air, even though they date from 100 – 700 AD, long before air travel was possible. 

There are many theories as to who made them and why – including a theory that they were built by aliens – but the most credible theory is that they were created by the ancient Nazca civilization.  There was a severe drought at the time, and many of the figures point to water sources or symbols of water.  It is believed that they were drawn to draw the gods’ attention to the people’s need for water. 

Other theories are that they were procession or dancing routes, drawing vital energy towards the water sources.  A related theory is that they were created by shamans who were high on a hallucinogenic cactus and flying high, viewing the world from above in their minds.  No matter what the theory, seeing them is truly incredible.  There are three viewing towers, but a 30- or 60-minute flight from Nazca airport is the best way to see them. Read more about the flight over the Nazca lines. By James Ian at Travel Collecting


The stone heads of Chavin de Huantar

Timeline: 3000-400 BC

Culture: Chavin

Location: Cordillera Blanca mountain range, near city Huaraz, Peru

Archaeological sites: Chavin de Huantar

Chavin de Huantar is considered one of the oldest archaeological sites in Peru and is connected to one of the most mysterious and powerful cultures living in this area. It lies in the middle of the Cordillera Blanca mountain range near city Huaraz and the best way how to get there is by car, public bus or organized tour. We've visited on our own and used the services of one of the guides waiting in front of the entrance – and I was very happy we did, as unlike in many other archaeological places, including Machu Picchu, they actually have loads of information about the Chavin civilization.

The Chavin archaeological site lies at a strategic place protected by rivers at two sides and mountains at the third side – the triangular shape of the area is not random, as the ancient Chavin civilization believed, this shape can withhold strong natural energies. As we were walking on the green grass of this area, not only what we saw, but also the stories of this ancient civilization left us in awe. Thanks to thorough archaeological excavations, the scientists were able to create a pretty good assumption of what Chavin was and what it meant for the ancient Peruvian people. Beside human sacrifices, drug ceremonies and the cult of a woman, we heard stories of everyday life in this interesting cultural centre for people of ancient Peru.

Our guide was very knowledgeable, though only spoke Spanish so my interpretation of his words might be a bit creative. He told us stories of a thousand-year-old carved stone desk Estella Raimondi, which was found being used as a kitchen table of one local resident, a story of a carved stone column Lanzon, which was placed in the middle of the labyrinth and used in blood ceremonies in which together with hallucinogenic drugs the priests and priestesses were getting visions of future and past lives. Lanzon can be still seen in the labyrinth in which you can actually walk and touch the 3000 years old walls full of powerful energy. The most interesting fact about this archaelogical site in Peru was, that based on some theories, the Chavin civilization was a strong cult of a woman, with the highest priestesses being women. Read more about visiting Chavin de Huantar.



Do you know another archaelogical place in Peru which is not well known and worth the visit? I’d be happy to hear about it in comments.


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