While in Peru there is a true cult of the Incas, little attention is paid to many other cultures who lived at the same time or even long before them. There are few resources to excavate and study, little interest to learn about them and bring them into the spotlight. As if the Inca lobby was acting upon the government in order to get all the credit! One of those civilisations occupied a large area along the coast of present-day Peru; they thrived on trade and agriculture for nearly 5 centuries before the rise of the Inca Empire. Have you heard of the Wari culture and civilization? Well, if you have, you’re one of the lucky few.
Our Couchsurfing host in Ayacucho, in the Southern Sierra of Peru, warned us: the Wari archaeological site is really small; it would take about an hour for us to see all of it. Coming from a full day wandering and daydreaming in the lost ruins of Choquequirao, we were first doubtful. But he is a tour guide, so he probably knows what he talks about, right?
Arriving to the site, we were surprised to find ourselves practically in a field of cacti, with a few dirty stone ruins scattered around. Basically like this:
What is the Wari culture?
Wari (or Huari, with the old orthography) was a pre-Inca Andean civilisation born in the Ayacucho region. The capital of their prospering empire, close to present-day Ayacucho, is one of the oldest cities in the central Andes. That’s the handful of suffocating trails we’re now threading.
The Wari empire flourished between 500-1000 AD, an era that is known as the Middle Horizon. It covered about 300,000 m2 along the coast of what is now Peru, and went inland almost up to Cusco.
Origins of the Wari culture
The birth of the Wari empire is quite unique. It was not a result of expansion wars –as with many empires– but a union of three peoples who lived in the area: the Huarpa, the Nazca and the Tiwanaku.
You probably know the Nazca culture from the mysterious lines they left in the desert near the coast. The Tiwanaku empire extended on the other side of Lake Titicaca; their capital is now an equally disappointing site close to La Paz, in present-day Bolivia.
Living so close to each other, they had a lot of trade connections, influencing each other in crafts and skills. In order to be stronger against new threats, they merged and formed a new imperial society called Wari.
Heritage of the Wari civilization
What’s really interesting is how the Wari established dominion through trade and technological improvements. They weren’t completely peaceful, though. They did rage a few wars against their northern neighbours, the Moche and the Chimu.
After 5 centuries of dominion, the Wari culture simply faded away. Despite their great knowledge in agricultural techniques, they suffered from several major droughts. As a consequence, a dramatic depopulation brought along the collapse of the state structure and internal rivalry.
When we discovered about them at the Wari site, we certainly recognised elements that the Incas are still famous for. We realised that many of those great Inca inventions actually originated from previous civilisations; several of them from the Wari, or more specifically from one of their groups.
For example, the Huarpa had an advanced knowledge in agriculture and water management. They constructed the same terraces, canals and irrigation systems we can find in the Sacred Valley. The Tiwanaku were famous for earthquake resistant and imposing architecture, using large stones that they precisely joined together. The same methods can be seen in Inca sites like the ones of Ollantaytambo and Saksaywamán.
Are you more of an Inca fan? Learn about the sites in the Sacred Valley around Cuzco
What to see on the Wari site
As we said, the ruins are few and distantly scattered across the site. We followed paths up and down gentle slopes and through fields of prickly pear cactus. With a handkerchief and a bit of dexterity, you could eat their tuna fruit while visiting.
Not familiar with tuna? Check it out here among other exotic fruits from Peru
The museum is right at the entrance, a single room with a dozen glass cases. A dramatic mummy greeted us from the middle of the room. The many explanations are mightily interesting, but unfortunately all in Spanish.
Behind the museum, 4 paths go in several directions:
- one goes left and down to an imposing tomb slate and a ceremonial D-shaped building; then further to views on the valley, along walls that were probably majestic back then; and comes back in a loop
- the same one branches out towards the exit, passing through some of the largest and most interesting excavations
- one goes left and flat directly to the views, then down through the ceremonial site; there we were attacked by cows who protected their youngsters
- one goes right for a bit to a series of extensive burial chambers; it branches up for a long walk until a cave that is all but fairly disappointing
The sites are not particularly well marked but the paths aren’t hard to follow; you just risk missing something, so ask one of the friendly guards who are idly roaming around.
The Wari culture today
Despite this enormous cultural heritage, there’s no money to invest in the excavations of this important site near Ayacucho. The result, as we said, is a disappointing field of partly-restored ruins asphyxiated by the vegetation; instead of the large vibrant town it used to be, or the wide fascinating site it could become.
A lack of investments means a lack of research. As a result, very little is known about the Wari people, their everyday habits, their beliefs and their history. The little we know about them is exhibited on site, in the tiniest of museums (1 room).
Such a loss! If the site was cleaned from the cacti and excavated properly, it would be bigger (and is certainly more ancient) than the infamous Machu Picchu. Something should be done. The government of Peru should realise the treasure that lies in Wari, and fund its excavation and research.
It’s actually ironic. It’s now common knowledge that the Machu Picchu is slowly being damaged by the trampling of so many visiting feet. But it’s still the golden goose for Peru, despite’s the country’s efforts to attract visitors to other worthy sites. Chan Chan and Kuélap are slowly getting more attention, but an effort is missing in favour of Wari.
Discover the romantic ruins of yet another pre-Inca civilisation: Kuélap, near Chachapoyas
Travelling off the beaten track
We said it, mass tourism is becoming a worldwide concern. It is therefore important that travellers turn their attention to places like Wari, that attract only a few visitors. True enough, the site itself right now is not exactly exciting – but the potential!
Right now we can just hope that spreading knowledge of this understated culture will result in more visits. These should lead to more initiatives and more funds to make excavations and research. We hope that Peru will eventually put the Wari culture on that shelf of history it deserves.
The result could be a stunning and fascinating archaeological complex!
A few keys to visiting the site
Visiting times: Tuesday to Sunday, 09:00 am to 5:00 pm
Entrance price: 3 soles (less than 1$ or €)
How to get to Wari:
- By car: it lies 25 km (15.50 mi) northwest from the town of Ayacucho; drive north along Route 3S and turn right on 28B. Beware: it’s a mountain road with very sharp curves.
- By minivan: take one that goes to Quinua; someone at the tourist office can mark on a map where to take it from.
Other Wari ruins in Peru:
- The so-called Northern Wari ruins near the city of Chiclayo
- Cerro Baúl in Moquegua
- the ruins of Pikillaqta, a short distance south-east of Cuzco
The town of Ayacucho has a pleasant colonial style with a very chilled atmosphere. It makes for a cosy base to explore Wari and the nearby town of Quinua on a day trip. There are several agencies in town offering a day tour, but it’s very easy to get there on your own. Plus, everything the world knows about the Wari culture is there in the museum.
Ayacucho made it to the newspaper headlines for the terrorist attacks of the “Sendero Luminoso” that lasted 20 years (1980-2000). It’s a very sad chapter in the history of Peru. Bloody battles between the Maoist leftist group and the government left almost 70,000 dead behind.
Locals call Ayacucho the city with the 33 churches. That’s one for each year in the life of Jesus. So they say. The local celebrity here is General Sucre, one of the important liberators of South America. He won a decisive battle for the independence near Quinua, where an impressive monument has been erected. The town of Sucre in Bolivia and the old currency of Ecuador were both named after him.
Read more: Discover about General Sucre
For vegetarians there’s a great place to eat cheap and hearty home-cooked food in the comedor of the central market.
Had you heard of the Wari culture before? Which ancient civilisation from Latin America do you know?
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