For over 30 years I had worked as an archaeologist at Glasgow University, specialising in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages of Europe and the Near East. I had often taken my adult students on study tours to such diverse locations as Ireland, Brittany, Malta, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Syria and Jordan. With no thought of doing anything more than going on holiday to a different area (and realising the lifetime ambition of seeing Machu Picchu), my wife and I had joined a Journey Latin America tour to Peru.
After a couple of weeks in the excellent company of Juan Carlos Machicado, Journey Latin America’s tour leader for the trip, I was thoroughly hooked on Peru and its Pre-Hispanic archaeology. With Juan's help, we drafted out a special two-week tour of Peru’s archaeological sites, and I came back to Scotland to work on the idea.
Four years later, after a special reconnaissance visit to northern Peru, we finally put together a three-week special tour. Advertised only to my student groups, we were expecting to recruit a group of about 20 people. Within 10 hours of opening the booking we had 28 applications, and a few days later, we were over 40. Journey Latin America did a wonderful job developing the itinerary and the end result was two tours, one in July and the other in September.
I suppose one thing I have learnt is that there is so much more to Peruvian archaeology than the Incas. My reconnaissance tour brought revelations concerning some of the earlier civilisations, particularly the Moche and Chimu cultures of the northern coast - a region which was to become a key part of our itinerary.
Starting, as one does, in Lima, we visited the centro historico and the National Anthropology Museum, before driving 120 miles north of the capital to the newly discovered site of Caral. Hidden in the coastal desert and abandoned for over 4,000 years, Caral is now believed to be the earliest urban settlement in the Americas, its monumental construction dating back to around 2800 BC.
Our next stop was Chiclayo, a one-hour flight from Lima, from where we would explore the many fascinating sites of the Moche and Chimu. The Moche were an early militaristic civilisation on the north coast (100-800 AD), whose capital was built in the middle of the desert, outside of present-day Trujillo. It was their efficient system of roads, canals and way stations that is thought to have been the early inspiration for the Inca’s vast network. Their greatest legacy however, was their artistic genius - with master craftsmen creating beautiful ornaments in gold, silver, precious stones and pottery. This was best exemplified by the exciting 1987 discovery of the richest Moche tomb in Peru, in the small village of Sipán.
After visiting the twin pyramid complex at Sipán and the mysterious ancient city of Túcume (Valley of the Pyramids), we drove to the nearby town of Lambayeque for a visit to the stunning Museo de las Tumbes Reales (Royal Tombs), built in the shape of a Moche pyramid and home to all of the exquisite gold treasure from the Lord of Sipán’s tomb. An added bonus was to be received by the Director of the Museum, Dr Walter Alva - the man who actually discovered the tomb back in 1987.
The following day, overawed by the whole Sipán experience, we headed south to Trujillo, visiting other Moche sites at San José de Moro, Pacatnamu and El Brujo on the way. The latter was an immense pyramid with fascinating mural depictions of naked prisoners, dancing priests and a gruesome deity known as the Decapitator - characters who we were to meet again the next day, on our trip to the Huaca de la Luna and the Huaca del Sol. This vast pyramid complex was built out of over 140 million man-made adobe bricks and was the ancient capital of the Moche. Each excavation today yields more examples of their magnificently preserved murals and more information about just how complex these huacas (sacred places) really were. But this wealth of finds does pose problems: how are such enormous structures to be preserved for future generations? Can they continue to be protected from the huaqueros (grave robbers) and, more significantly, from the elements?
Given that these cities were built out of adobe (mud bricks), once exposed, they could so easily be destroyed by the devastating rains and flooding associated with El Niño. One site particularly at risk is the vast, crumbling walled capital of the Chimu, Chan Chan. Protected by UNESCO in 1986 it is the largest adobe city in the world, covering a colossal 28 square kilometres.
Continuing on our trip, we drove the long road south to Nasca. The next day we were rewarded with a clear day and a fantastic flight over the famous Nasca Lines. Only visible from the air, these huge geometric designs and animal drawings in the desert are thought to have been carved by the Nasca people (from as early as 400BC). Today, their meaning, function and origin still remain a mystery.
Located 20 miles south of Nasca, we visited Chauchilla cemetery, where grave robbers have ransacked the tombs of the ancient Nasca, leaving mummified remains and fragments of ceramics and textiles strewn across the desert. Peru has suffered enormously from the activities of grave robbers. But the involvement of the local community in tourism, helping to preserve their cultural heritage, might now help to improve the situation.
Returning to Lima, via Paracas, we were able to get our first sight of the culture that was to dominate the rest of our study tour at Tambo Colorado - the Incas. This site was one of the administrative centres of the Incas, built in stone, not adobe, during the expansion of their empire from the Valley of Cusco in the 15th century AD.
Cusco and the Incas (1000-1532 AD) are of course synonymous with Peru, and of course we visited all of the famous sites in and around Cusco and the Sacred Valley. But we also included some less well-known sites like Raqchi, the largest known Inca building, and the Inca experimental agricultural centre at Moray, where a series of terraces were cunningly built within circular sinkholes in the natural rock.
After a night at Ollantaytambo, we travelled to Machu Picchu for what many would see as the highlight of our trip. But there had been so many other highlights that Machu Picchu had to take its place alongside Sipán, El Brujo, Huaca de la Luna, Nasca and many others, including some splendid museums, both public and private.
Even after three weeks of travel, we had only just skimmed the surface. New discoveries continue to be made at a staggering pace - Cota Coca and Llactapata have recently been rediscovered following Hiram Bingham's journey in 1912, and Choquequirao is now being hailed as the ‘next Machu Picchu’. With these and many other sites gradually being opened up to travellers, Peru is a destination that can be returned to over and over again in the years to come.