The sun beat down on my head and baked the adobe that spread around me for 10 miles. I was exploring Chan Chan the world’s largest adobe structure, and I was unprepared for the blinding light and blistering heat.
Around the next corner I found blessed relief; shade trees and a pool of water, fed by the underground springs that were the reason for this forgotten civilization. I felt like Hiram Bingham as I discovered the oasis at the heart of this lost city.
Peru’s ancient past did not begin with the Incas. Aside from Machu Picchu, there are many other “lost cities” to discover.
Your explorations can begin right upon your arrival in Lima, where you can find the remains of three ancient cities from the Lima Culture, a civilization that was already well into its decline when the Inca Empire was on the rise.
Museo de Sitio Huaca Pucllana is a monumental Lima Culture archeological site with a pyramid and buildings that date from 200 A.D. The adobe remains of this lost city are conveniently in Lima’s Miraflores neighborhood.
Parque de las Leyendas (Park of Legends), Lima’s zoo is housed in an archeological site with ancient Lima Culture adobe walls and pyramids.
Just 40 kilometers southeast of Lima on the Lurin River valley, Pachacamac is another Lima site consisting of 17 pyramids, temples and buildings dating from 800 A.D.
Up north, 10 minutes outside of Trujillo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose scale challenges the imagination. Chan Chan, the ancient adobe city of the Chimu culture is immense, covering almost 5,000 acres.
Also near Trujillo are the remains of another forgotten culture, the Moche. Two eroded pyramids are called Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna, the Moche temples of the Sun and Moon. These artificial mountains are testament to the industriousness of Peru’s ancient cultures. The Pyramid of the Sun Mountain, Huaca del Sol was 135 feet high and 12.5 acres across, built of 130 million adobe bricks – the largest single structure ever built in South America.
Halfway between Lima and Chimbote, set back a few kilometers from the coast, is the grandfather of all Peruvian lost cities, Caral. The remains of this stone city cover 60 hectares. In its heyday the population was around 3,000. In the surrounding Supe Valley there are other 19 pyramid complexes, and the entire population was over 20,000. This may be the oldest urban center in all of the Americas, dating back 5,000 years, roughly the same time as the completion of the great Pyramids of Egypt. Caral was first unearthed in 1905 and digging began in 1948. Research and excavation take precedence, and the Caral site is still being developed as a tourist attraction.
Six hours inland from the northern city of Piura, in a region straddling the Andean highlands overlooking the Amazonian jungle, another ancient city was discovered in 1997. Over 20,000 “Cloud People” lived in the city of Chachapoyas. A string of hilltop fortifications defended the Cloud People. Circular stone structures with carved human and animal forms suggest elements of their belief system. They eventually became subjects of the Incas. The Cloud People were reportedly tall and white skinned and unique from other Andeans, but none remain alive today. They are believed to have died out from European introduced diseases.
Some lost cities are hidden in plain sight. Ollantaytambo is a living community in the Sacred Valley. It is the best preserved continuously inhabited Inca town. The stone block roads, walkways, walls, aqua-ducts, and drains are authentic and still in use. It is a national archaeological park, with impressive Inca structures including a fortress, temples, baths and granaries.
Vilcabamba is the last city of the Incas. This small group of ruins east of the Sacred Valley was founded by Manco Inca, the last leader of the Empire. He fled the Spanish to this refuge on a branch of the Urubamba River, an isolated spot called Espiritu Pampa.
If you’re truly out to discover a lost city, Paititi is still only a legend. This Inca city may be somewhere on the eastern side of the Andes near Peru’s border with Bolivia and Brazil. The city is reputed to be an Inca treasure trove that remained hidden from the Spanish.