Exploring Caral, Peru – The Oldest City in the Americas
My last day in South America, I spent a day in Supe Valley and explored the oldest civilization of the Americas that is Caral.
While many recognize Cuzco as the Inca capital of the world and Machu Picchu as the last remaining property of the Incas, few are aware that many cultural and social elements of Cuzco and Machu Picchu originated from the Caral civilization that was built 4,400 years prior to the emergence of the Inca empire.
Overview of Caral, Peru – one of the world’s oldest civilizations
As the first known civilization of America and the oldest one in the world, the Sacred City of Caral is among the 18 urban settlements and the capital city of Supe Valley. It has a total landmass of 65 hectares with 3,000 residents living from 2600 to 2000BC.
Caral was first discovered in 1948 by an American history professor, Paul Kosok, but little attention was given until 1994 when Peruvian archeologist Ruth Shady further explored the area. Eventually, full excavation took place and the lost city of Caral was found.
According to the historical timeline, this lost city, built 1,000 years before Machu Picchu, existed 300 years prior to the Egyptian civilization and is hundreds of years older than the existence of Indian, Chinese, and Mesoamerican civilizations. The social, cultural, and language system of Caral has laid a foundation for the Andean region and has influenced the social development of the Andean region.
In 2001, Caral was recognized as the oldest city of the American continent. This city finally opened to the public in 2013 but it is still not on the tourist radar. If you plan to visit sites that are lesser known and have historical significance in Peru, Caral is the place to be.
How to get to Caral
The Sacred City of Caral is 200km from Lima and requires four hours one-way travel. It is not easy to reach this place by public transport, as you need to change the bus and then take the collectivo. I checked the internet on how to get to Caral by public transport and gave up in the end.
Luckily, my hostel owner in Lima was resourceful and recommended that I take a one-day tour with Viajes Educativos (Educational Travel Program) to Caral. The tour leaves from the front of Ministerio de Cultura on Saturday and Sunday mornings at 6 am and returns around 7 pm. The cost is $150 Sol including the tour guide, entrance fee to Caral, another ancient site, and lunch. I headed off to Caral with them because the tour price was almost the same if I visited there on my own.
Please note that the tour is entirely in Spanish. If you are not fluent enough to understand what the tour guide is talking about, be sure to read background information before the trip and find someone on the site to translate it for you.
My experience in the Sacred City of Caral
Caral covers a large land area and the city is not very touristic. It is a special feeling to walk around the place that has a 5,000-year-old history and check out the interesting parts.
Six pyramids and its surroundings
Our tour starts with a full-scale view of the six pyramids rising in the deserted dry land, and they are all built on mounds circling around one central plaza. The largest pyramid is 18 meters tall and is the size of four football fields. Around the pyramids, there is an amphitheater and temple where the religions and ceremonial activities take place. It transported us back to the start of the modern civilizations and allowed us to imagine how the Caral civilization started and what the landscape and the life looked like back 5,000 years ago.
We stood there admiring this grand structure and wondered how these pyramids were built. It turns out that Caral had a highly organized society and people there developed a spirit of teamwork. Every day, the rulers assigned construction tasks to their people to build the place. On top of the largest pyramids, the rulers could view and monitor the entire city.
Obelisk and other facts
We walked through other parts of the city, where our guide explained to us how anthropologists know the location of the plaza and the temple through excavation, checking artifacts, and buried people, and .
At the center of Caral, we stopped at the obelisk which the people in Caral used to determine the time of the day. Our guide explained the motifs of plants and people on the obelisk and we noticed that the structure of the city is asymmetrical.
Supe Valley and Caral’s economic development
Caral has a unique system for social and economic development and farming cultures. The pottery and the ceramics are strictly lacking. However, when we were taken to a high point, we were astonished by the panoramic view of Supe Valley, which has a river flowing from the Andes to the coastal region of Peru that creates an irrigation system for Caral.
Unlike most ancient cities that progress through warfare, Caral’s economy largely relied on the trade between fishermen and the farmers, and the exchange of local produce with the northern and coastal region of Peru. Locals worked alongside the river growing inedible cotton for fishermen in the coastal region to make the fishnets. In return, the fishermen gave Caral fish as a payment. The cotton was not only used for the trade, but also to produce bags, clothes, and ornament.
The river was dried up on the day we visited, with the view of the greenish farmland and the white and brown colored bungalows on the other side. There, our tour guide demonstrated the trading process between Caral and the Amazonians, while appreciated the gorgeous view of the Supe Valley.
We spent 10 more minutes at the viewpoint and walked around the area. The day was a perfect one for a trip to Supe Valley, with the not-so-intense heat from the desert, foggy sky, and the wind from the coast. I could have enjoyed the rest of my day there if we did not have a schedule to follow.
Thoughts on Visiting Caral
The trip to Caral was definitely one of the best travels in Peru, where my perception of Peru being a place of dust, sand, and wind totally changed. Walking around the pyramids, I felt myself at the start of the modern civilization and great divide and I went on a journey of discovery and putting together a puzzle of why such a great civilization existed, and the significant impacts it had on other civilizations and cultures.
As Caral is still under excavation, more backgrounds and interesting discovery of this place will be revealed. It is an excellent place for history buffs who do not want to visit the highly-priced and overpopulated ruins.
If you are visiting Lima, I highly recommend a day trip to Caral, so you can experience what it was like in the midst of the start of the ancient civilization that started around the time when the Egyptians built the pyramids.