This guest post is by Laura Elise, a Lima resident and long-term South America traveler who writes for SA Luxury Expeditions, a travel company with offices in Peru.
Lima is Peru’s largest and most modern city. With everything from lattes at Starbucks to Larcomar’s endless retail offerings, upon first glance the capital city bears little resemblance to the typical Peruvian postcard featuring fuzzy llamas and colorfully-clad locals posed in front of a sprawling landscape of terraces topped with mysterious ruins.
Lima’s seemingly sterile atmosphere is one reason tourists tend to steer clear, claiming the city doesn’t offer much of interest or historical significance beyond the colonial buildings in the historic center. Though Francisco Pizarro founded the city in 1536, the area was occupied long before the Spanish sailed ashore and even before the Incan Empire spread across South America. Machu Picchu tours are indeed a highlight of visiting Peru, however, travelers truly interested in history can explore ruins dating back as far as 200 AD without ever leaving Lima.
There are numerous archaeological sites scattered throughout the city, around 250 in total, though many are half buried by modern-day construction. Only a few have been properly excavated. The three most popular and attractive ancient ruins in Lima to visit are Huaca Pucllana, Huaca Huallamaraca, and Pachacamac.
Arguably the most convenient ruin structure for visitors to explore is Huaca Pucllana, located on block 8 of Calle General Borgono in Miraflores. Within walking distance of Parque Kennedy and with very affordable guided tours (s/. 12) in English as well as Spanish, Huaca Pucllana is an easy add-on to a day of sightseeing in Lima.
This adobe pyramid was built by the Lima Culture, which thrived between 200 AD until around 700 AD. Little is known about the Lima Culture (named after the city, not the other way around) other than they were a coastal society eventually overtaken by the Wari civilization. They built Huaca Pucllana out of sunbaked bricks, positioned vertically with gaps between them in order to withstand earthquakes. The site was most likely initially used as an administrative center before becoming a religious center.
Today, the site is surrounded by modern apartment buildings and features a small museum as well as an on-site restaurant popular in the evening, when the ruins are lite by spotlights. The ruins themselves are still under excavation.
While the mixture of restored, original, and untouched portions of Huaca Pucllana provide a nice point for comparison, Huaca Huallamaraca in San Isidro is a completely restored pyramid. Also built by the Lima Culture, Huaca Huallamaraca was a place of worship as well as a ceremonial burial place for elite members of society; several mummies were found within the structure. Thousands of years later, the Incas built settlements on and around this huaca.
Huallamaraca (also called Pan de Azucar) was almost destroyed in the 1950s when the local government wanted to build over the area. Peruvian archeologists managed to save the site from destruction, but then proceed to completely rebuild it. In their attempts to make it a worthy tourist attraction, they failed to follow the original pattern of the structure. Today, visitors enjoy a liberal reconstruction of the ancient site, which likely doesn’t even face the same direction as the original structure.
For those willing to venture to the city’s outskirts, Pachacamac is a sprawling complex in the Lurin Valley, 20 miles southwest of central Lima. Pachacamac was an important pilgrimage site around 200 AD, and was believed to be the home of a great oracle. Located between the Pacific Ocean and the foothills of the Andes, it was also a place of worship to the God Pachacamac, venerated by the Lima Culture, then the Wari, and finally by the Incas who often incorporated local gods into their own religion. Pachacamac was still a large compound when the Spanish arrived. Now, modern-day visitors can spend hours wandering among adobe structures scattered across several miles. Though many have been eroded by time, a few have been restored, including the Templo del Sol and Palacio de las Mamacuna. A small museum adds further insight into the life and culture of ancient coastal Peru.
Tip: If you’re really interested in ancient cultures, consider a day-trip from Lima to Caral. Caral is the oldest city in the Americas, dating back 5,000 years. It is difficult to get here without private transportation; tours depart from Parque Kennedy for Caral on select weekends and cost s/.120.