Before the Incas, a long line of indigenous civilizations thrived in Peru—and today, visitors can see what they left behind, from mysterious geoglyphs in the desert to fortress-like ruins in the cloud forest to a massive adobe pyramid in one of Lima's hippest neighborhoods. Discover the remains of Peru's ancient cultures with these suggestions.

Experience the Ancient in Peru

When Spanish conquistadors invaded Peru in 1532, they found the Inca in control of the majority of the country. Today, many visitors still think of the Inca as Peru's key indigenous people—in fact, the Inca were the last in a long and varied succession of ancient cultures that inhabited the region. Many of these cultures left behind a distinctive legacy that's still imprinted on Peru's landscape.

Naturally, you'll have to go further afield than Machu Picchu to discover the different cultures' ruins. Whether you're interested in wandering through ancient abandoned cities or viewing the famous Nazca Lines from the vantage point of an airplane, read on for ideas and inspiration.

Learn the Basics in Lima

Pre-Inca ruins at Huaca Pucllana
Pre-Inca ruins at Huaca Pucllana

Remains of Peru's ancient cultures aren't immediately visible today in Lima. But the capital city's Museo Larco is a great place to get an overview of the country's diverse pre-Columbian past. Spanning around 5,000 years, the museum's exhibits are chronologically ordered, displaying ceramics, textiles, jewelry, and art from four areas: north coast (including Cupisnique, Vicus, Mochica, and Chimu cultures), the central coast (Lima and Chancay), south coast (Paracas, Nazca and Chincha) and the highlands (Chavín, Tiahuanaco, Huari, and Inca).

Elsewhere in Lima, in the neighborhood of Miraflores, visitors can see the fabulous ancient ruins left by Peru's pre-Inca peoples at Huaca Pucllana. The adobe and clay pyramid was built by the Lima culture that inhabited the area between the years 200 and 700 CE; today, the ancient structure stands out in sharp contrast from the concrete and glass high-rise buildings that surround it. Come for a guided tour, and stay for dinner at the excellent onsite restaurant: it's a great vantage point for enjoying views of the ruins illuminated at night.

See here for more on Peru's best Incan ruins that aren't Machu Picchu.

Discover the Chimú and Moche Empires in Trujillo

The magnificent walls of Chan Chan near Trujillo

The city of Trujillo was founded as one of Peru's first colonial settlements in 1534, but the Chimú and Moche cultures were flourishing in the region hundreds of years before that. (The Moche people are also known as the pre-Chimú, because their civilization exhibited similar characteristics to the Chimú and occupied a similar part of the country.) The Moche period lasted from 100 to 700 CE, while the Chimú empire was at its height between about 900 and 1400 CE.

Retrace steps of the Moche at Huacas del Sol y La Luna, a few miles southeast of Trujillo. At one time, the adobe brick temple of Huaca del Sol was Peru's biggest pre-Columbian structure. Smaller but in better shape, Huaca de la Luna is also made of adobe and featuring rooms filled with beautiful friezes. Find more artifacts from the site at the adjacent museum, Museo Huacas de Moche. 

Also in the vicinity is Chan Chan, the largest pre-Columbian site in the Americas. Located in the desert northwest of Trujillo, it's a poignant place to ponder the once mighty capital of the Chimú, which housed as many as 60,000 inhabitants in its heyday. At the entrance to the site is a small museum along with other tourist facilities.

For a closer look at northern Peru, consider this 14-day tour.

Wander Remote Chachapoyas Dwellings at Kuélap 

The ruins of Kuélap in northern Peru

The beguiling ancient city of Kuélap is located 43 miles south of the city of Chachapoyas in the Amazonas region of Peru. It was built by the Chachapoyas culture—also known as the "Warriors of the Clouds"—in the sixth century. The Chachapoyas people resisted assimilation into the Inca empire, and that independence was reflected in the site's fortress-like construction: tall stronghold walls, some as tall as 60 feet, kept out invaders, and entry was only permitted via narrow gates.

Today, visitors can walk around the ruins, including myriad circular dwellings that once housed thousands of people. Quiet and forested, Kuélap feels a lost city that Indiana Jones might have discovered.

For more on Kuélap and other great destinations in Peru's north, check out this article.

Visit an Ancient Maze at Chavín de Huántar

Carved stone head found at Chavín de Huántar

The Ancash region is primarily known for its stunning trekking in the Cordillera Huayhuash around Huaraz. But the peaceful town of Chavín de Huántar contains the key remains of one of Peru's most important ancient cultures. (The archaeological site, like the town, is known as Chavín de Huántar.) The Chavín period lasted approximately from 1200 BC to 500 BCE.

Chavín culture was one of the first on the continent with a sophisticated style of art, evidenced in the famous stone heads which are mostly on display in the site's Museo Nacional de Chavín. Wander through the ruins' labyrinthine passageways to the centrally located Lanzón de Chavín, an impressive carved block of stone that's almost 15 feet tall.

Discover Huaraz and the Peruvian Andes on this 9-day itinerary.

Fly Above Geoglyphs at the Nazca Lines

Highway cuts through the desert geoglyphs of the Nazca Lines

Twelve miles north of Nazca on Peru's southern coast, the Nazca Lines geoglyphs are an important remnant of ancient Peru. A massive system of ancient line drawings covering almost 20 square miles, they're preserved in the arid desert landscape. Part of what makes the Nazca Lines so impressive and mysterious is that most can only be seen from the air: it's not clear how the Nazca culture could have made these drawings almost two millennia ago.

An observation tower on the Carretera Panamericana (Panamerican Highway) offers views of three of the line drawings, but there are many more. Travelers often choose to view the geoglyphs from a plane—it's an experience that's easy to book with your travel specialist.

See the Nazca Lines from the airplane window on this 9-day journey around Peru, including a stop at Machu Picchu.

Visit High-Altitude Wari Ruins in Ayacucho

The ruins of the Wari empire above Ayacucho

Ayacucho is a beautiful colonial city in the Peruvian Central Highlands. Its pre-colonial history is just as interesting: up on the altiplano, the mountain plains above the city, you'll find the most significant surviving remains of the Wari culture (600 to 1100 CE).

Before the Inca began to dominate highland Peru, the Wari was the country's prominent culture, exerting influence as far away as the coast and the northern highlands. The lonely ruins, a short drive northeast of Ayacucho, can be easily visited on day tours from the city.

Find out more here about the highlights of the Central Andes.