Pachacamac: Animator of the World


Any itinerary of Peru worth the expense should include Pachacamac, one of the great cultural and religious sites of the Americas.  The name, which is of uncertain Quechua origin, translates loosely as “Animator of the World.” At this place the great civilizations of South America would pay their respects to the Earth Mother and her guardians, who kept the planet safe.

The ruins are easily accessed from downtown Lima and although were once far outside of the city limits, the boundaries of Peru’s biggest metropolis have expanded to the point where the city’s suburbs now border the complex, Pachacamac is located twenty kilometers from the Plaza de Armas in the colonial quarter of Peru’s capital.

Scientists are unsure who first built the temple, although the Incas, as they were wont to do, gave themselves credit for its construction.  Original work may have been begun by the Huari culture. Yet its presence was a holy reference point for all the pre-Hispanic societies, who visited over a period of centuries to consult the great oracle.


1) The pyramid from a distance


2) A closer view, the structure greatly melted by centuries of rain. Note the reconstruction on the left side

At the summit of Pachacamac lived an oracle, analogous to the Oracle of Delphi in Greece, who would dispense advice and guidance to pilgrims.  More important was a totem pole that represented Pachacamac herself.  This carved wooden artifact was arguably the most venerated object in the pre-Colombian New World.

During the Spanish Conquest, Hernando Pizarro was ordered by his brother Francisco to take Pachacamac by force and throw down the heathen object of veneration. This totem-shaped wooden statue, the only example of its kind ever found in South America, had the great fortune to rediscovered in the twentieth century. It stands now on display in the small museum at the site, for all to see.  Few are the visitors who do not feel a connection to its power.


(3, 4) Two views of Pachacamac, the totem-oracle.


5) A dog often stands on top of the museum: guardian spirit or ordinary mutt?


6) Nowadays visitors climb to the summit of the partially restored complex. The excursion is a favorite school trip for students and gives them a chance to appreciate the patrimony of their country.


7) Little remains of the original structures near the top of the pyramid, and of these many have undergone reconstruction of dubious authenticity.


8) Some of the original walls are still intact, however.

An interesting story I once heard concerned the visit of the Dalai Lama to Pachacamac. His one request was to visit the central chamber at the top of the pyramid. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this account.

Wherever the truth my lie, Pachacamac was indeed a sacred place, central to many ancient Peruvian belief systems. We probably have yet to discover all its secrets and the site may still teach us fundamental truths about the forces that animate our world.


9) Suburbs of Lima now surround the complex

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