Walking the Oldest City of the Americas

By Karen and Duane Sherer Stoltzfus
Peru SST
Co-Directors, 2014-2015

Knowing how brutish rush hour can be in Lima and knowing how far we had to drive to reach Caral, we left early on a Thursday morning — so early that when we entered the roundabout Ovalo Guttierez at 6:15, there were only four other cars circling with our bus.

While making our way to the archaeological site of Caral, we pass many fields.

We drove away from Lima, headed north on a highway that hugs the coastline, the Pacific to our left and steeply banked sand dunes to our right, making great time.

We reached one of the most celebrated archaeological sites in the world, Caral, the oldest city in the Americas, in about three hours.  Caral flourished for more than five centuries, beginning around 2600 B.C.

For all of its archaeological allure — we watched a BBC documentary earlier in the week, which described a civilization as old as the pyramids of Egypt, and where the absence of weapons and the presence of pyramids and canals suggests a highly structured society devoted to peace — Caral is a work in progress, reached by dirt roads, kept company by humble neighbors.

One of those neighbors, a young man named River, served as our tour guide. We felt fortunate to be able to tour the site without throngs of tourists, as will surely be the case next week, when we visit Machu Picchu. Except for a couple of workers using wheelbarrows to haul stones and dirt, and a tourist party of three, we walked among the excavated ruins, having Caral to ourselves.

Starting our tour through the archaeological site of Caral.

River told us that the excavation of Caral, which began in 1994, has uncovered 9 pyramids and 32 homes. He said 3,000 people once lived here. The pyramids were made of stone and a mud sealant from a nearby river (practically bone dry this time of year). The largest pyramid is about 91 feet high, with a base that covers an area the size of four football fields. At a place known as the Amphitheater Temple we heard that 32 flutes had been found, signs of a people who prized music.

Eventually, around 2100 BCE, Caral was abandoned – possibly because of drought. Its inhabitants apparently moved on to more fertile areas of country and perhaps founded other civilizations as they went.

We left the area early in the afternoon, hoping to beat the evening rush-hour traffic, but it was not to be. A three-hour trip in the morning turned into a four-hour trip in the afternoon. The drive is part of the admission price for visiting this site on the World Heritage List of the United Nations. We did, however, enjoy a nice meal on the way home in the town of Chancay, close to the ocean.

A group photo in front of the main pyramid.
A group photo in front of the main pyramid.