Pachacamac – a sacred site of ruins in the desert
One of the most interesting things you can do in Peru that is also very close to Lima is take a day’s outing to Pachacamac. This is a fascinating archaeological site southwest of Lima, in the Lurin Valley.
Before we get onto a very short description of the history of the place, here’s a little bit of what to expect.
- It’s about 32 kilometers south (or a quick 40-minute drive) from Lima to Pachacamac.
- It’s in the desert so it is hot and there is no shade. You will need to take a good sunblock, a hat and lots of water!
- Once you get there, you can either walk around or go by car to visit the sites. You can decide once there what suits you best, depending on your level of fitness, the time you have and the heat.
- Wear comfortable shoes and clothes that you don’t mind getting dusty. Remember, it’s in the desert.
- There is still a lot of excavation work going on, so you are limited as to what paths you can walk on.
- By all accounts, you will get the most benefit out of your visit if you hire a guide, both for their knowledge and to show you around. There is no information either in Spanish or English at the site.
- Don’t worry about food: everybody raves about the café at the museum, especially the delicious cakes.
Absolute don’t misses
If you don’t have time or inclination to spend hours in this sprawling site, these are the two must-dos:
- Walk to the top of the Temple of the Sun. This is an Incan structure built on top of the some of the older civilizations’ buildings. Though it’s uphill, it’s worth seeing the magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean which is spectacular.
- Spend time in the museum. Only opened a year ago, it is small but well curated. It places the site in context of the various cultures that inhabited it at different points, until the arrival of the Spanish, who plundered and looted it. There are artefacts, maps, dioramas and multimedia exhibits.
And now a very short history lesson…
Pachacamac was first settled around A.D. 200 and was named after the “Earth Maker” creator god Pacha Kamaq. People from all the Tahuantinsuyo Empire came on pilgrimage to worship the god, making it a very sacred site.
The actual site is a sprawling ceremonial centre of 18 mud-brick pyramids with ramps and plazas. It spans about 600 hectares.
Between 900 AD and 1470 it was ruled by the Ychsma lords. The Inca Empire then conquered the religious center and held on to it for just under 100 years.
A holy place for the Incas
For the Inca Empire, Pachacamac held an important religious significance and was also one of the main administration centers of the civilization. Interestingly, the Incas had always had their own creation god, Viracocha, but out of respect for the people it had conquered, the Incas decided to incorporate the deity Pach Kamaq into their religion, albeit as a lesser deity. While the Inca civilization ruled, they built five additional buildings, including the Temple to the Sun on the main square.
Destruction by the Spanish
Just short of a 100 years later, the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro’s brother, Hernando, arrived at the site, which he proceeded to plunder. He also destroyed the idol that served as an oracle. Spanish settlers later pulled down the walls of the temples and put up their own structures.
Multi-level grave site
Archaeologists began exploring Pachacamac in the 1890s but already many of the ruins had been looted by the Spanish. Renewed efforts began in 1999, when a Belgian by the name of Peter Eeckhout led a team to uncover more sites in the area. In 2005, they dug down more than four meters and found a multilevel grave site, which is totally intact and had not been looted, perhaps as it is hidden under crumbling walls.
The upper layer of burials contained a large number of people who seemed to have died of diseases like TB, Syphilis and cancer. The archaeologists concluded that these people had been brought to the site to be cured by the god Pachacamac, and had died there, and been buried.
Below that, a second layer of mummies indicated that these were family burials. The archaeologists found “bundles” of mummies, for example, a mother, father and child all buried together. These burials seem to date to before the Inca Empire turned Pachacamac into a pilgrimage center around 1470.
There is a third level with mummified remains from an even earlier period.
Another fascinating gravesite that has been discovered are a cemetery composed only of women, who had clearly been sacrificed in a ritual, as they had all been strangled with a cotton cord around the neck. It appears that the women were weavers for priests and brewed corn for festivals. They seemed to have been of a very high status judging by the cloths they were buried in, and the offerings such as cumin and coco with which they were entombed.
Your personal salute to the Sun
There are many temples you can visit, but we will just mention the Temple of the Sun as the one you must not miss. It is the biggest pyramid in the site and also the best preserved in the whole complex. It was built around 1450 AD for one of the gods in the in the Tahuantinsuyo Empire. It consists of five platforms one on top of the other, in the shape of a pyramid. Walking up it will cost you a bit of sweat and effort, but once you get to the top, you can do your own individual Salute to the Sun!
Home, sweet home
And when you’re done, come down and enjoy a delicious cool drink and pastry at the excellent little café in the newly opened museum. Then home to Lima after a history-filled day!