By Megan Spurrel
Travelers to Peru usually make a beeline to the country’s cultural icons, like the ruins of Machu Picchu or the Incan heartland of Lake Titicaca, and for good reason: Peru's World Heritage sites are rich with ancient history and bucket list-topping experiences. Lima, on the other hand, is the city you stop through on the way—hopefully with a enough time for a meal at Virgilio Martinez's Central if you're lucky.
Overshadowed by the charm of smaller towns like Cusco, the Peruvian capital tends to get (unfairly) written off as just another big Latin American city. Many assume it lacks the ancient cultural touchstones found elsewhere in the country. But snuggled between those white high-rise apartment buildings, sit towering mounds of camel-colored clay that are more than three times as old as Machu Picchu, also known as Lima’s huacas.
The exact definition of a huaca, also spelled w’aka, is fairly loose. In the indigenous Quechua language, it literally translates to “sacredness,” though the Incas used it to refer to ancient pyramids made of clay bricks, many of which can be spotted throughout Lima, elsewhere on Peru's coast, and even across the neighboring countries of Chile and Ecuador (once also part of the Incan empire).
These ruins weren’t originally built by the Incas though. Many date back to 200 AD and the Lima people the city is named after—long before the construction of Machu Picchu began around 1450. And, unlike the four-walls-and-a-roof stone buildings found at more modern ruins, the huacas, once the sites of both stargazing and human sacrifices, are made of thousands of tawny bricks, meticulously stacked into a squat pyramid. They're also incredibly easy to visit, and don't require hiking some 8,000 feet high to do so, either.
“The huacas are often overlooked, but they shed a lot of light on the ancient civilizations before the Incas,” says Marisol Mosquera, the founder of Aracari Travel, which organizes tours to Peru. “In essence, a visit to a huaca in Lima is totally unrelated to a visit to Machu Picchu, [making them] very interesting in their own right".
Experts say that ancient Lima was once covered by huacas, but you can still find them in nearly every neighborhood today. The government has identified more than 400 of them and over 300 are marked as landmarks. Some have been better preserved and restored than others: take Huaca Pucllana, in the touristed Miraflores district, which has a museum and even an upscale restaurant called Restaurant Huaca Pucllana inside of it, or the Huaca Huallamarca in San Isidro, which has also undergone restoration and is open to visitors. In other neighborhoods, however, like the downtown neighborhood of Breña, you might simply spot one, marked with graffiti and wrapped by a chain-link fence, as you zoom past in a taxi.
“Huaca Pucllana is an example of how things can change with the huacas in Lima,” says Denise Pozzi Escot, the director of archaeological studies for Peru’s Ministry of Culture. “Twenty years ago, people were riding bicycles on it. Nobody was researching it, and it wasn’t even considered an archaeological site. But now it’s a museum, there’s research, there’s a restaurant.” She says more communities are working to protect these important pieces of history in their neighborhoods. Hopefully, as the local appreciation has grown, so too will that of those visiting.
Even larger and more significant huacas can be found just outside the city's borders, including the massive Pachacamac, a little over an hour’s drive to the south, and Caral, which is believed to be the first city in the Americas and lies just three hours to the north. No two huacas are the same, but a visit to any shines a light on their shared history.
“You can learn the entire history of Peru if you study the construction of the huacas,” says Pozzi Escot, who points to Pachacamac as the perfect example. “The Lima people started construction sometime around 200 AD and used it for living. The Wari people later arrived, sometime around 500, and built more important structures.” Only after that did the Incas travel from Lake Titicaca, known as the birthplace of the Incas, to Pachacamac, where they built their sacred Temple of the Sun, which still attract shamans and pilgrims from throughout the country to this day.
“You don’t need to be an archaeology buff to get something out of the Lima huacas—though if you are, you’ll be thrilled to visit them,” says Richard Leonardi, the Latin American Travel Consultant at Wild Frontiers. Trips to those outside the city, like Caral, are easily justifiable, too. As Machu Picchu bows under the weight of increasing visitor numbers, sites like these provide an interesting alternative. “With proper context from a great guide, Caral is a very impressive site,” says Leonardi. “It’s the cradle of civilization in South America. And given that there are very few tourists, if any on a slow day, it’s also the perfect antidote to overtourism.”
How to do It
If you have just a day or two in Lima, visit Huaca Pucllana in Miraflores. Tours are offered in English and Spanish, nearly every thirty minutes, and the whole visit takes no more than an hour. And yes, there are onsite llamas. While your meals in the city will likely be accounted for, the attached restaurant is worth stopping by for a snack. (Order the papas rellenas (stuffed potatoes) and a pisco sour.) Stick around until it gets dark, when you’ll get a lit-up view of the huaca beside you.
Also open to visitors is Huaca Huallamarca in San Isidro, which has a small museum with mummies found on the site (and is also conveniently located near destination restaurant Astrid y Gaston), or the downtown Parque de las Leyendas, which is known for its zoo but also has six haucas inside, including huaca San Miguel which you can climb to the top of. (Combine it with a trip to the historic Pueblo Libre neighborhood, where you'll find the pre-Columbian Larco Museum, the latest buzzy Gaston Acurio spot, El Bodegón, and a handful of folksy taverns, like Antigua Taberna Quierolo, the oldest bar in the city.) An Uber can get you to any of these huacas.
If you have more time on your hands, or have a deeper passion for the subject, plan a half-day trip to Pachacamac or a full-day expedition to Caral. The first has an impressive new museum that opened in July 2015 and tour guides are on site to show you around. You can get there by taxi, public transportation, or on an organized day trip from Lima. For Caral, you’ll probably want to tap a specialist, like Mosquera or Leonardi, to organize a private tour with comfortable transportation—the three-hour journey can be bumpy on a larger bus and you'll need to bring your own guide.