Before the Incas Ancient cultures of Peru
Marie-Louisa Lowther travelled to Peru with Cox & Kings and discovered there is more to the country’s ancient cultures than the Incas.
My second trip to Peru was a real eye opener. Apart from the fact that this time around I was travelling in style as opposed to living on a shoestring, I also visited some little known places that made me realise that there is so much more to the ancient cultures of Peru than Machu Picchu.
Being the most recent culture before the Spanish invaded, the achievements of the Incas, whilst awe-inspiring, are fairly well-documented compared to some of the pre-Inca civilisations. In fact, very little is known to the outside world about the ten or more centuries that preceded these people: the time of the great Mochita and Chimu cultures.
Peru’s northern coast is home to some of the country’s greatest archaeological treasures, which were built by the highly skilled pre-Inca people who once thrived in the region.
The Moche or Mochita people had an extremely long reign, from about 200 to 900 AD. They ruled through the time of the Nazcas, the Mexican Mayans and the Roman Empire. Although they had no writing system, their culture was extremely sophisticated for its time, and is now remembered for its fine ceramics and masterful metalwork.
The Sun and Moon Temples near Trujillo form the former Moche capital, one of the most important urban ceremonial centres of the pre-Inca societies. The site has only been excavated since 1991 and still has few visitors today. The Moon Temple is open to the public, and consists of three platforms and four plazas, surrounded by decorated adobe walls. The Sun Temple, which is currently under excavation, may well prove to be the largest adobe building in the world. In the plain between the two temples lies the urban area, or old Moche – a series of structures that have remained covered by a thin layer of sand and sediment.
For another fine example of the Mochita rule, travel further north along the coast to the archaeological complex of ‘El Brujo’, which means ‘the wizard or shaman’. Its origins date back more than 5,000 years and the site is very well preserved considering its age. It was used by shaman and even today still attracts the witches of the region, who travel here to evoke the spirits of their ancestors, to treat illness and fight against evil spirits. Last year a 1,600 year old mummy ruler was discovered here, tattooed and embalmed, and buried with sacrificial slaves, animals and symbols of power.
Further up the cost still lies the tomb of Lord Sipan , one of the great Moche rulers. A modern and majestic museum has been built in the shape of a pyramid to represent the original tomb, and has many original exhibits, each piece cleaned and restored to the smallest detail. Lord Sipan himself, who is believed to be one of the most important figures of ancient Peru, is buried in the museum and visitors can see his skeleton. The original tomb was badly looted, with many of the artefacts ending up in the hands of private collectors such as Enrico Poli, whose private museum in Lima is one of the most impressive in the world. Whilst some question whether such national treasures should be in a private collection, Poli claims that he is offering the chance to view the treasures, and if he had not bought them these important artefacts would end up abroad.
Subsequent to the Moche period was the Chimu Kingdom, the pre-Inca period. The Chimu ruled from the 9th century until 1450, when the Incas invaded. Chan Chan near Trujillo is the former capital, and consists of a number of adobe palaces spread out over 15 kilometres. Of these, only the dragon or rainbow temple and the central Tschudi Palace can be visited. The temples are decorated with symmetrical wall drawings, which were originally coloured, though now all the dye has disappeared. Excavations begun here in 1964 and are still underway. There is also a very good museum displaying artefacts discovered in Chan Chan, including pottery and tools.
This is just the start. Visit Caral, three hours north of Lima – the remains of one of the world’s oldest cities and the oldest city in the Americas, recently discovered and still under excavation. Further north still, Kuelap has huge defensive walls and castles involving three times more material than the Egyptian pyramids, and Leymebamba has its fantastic collection of pre- Inca mummies.
Venturing slightly off the beaten track in Peru, visitors can see these amazing ruins of ancient cities, and discover a little about life before the Incas.
Cox & Kings’ 16 Day / 14 Night Civilisations of Peru tour visits Lima, Chan Chan and the Tomb of Sipan in Trujillo, Kuelap, Leymebamba, Cuzco and Machu Picchu, and starts from £3,295 per person. Cox & Kings can also arrange tailor-made tours to Peru.