For many travelers to Peru, visiting ancient ruins offers one of the best reasons for venturing into the wild. After all, the fact that these sites are usually off-beat and well-protected — often to serve out their former purposes as spiritual centers, military strongholds, and imperial homes — is part of the joy. But what else is there to see and do if you start to feel “ruin-ed” out?
Without a doubt, Peru has one of the most incredible collections of ancient pre-Columbian ruins, fortresses, citadels, and sacred sites. Before the Spanish and the rest of the Western world arrived to this New World in the mid 1500s, civilizations such as the Wari, Moche, Lima, Paracas, and others had already experienced rises and falls, leaving behind the physical remains of their great dynasties — the most famous, of course, being the Incan wonder that is Machu Picchu.
But after hopping around to a few sites and learning about the significance of the “inti” for the fifth time, it’s easy to start feeling like you are spending your days “just looking at rocks.” Here’s where to go to keep those history lessons fresh and fun:
Quinoa: The Last Battle for Peruvian Independence
Getting off the tourist path in Peru isn’t easy, but it’s definitely worth it. Roughly eight hours by bus from Lima is the Andean city of Ayacucho, a place where the people seem to live in a time capsule. From there, the sleepy village of Quinoa is a short distance away. Come here for some of the country’s finest examples of native, regional art: colorfully painted ceramic bulls, churches, and other motifs. There’s also a real community feel here; you just might see all the residents come out to watch the latest backyard soccer game.
While you’re here, venture to the Pampas de Quinoa in the mountain-set plains just outside of the village. It’s the site of the last struggle for Peru’s independence from Spain, during the Battle of Ayacucho in 1824, and a tall white obelisk honors the victory and the fallen today. Not only will you get to mingle with proud citizens from throughout the country, your visit will also be rewarded with breathtaking 180-degree views of the Andean range.
Cajamarca: The Ransom Room of Inca Emperor Atahualpa
Machu Picchu isn’t the only spot in Peru to glimpse into the former Inca Empire. Outside of Cajamarca, in the northern region of the country, you can now visit what’s believed to have been the last Inca Emperor’s final residence: a small restored hut known as his Ransom Room.
This historic site received its name when Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro ambushed and captured Emperor Atahualpa in 1532. (The Spanish had begun eradicating existing leaders when they arrived to what is now Peru in the early 1500s, in an effort to claim the land as their own.) After the Incan battalion was defeated, the emperor offered to buy his freedom by filling the hut with Inca gold.
While the treasures were delivered to the Spanish and are no longer housed in the Ransom Room — and Atahualpa executed in the end — it’s worth a visit if you’re looking for something different. Other historical sites located in the same Plaza de Armas include the colonial complex of El Complejo de Belen and the Museo Arqueológico, housed in what was once the Women’s Hospital. Visitors can also experience a typical Peruvian market, view the 17th century paintings and the catacombs of the Iglesia de San Francisco church, and hike to the waterfalls just outside of town.
Lima: Walk Among the Famously Dead
Peru’s history is defined by military moves and, on the other end of the spectrum, literary heroes. See both sides of the country’s heritage at the beautiful yet spooky Presbítero Matías Maestro Cemetery, founded in 1808, in Lima’s Barrios Altos district.
Home to some of the oldest surviving crypts on the continent, the grounds are split into two distinct halves. The older section features distinctively old-European, neoclassical style tombs, with deep family mausoleums and statues of the Old World’s most trusted saints and angels. The newer half is more traditionally Peruvian in style, with boxy resting places set upon each other, almost like drawers.
As you traverse the cemetery, you’ll also find the tombs of some of Peru’s biggest names from the history books: former presidents of the Republic of Peru, politician Víctor Larco Herrera; war heroes Manuel Bonilla, Mariscal Andrés Avelino Cáceres, Juan Fanning, Alfonso Ugarte, Francisco Bolognesi, and Enrique Palacios de Mendiburu; priest and founder of the cemetery Matías Maestro; writers Ricardo Palma and José Carlos Mariátegui); painter José Sabogal; and many more.
Whether you’re here during the day or at night, we recommend visiting with a guide or group, as the surrounding neighborhood can be insecure. For just one example, the Sociedad de Beneficia de Lima Metropolitana, a charity group that looks after some of Lima’s most historic sites, hosts sporadic guided tours. You can also contact a local travel agency to arrange a visit.
Lima: Remembering Decades of Terrorism
Starting in the 1980s, the Peruvian government went through many radical difficulties, including an era of terrorism that lasted until the early 2000s. The Museo Nacional de la Memoria (National Memory Museum) is a comprehensive and well-produced place for remembrance and reflection on one of the darkest periods of Peruvian history, located at the top floor of the National Museum (Museo de la Nacion) in the San Borja district of Lima. Though it has a niche focus and therefore isn’t a top museum for many tourists, it’s the best place to begin to gain an understanding of the current values and outlooks of many Peruvians — the influence of the period continues to affect the country’s modern socio-economic landscape.
More about that time: It’s believed that more than 30,000 people died or disappeared between the ’80s and early 2000s. Much of this was at the hands of a guerilla group called the Shining Path, which was founded predominantly by Andean communities in a society where there was a large between between the haves and have nots. Their vision for a communist society, modeled after that of China’s, soon led them to use militaristic measures and brutality to crush opponents and non-followers. The period of terrorism ended with the arrest of top Shining Path leaders.
We recommend that history buffs allot approximately three hours for the museum.