Stone & Air

Ancient Cultures of the Andes

The people of the northern Andes are mountain people: people of stone and of the air. Their cultures evoke that which endures: a stone fortess. And that which blows away: the distant sound of a flute carried by the wind.

A nature-based spirituality is still deeply integrated into the daily life of the indigenous people who are the majority of the inhabitants of Peru , Bolivia , and Ecuador & Chile . For instance, at the summit of a mountain trail you might find a shrine dedicated to Pachamama, the indigenous earth mother deity, where offerings are still being made. Even the grand Incan ruins, remnants of a theocratic society if there ever was one, speak to the immediate environment — the very particular qualities of stone, light, air and water of the very particular place they happen to be. A visit to the ruins is an outdoor experience, adding a deeper dimension to a hiking or even cycling or paddling trip.

Most people who think pre-Columbian Andes think of the Incas. Not commonly realized is that the Inca empire was relatively short-lived. Its imperial expansion didn't begin until 1430, or 60 years before Columbus landed in the West Indies. In a flash, they controlled a 2000 mile stretch along the Andes and the western South American coast. By 1530, their magnificent empire lay shattered by the Spanish conquistadores. Although they did leave many remains, some of the most interesting archeological sites are of cultures that preceded the Incas. Agriculture began in the area by at least 4000 BC and you can visit ruins of cities dating back to 1300 BC.

If you fly into Peru from any other country than Bolivia, you'll arrive at Lima. Lima is a coastal town built by the Spanish, and reflects the Spaniards' sea-faring/trading culture rather than the indigenous mountain/agricultural focus. However as the powerful national capital, Lima has the best archeological museums devoted to Incan and pre-Incan societies. This is the place to learn more about the history and to see some of the objects, the tools and textiles and such, as well as the gold, that were sacked from sites now isolated in highlands, jungle or desert.

After a couple days, though, around Lima, you'll probably be itching to get out to some less congested place. The best place to see Incan ruins is the Cuzco area, the well spring of the Incan empire. The Inca Trail, one of the most stunning hikes in the world, both for natural beauty and historical interest, starts outside of town. The Urubamba Valley, the so-called"sacred valley" of the Incas, is also nearby and has many sites to explore as well as great hiking and paddling opportunities.

The Incans considered themselves to have been born from the Island of the Sun in the Bolivian part of Lake Titicaca, 250 miles southeast of Cuzco. Also in Bolivia is the important site of Samapaita.

The highlands of northern Peru used to be prime Incan stomping grounds, but most of the ruins have vanished. However there's some great trekking, and if you're there you'll probably want to fit Chavin de Huantar into your itinerary. Moving east across the Andes from there are some magnificent cloud forests and the ruins of Kuelap.

The lowland strip between the Andes and the Coast is possibly the driest place on earth. Desert lovers may prefer to venture to the north coast of Peru to see the sites near the bustling town of Trujillo. If you venture north into Ecuador, you might want to visit the town of Cuenca, an important archeological center. Mystery afficianados and UFO speculators may prefer to travel to the south coast of Peru to see the mysterious Nazca lines and the remains of the Paracas culture. Cross the border into Chile if you want to take in the ruins at San Pedro de Atacama.

The artistry and power of the vanished Andean civilizations endures in the lives and traditions of their desendants. There are way too many sites to discuss here. Probably the thing to do is to pick an area, and arrange to spend quality time at one two or its notable sites. And remember, the trip there tells you a lot about what the site is. If you're able, walk up the mountain to the fortress, rather than hitching a ride in the back of a truck. That way you'll experience approaching and entering the site much the same way the original inhabitants did.

When to Go
The peak season for travel is June through mid-September. However, October through December are still good times, and much less crowded. May also offers a little window of opportunity. January through April is the wet season.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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