Early one lovely Peruvian morning, Ivo and I swiped a bag of sweet rolls from a highway bakery and hit the Pan-American highway.
The dusty yellow shops along the side of the road became fewer and fewer and finally disappeared. Our radio began to fuzz out as we curved farther into the mountains. Eventually, the mountains became a stretch of marsh several miles long: pelicans sometimes leapt up into the air as we drove by.
We drove until the roads started to disintegrate. We started to pass men with donkeys and tractors and trucks piled with more hay than could possibly pass any US safety regulation. Finally, we pulled into a wide gravel parking lot: that had to be it, right? There must be a nice, paved path to our destination, yes?
Nope. Ivo hopped out of the car, only to have a small native Peruvian inform him this was only the starting point of a very long, rigorous hiking tour. To reach the ruins we were seeking, we’d need to continue driving. One chipped windshield, two bumpy crosses over a dry riverbed, and many disturbingly deep ditches later… the vegetation disappeared and we pulled into another, much dustier parking lot.
Give or take a few centuries, about 5,000 years ago in Egypt, a bunch of ancient people were busy hauling stone for these:
While the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid are easy to recognize though, you might not have heard of Caral.
About a three-hour drive from what–in about 5,000 years–would be Lima, Peru, the very beginnings of city life in the Americas were appearing exactly here: Caral. This is, loosely speaking, the Egypt of this half of the world map.
The remains of this sprawling city centre were first discovered around the 1940s, when Wiley and Corbet (two Harvard grads) dug up a multi-roomed building, some interesting ancient trash, and what they rather unfortunately catalogued as “natural eminences of sand.” Although they thought it was weird to have found corn cobs in the middle of what was essentially a salt marsh, which sounds about as barren as it is, they shrugged and went off to poke dirt somewhere else. It was 30 years before Wiley finally gave in to a nagging feeling about the area and returned to reinvestigate: as it turns out, those “natural eminences” were not so natural.
As if the initial face-palm oversight was not enough, the results of the carbon dating for the site were (embarrassingly) next rejected as just plain impossible. The city lay undiscovered for almost another 30 years.
Finally, finally, enter Solis and Haas: unwilling to let the ruins rest in obscurity for another set of decades, they worked tirelessly across the 150-acre area to unearth the remains of six beautiful platform mounds, the largest at 65 ft. high (after being sandpapered by the desert for 5 centuries).
About in line with the announcement in 2001 that Caral was officially the oldest city of the (apparently poorly named) “New” World, even older than the Great Pyramid, Peru began a massive effort to generate more tourism.
The logo is plastered on millions of tshirts across the country: the country has literally created a brand name for itself, which frankly I think is brilliant. That characteristic swirl? It’s not just based on the tail of the Nazca line monkey.
See that large rock at the base of the steps? Below is a close up. Carved into it is the same swirl, put there–you guessed it–about 5,000 years ago.
The whole experience of walking through Caral was humbling. The area was striking and bleak; our guide laughed when Ivo asked if his blindingly white wife would need sunscreen. Outside of the shade, the sun was searing. How or why any group of people would choose this as the place to kick off civilization… still though, maybe the most wonderful part of it all was this fact: at the very beginning, in this earliest of cities, there were no defensive walls. There were no weapons. To date, no evidence of war has been found at all. Instruments and booze? You bet. But by and large, when the people there first came together, they didn’t have fighting with each other (or anyone else, for that matter) on their minds.
As Ivo and I headed back down the mountain, the sunny weather faded back into the standard Peruvian grey skies and civilization started to reappear. True to form, Ivo “knew a place” and pulled off about an hour from home.
After a fresh ceviche and a walk on the beach across the street, our tacu-tacu was ready. The giant rice-bean cake was densely packed and stuffed with fresh seafood, from juicy white fish to twirled tentacles. Even though it was election day, which in Peru means selling booze is illegal, this little restaurant was out of the way enough that we were able to toast our adventure before finally heading home.