Empires of Mystery

Nazca Lines
The Nazca Lines include this image of a hummingbird.
[Courtesy photo]
Peru’s past shapes its present

Reminders of ancient civilizations fascinate visitors. But protecting relics is a challenge.

Times Latin America Correspondent

A visitor to Peru today can find evidence of civilized culture dating back as far as 2000 B.C.

Most of it is found far from Lima, the country’s grimy capital and modern-day center of power.

An effort recently has been made to restore Lima’s colonial architecture, but any attraction it might hold pales in comparison with the stunning archaeological ruins in the interior of the country.

For centuries, ancient Peru lay hidden from the outside world in the dense mountainous cloud forest of the Andes.

Earthquakes and landslides had also covered many sites in remote regions made almost impenetrable by the dense cloud forests. In more recent times, visitors were kept away by drug trafficking and a vicious guerrilla counterinsurgency against the Maoist Shining Path rebels.

Remains such as those found at Chan Chan and Chavin de Huantar in the Central Andes and the huge pyramid temples of Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna, overlooking the biggest adobe city in the world, provide plenty of visible evidence of pre-Inca civilization.

In southern Peru the ruins at Pisco national park and the famous Nazca Lines -- the abstract outlines of animals scratched into the dark desert -- also date to 500 B.C.

Many explorers have combed the jungle-covered mountains in search of the lost city of El Dorado, which, legend has it, is filled with gold. The royal tomb of Sipan, which was only discovered in 1987, is believed to be the richest unlooted tomb in the New World.

Last year three members of a Peruvian documentary film team trapped for a month in the Amazon rain forest claimed to have found a pre-Inca stone city and chunks of gold ore hidden for centuries under the dense jungle.

The remains of the Inca empire, dating from its rise in the 11th century until the Spanish conquest, are to be found in the south, centered around the modern city of Cuzco, where Spanish colonial architecture is underpinned by massive Inca masonry.

Modern-day traces of Peru’s indigenous past can still be found in the Quechua and Aymara mountain villages around Arequipa, south of Cuzco. The small communities of adobe and rock houses recall the pre-Inca days. Indian women dressed in colorful shawls and dresses woven of llama and alpaca wool follow centuries-old traditions.

In the shadow of snow-capped volcanoes, traditional crops of corn and potatoes are grown on spectacular terraces built into hillsides before the advent of the Spanish.

It wasn’t until 1911 that Hiram Bingham, an amateur archaeologist from the United States, discovered the now famous Inca Trail that leads along the “royal highway” to the sacred “lost city” of Machu Picchu, the once densely populated heart of the Inca empire.

The trail, a mosaic of hand-carved granite blocks laid down more than 400 years ago, twists 32 miles through the jungle and three mountain passes.

Machu Picchu is remarkably intact, largely because the Spaniards never found it. A complete city, it is set on a saddle of a high mountain with terraced slopes falling away to the river below.

 Machu Picchu
Alpacas graze on a terrace near Machu Picchu’s lookout station.
[Times files: 1966]
Bingham had been in search of what he believed was the Incas’ legendary last refuge from the invading Spaniards. Instead, he was led to the partly exposed ruins of Machu Picchu by local peasants.

Only in more recent decades has the true magnificence and importance of the city become clear. Not just a refuge, it is now widely regarded as the finest surviving example of the late imperial Incan style of architecture untainted by European influences.

Perched above stunning terraces and set against a sheer rock wall, much of the site’s significance is based on its improbably fine construction and endurance over the centuries. The Incan stonework took decades to complete, with a reverence for precision far beyond that of modern stone masons. Blocks weighing many tons with up to 12 sides lie slotted together without mortar so perfectly that a knife blade can hardly pass between them.

The walls of Machu Picchu have stood well against the forces of nature, but some experts fear that recent tourist development risks turning the city into a Peruvian version of Walt Disney World. The Peruvian government, its economy still reeling from guerrilla violence and political turmoil, has sought to mimic the success of U.S. theme parks by constructing a virtual Machu Picchu to cater to the hordes of tourists who have come.

Officially, the idea is to better preserve the real ruins. But critics detect an echo of the past. Like the Spaniards who chased the Incas into the mountains in search of mythical gold treasures, Peru’s tourist industry is today seeking to maximize the extraction of its modern counterpart -- foreign currency -- from the lost city.

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