Caral the Oldest City in the Americas

It was almost by accident that I found myself in Caral. Certainly it was a lucky turn of events that resulted in my visit. My flight to Lima in Peru had reached the stage where you start searching for anything to relieve the tedium. I’m not a fan of in-flight magazines. I was so lucky to have looked at the magazine on this flight. There was an interesting article about a site called Caral, the oldest settlement in the Americas. The picture of the pyramids on the site fascinated me.

I thought I couldn’t miss the opportunity to go to Caral and take a look. I would be very short of time having only a few days free in Lima after returning from Machu Picchu. It looked pretty remote from the map and it was clear that it would be difficult to make the journey with public transport. I contacted the hotel I would be using in Lima and asked if they could recommend some tour operators. I have found that hotel staff will go out of their way to help and often have contacts it would be very difficult to find otherwise,

Armed with the names of some tour operators I found email addresses and fired off several enquiries. I only found a single company that was organising a trip, but it was on the day I returned from Cusco so I would miss it. They said I could have my own tour for $300 but that would have been a lot more than I wanted to pay. They said I could wait and see if there were others who wanted to do the trip then we could split the cost. So I left it open and enjoyed my hike to Machu Picchu.

When I returned to Lima I checked again and no one had contacted them so I thought that I would just have to miss seeing the oldest settlement in the Americas. Then the afternoon prior to my final day in Lima I received an email saying that 2 other people wanted to go. That was great I could go and visit after all.

The traffic in Lima is almost unbelievably bad. To stand any chance of doing the trip in a day we would have to leave at 5.30. The journey to Caral is an experience in itself. The coast road winds itself north and you realise that Lima and all the coastal strip really is in a desert. Lima always seems to be covered in a mix of fog and pollution and I was told that it never rains.

The coast road runs north and shanty towns and fog are all you can see for what seem like hundreds of miles. No running water, sewerage or electricity. I felt sad to see what a tough existence these people had. There is a huge contrast between the beautiful country inland and this desert wilderness. Our guide said that he also lived in a shanty area and that his parents and many others migrate looking for better education for their children. I certainly hope they found it. This picture shows the view as you drive north.

shanty town in fog next to highway

Eventually you reach the turning inland and the desert turns to green. You feel like an explorer finding an oasis. You drive up the valley and every now and then you see what appear to be large piles of rocks either side. The guide points out that these are actually pyramids. Although I could have made the journey a hundred times without this being obvious. The site of the main settlement reminded me of Egypt with the lush green valley giving way to the desert.

green valley next to desert and caral

As you park you see that there is some effort made to cater for tourists. There are a few buildings, some toilets and boards of information in Spanish. I’m not sure if you had to go round with the site guide but we found ourselves being lead around and given a guided tour totally in Spanish, which none of us spoke. The site guide didn’t even want our English speaking guide to come along to translate. Maybe I misunderstood and our guide just wanted a rest. Maybe the site guide was protective of his secrets. There are at least 6 pyramids on the site. Most had awnings on top for protection from the sun.

In front of one of the larger pyramids was a mysterious circle of stones. It looked like it had been excavated and rebuilt. I say it was mysterious because I cannot imagine we can be certain what part this circle played in the ceremonies performed here.

circular stone enclosure

I visited the one shop on site where they were selling a few items including a Spanish guide book. I bought this book then returned to the information board and photographed them. I was happy that given a little time with my rudimentary Spanish I could discover more about what I had seen. Then our guide and driver were keen for us to set off south again and head back to Lima. The evening rush hour was waiting for us. Neither of these words are accurate as there is nothing to do with rushing and the journey through the suburbs takes a lot longer than an hour. It was very late when we arrived back at the hotel but I was pleased to have made the effort to visit such an important settlement in the history of Peru and indeed the Americas.

In summary you can make the visit from Lima in a day albeit a long day. I can understand why it is only the most interested tourists who would visit. It will be great when there is more explanation for non-Spanish visitors. Until then doing some homework on the history would help. I prefer to see places then go away and read up. It makes it much more alive for me.