LIMA, Peru – Although Peru’s main tourist destination is the ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, located in the Andes, the capital Lima is also home to a treasure trove of ancient ruins – so many, in fact, that authorities cannot take take care of them all.
The city is home to over 400 known pyramids, temples and burial sites, many of which predate the Incas and are known in Spanish as “huacas”. They sit next to modern malls, hotels and highways or stand in the middle of neighborhoods in this city of 11 million people. Meanwhile, archaeologists continue to dig new sites.
Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former Peruvian president who lives across from a pyramid called Huallamarca, built around 1,800 years ago, says with a smile, “I know where I am when I wake up in the morning. I’m in Peru! “
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Mainly due to budget constraints, Huallamarca is one of 27 sites in Lima that have been excavated, restored and opened to visitors, according to archaeologists who spoke to NPR.
Many other sites are deteriorating. Some have been occupied by squatters, others have become de facto dumping grounds or gathering places for drug addicts and the homeless.
“Wherever you dig, you’ll find something – because Lima was home to great civilizations,” says Micaela Álvarez, director of the Pucllana Museum, a massive pyramid in Lima’s Miraflores business district. “But it is impossible to save everything in a poor country.”
Pucllana is one of the exceptions.
Believed to be around 1,500 years old, the pyramid was a ceremonial site for the indigenous group of Lima who gave this city its name. Excavations began in 1981 and continue today.
Recently, workers scraped sand and earth from a part of the site that archaeologists are beginning to explore for the first time. Nearby, guides pointed out the intricate masonry, which has withstood earthquakes, then led visitors to the top of the 82-foot-tall pyramid for views of the Pacific Ocean.
Among the visitors was Manuel Larrabure, a professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, born and raised in Lima but never having been to Pucllana.
“It’s very impressive,” he said. “The trend is to look outside of Lima for interesting things, but it’s good to look inside and appreciate our own culture. People are still getting to know these sites.”
Before being restored after excavations began about 40 years ago, Pucllana was regularly looted and abused. At one time, a factory used the sand and clay from Pucllana to make bricks. Tour guide Blanca Arista says the pyramid also served as a neighborhood playground — and a motocross track.
“It’s unbelievable, but several groups were doing motocross,” she said. “So imagine different groups on motorcycles, on bicycles.”
Indeed, the ancient indigenous sites of Lima have, more often than not, been desecrated instead of being safeguarded, explains Giancarlo Marcone, Peruvian archaeologist and professor at the University of Engineering and Technology of Lima.
Some have been bulldozed to make way for buildings and streets amid a wave of rural exodus that began in the 1950s.
“It put a lot of pressure on the city and we didn’t have good planning,” Marcone explains. “Until recently, we didn’t really care what we had.”
Attitudes changed as Peruvians became more aware of their cultural heritage and the country’s ancient sites began to attract more international tourists. Janie Gómez, who until April served as deputy culture minister, said President Dina Boluarte’s government was committed to preserving these sites.
“Their recovery will prevent them from deteriorating and being overrun,” she told the state-run Andina news agency in January. “The millennial history on which Lima was built must not be lost.”
However, Peru is struggling to reduce poverty and improve hospitals and schools, Marcone says. Thus, governments have been unable or unwilling to fund major excavations or turn more than a few sites into tourist attractions. The result is that many have been left in limbo.
Rosa María Barillas, a Peruvian archeology student who recently completed fieldwork at an ancient temple on the outskirts of Lima, remembers looters prowling the area.
“I had to chase them away,” she says.
Other sites have been colonized by squatters. The Mateo Salado Archaeological Complex, near Lima International Airport, features a beautifully restored thousand-year-old pyramid, but is also home to several modern houses. Until 2013, when major restoration work began, farmers used the site to grow roses and neighborhood children played football there.
In the working-class neighborhood of Los Olivos, a dusty, brown archaeological site called Infantas I is ringed with streets and houses. Ashes from a campfire burn as trash piles up in several areas. Three young people smoke crack and a shirtless man digs sand and puts it in bags. The area is part of a series of temples, but has not yet been excavated.
Benito Trejo, who heads the neighborhood committee, calls Infantas I a headache.
“It’s not a good thing because these sites are being ignored by the government that is supposed to take care of them,” he says.
There were no responses to NPR’s requests for comment from the Department of Culture.
For now, archaeologists say surrounding communities need to get more involved in preserving and promoting the sites. Pucllana, for example, has been used for art exhibitions, while other sites have hosted film screenings.
At Mateo Salado, fifth-grade students recently visited the site and drew pictures of the ruins, which are part of their school’s logo.
“We should not consider these sites as mere relics of the past,” explains Andrés Ramírez, one of the instructors. “They should be part of everyday society. That’s what we’re trying to promote.”
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