Peru has a habit of turning virtually every visitor into an amateur archaeologist or outdoors enthusiast. Intriguing ruins from the Incas and even more ancient cultures fire the imagination, and outstanding museum collections of ceramics, spectacular textiles, and remarkably preserved mummies weave a complex tale of some of the world's most advanced cultures. And yet -- Cusco and Machu Picchu's immense popularity notwithstanding -- with so many temples and burial sites still being excavated, and ruins almost continually discovered in remote jungle regions, Peru still has the rare feeling of a country in the 21st century that hasn't been exhaustively explored.
The third-largest country in South America (after Brazil and Argentina), Peru has grown rapidly as a travel destination over the past decade, though it still seems comparatively undervalued given all it has to offer. With spectacular Andes mountains and highland culture, a swath of Amazon rainforest second only to Brazil, one of the richest arrays of wildlife in the world, and some of the Americas' greatest ruins of pre-Columbian cultures, Peru deserves to be experienced by so many more people.
Most know it only as the land of the Incas, symbolized by the mysteries of Machu Picchu, the famous lost city tucked high in the Andes. Yet Peru is littered with archaeological discoveries of many civilizations, from one end to another, highland to coast. Just 2 decades ago, a National Geographic team discovered Juanita the Ice Maiden, an Inca princess sacrificed on Mount Ampato more than 500 years ago. (Her frozen corpse is now exhibited in Arequipa.) In the last decade, archaeologists unearthed more than 2,000 extraordinarily well-preserved mummies from one of Peru's largest Inca burial sites, which was found under a shantytown on the outskirts of Lima. Researchers now describe Caral, a site in central Peru, north of Lima, believed to date to 2600 B.C., as the oldest city in the Americas, and, in late 2007, archaeologists celebrated the discovery of a 4,000-year-old temple on the northern coast.
It's not surprising, then, that when Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador, and his fortune-hunting cronies descended on Peru in 1528, they found not only vast riches, but also a highly sophisticated culture. The Spaniards soon overpowered the awed and politically weakened Inca Empire, but they didn't discover the Incas' greatest secret: the imperial city of Machu Picchu, hidden high in the Andes. Machu Picchu, finally revealed to the world in 1911 by a Yale historian, is acclaimed as the pinnacle achievement of the continent's pre-Columbian societies.
The Incas left behind numerous examples of their exquisite stone architecture and eye for unparalleled natural settings, but a long line of equally advanced cultures preceded the relatively short-lived Inca Empire. Over several thousand years, civilizations up and down the south Pacific coast and deep in the highlands developed ingenious irrigation systems, created sophisticated pottery and weaving techniques, and built great pyramids, temples, fortresses, and cities of adobe. Early peoples constructed mysterious cylindrical towers and the even more enigmatic Nasca Lines, giant drawings of animals and symbols somehow etched into the desert plains for eternity. Peru's fascinating history is in evidence everywhere: in open graves with bits and pieces of ancient textiles; in mortarless Inca stones that serve as foundations for colonial churches; and in traditional dress, foods, and festivals, as well as Andean customs and beliefs that reveal a country and a people very much rooted in its past.
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