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Almost five thousand years ago, humankind came together in a way never seen before. We began to turn our backs on the traditional hunter gatherer form of survival.
Tribal communities based around families began to form into larger hierarchical systems. The techniques to build permanent structures were developed. And the worship of deities was taken to a new level.
Civilisations were being born – and one of the first was Caral in Peru.
I find it a bit strange the way this happened almost simultaneously (in the grand scheme of human history) around the world – but just in a few select places. Experts debate whether this happened independently or whether the idea spread across the world. Regardless, it was the dawn of a new era for mankind.
In the Americas, it was on the coast of what is now Peru that the first cradle of civilisation emerged in about 2600BC. On a site called Caral, these ancient people with bountiful food on hand in the rich ocean, rose at around the same time as five other major civilisations.
Caral was eerily similar to some of the other great cultures growing at the same time. They built stone pyramids here, for instance, at exactly the same time that the Egyptians were building their much more famous counterparts.
But there were also differences. No artwork adorned the structures of Caral in Peru. Unlike in Egypt or Mesopotamia, the people of Caral did not seem to have the same aesthetic tastes (or knowledge).
There is no evidence they made or used ceramics, another key utensil and form of artwork in other civilisations. But they did have textiles.
In fact, the textiles were for more than just clothing and decoration. It’s believed the people of Caral also used textiles as their form of writing. Strings of different lengths with knots in various places is one way they could have communicated.
If this new advanced culture was not famous for art or ceramics, it was its architecture that was its strength. The same grand pyramids and temples of worship that were built here thousands of years ago are still partly standing around me on the day I visit.
They don’t just prove that the Caral civilisation was advanced enough to build these large monuments – it also shows that they had an advanced religious ideology. The pyramids and other important structured would certainly have been used for worship and other ceremonies.
Although Caral-Supe is not one of the most famous sights in the country, I think it’s one of the most interesting places to visit in Peru. There’s a fascinating story behind it and there’s much more to see than you might expected for something that is 5000 years old!
Visiting Caral, Peru
It’s worth pointing out at this point that it is not simple to get to Caral. For a World Heritage Site and a place that is officially the oldest city in the Americas, there is little infrastructure to help visits for independent travellers.
There are a couple of private tours that go to Caral from Lima and if you would like to book in advance then I would suggest having a look at one of these options:
The private tours to Caral are expensive if you’re on your own, though. So, if you would like to do it independently, I have some practical advice for getting to Caral-Supe.
How do you get to Caral from Lima?
To get from Lima to Caral-Supe, there are a few steps and none of them is particularly easy, unfortunately.
Firstly, you’ll need to get a bus from Lima to a city called Barranca, about 190 kilometres north of Lima. There are a few bus companies that do this route but, annoyingly, they each leave from their own bus station. The trip takes 3-4 hours.
I would suggest checking the timetables for the best departure at the local options of either Turismo Barranca or Trans Sol Barranca. You should also be able to find one of the larger companies that passes through, by using the directory at RedBus.
Once you get to Barranca, ask around for where you can catch a collectivo to Caral. If you’ve managed to get off the bus at Supe, just before Barranca, you may find more options.
A collectivo is essentially a shared taxi, so you’ll need to wait until all the seats are full before it will leave. It should cost you about S/. 10 (US$3) per person. If you prefer, you could negotiate a price for the whole taxi. The return trip should cost about S/. 100 (US$30).
It would also be worth asking the collectivo taxi to wait for you at the Caral site, because there is only limited transport back to Barranca. When you get to Barranca, you’ll find getting a bus back to Lima will be easier, though, because they all leave from the same station and you can just get the first one that comes.
If you’re going to continue travelling north and don’t want to go back to Lima, or if you prefer not to rush and just stay in Barranca the night, there are a few accommodation options.
Here’s some other practical information for visiting Caral-Supe that you may find useful. It’s worth being a bit prepared because it’s not the easiest place to visit.
So, as well as being quite difficult to get to, it’s also not the best visitor experience. The tour of Caral is compulsory but it is only in Spanish, for instance.
So you have to pay for it (it’s a fairly minor 4 soles) and then follow the group around the site, even if you can’t understand what’s being said. Annoyingly, when I visited, I also had to wait 30 minutes until there were enough people to start the tour.
But, let’s put all of this aside because it’s the kind of thing you come across in Peru quite often and is just part of the experience.
What’s really important is the significance of the structures here at Caral. The pyramids are not as large as the famous Egyptian ones at Giza but clearly as much relative skill went into building them, considering this was almost 5000 years ago.
They haven’t been as well preserved and were, in fact, only discovered in 1948. But you can still see enough of the impressive structures to imagine how they would have dominated this plain at a time when there was nothing else on this continent like it.
The tour takes about an hour and as we walk from pyramid to pyramid, I understand just a few words of the guide’s Spanish explanations. What I comprehend better is the layout of Caral and how this was more than just a few structures haphazardly raised by simple people.
These were quite literally the building blocks of a civilisation still in its cradle but about to inspire millennia of cultures in one of the most fascinating countries on this planet.