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Many ancient ruins in Peru's capital of Lima are falling into disrepair

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The top tourist destination in Peru is the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, high in the Andes Mountains. Not so well known is that the Peruvian capital of Lima also holds ancient treasures. As John Otis reports, the city has so many pyramids and temples that authorities can't take care of them all.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Amid the hotels, banks and busy streets of Lima lies a pyramid, thought to be about 1,500 years old, called Pucllana.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOL SCRAPING)

OTIS: It was a ceremonial site for the Lima Indigenous group, which gave this city its name.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUSHING)

OTIS: On a recent morning, workers scraped sand and dirt from part of the site that remains unexplored.

BLANCA ARISTA: So today, you are going to see the result of 42 years of work. Please, we continue this way.

OTIS: Blanca Arista, who is leading a tour of Pucllana, says excavations have been going on here since 1981. Pucllana now gets a steady stream of visitors. They marvel at the structure, which has withstood earthquakes, and enjoy views of the Pacific Ocean from the top of the pyramid. Among our group is tourist Manuel Larrabure, a college professor who grew up in Lima.

MANUEL LARRABURE: Very impressive. Yeah, this is very impressive. And to have it right in the middle of a city like this, I find that very unique.

OTIS: But until its renovation in the early 1980s, Pucllana was routinely looted and abused. At one point, a factory set up shop here and used its sand and clay to make bricks. Arista, our tour guide, says the pyramid was treated like a playground.

ARISTA: So, unbelievable, but several groups were practicing motocross. So imagine different groups riding motorcycles or riding bikes.

OTIS: Indeed, Lima's ancient Indigenous sites have more often been desecrated rather than safeguarded. To find out why, I speak with Giancarlo Marcone, a Peruvian archaeologist.

Why did Lima turn its back on these sites?

GIANCARLO MARCONE: I think because we want to be a modern capital - you know, a modern city in the world.

OTIS: He says some of the sites were bulldozed. That opened up space for streets and apartment blocks amid mass migration from the Peruvian countryside to the capital that began in the 1950s.

MARCONE: That make a lot of pressure over the city. And we didn't have a good planning.

OTIS: There's still about 400 temples, pyramids and burial sites scattered around Lima. That is a huge number. And with Peru struggling to reduce poverty and improve hospitals and schools, the government can't afford to finance excavations or turn all 400 of these sites into tourist attractions. The result is that many sites have been left unguarded and have been colonized by squatters. Others have become de facto garbage dumps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE ROARING)

OTIS: One example is a pyramid called Infantas, which is hemmed in by the streets and houses of a working-class Lima neighborhood.

So this is the ashes and the remains of campfires here on top of the pyramid.

Trash is everywhere. I come across people smoking crack and a shirtless man digging up sand from the pyramid.

(Speaking Spanish).

Benito Trejo, who heads the neighborhood committee here, says that rather than a sacred site, the Infantas pyramid is a headache.

BENITO TREJO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says it's not a good thing because these sites are ignored by the government which is supposed to look after them. But until that happens, some experts say surrounding communities must get more involved in preserving and promoting these sites.

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: That's what's going on at a ceremonial site called Mateo Salado, a stone's throw from Lima's international airport. Fifth graders here are drawing pictures of the ruins, which are part of their school logo.

ANDRES RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "We shouldn't look at these sites simply as relics of the past," says one of the instructors, Andres Ramirez. "They should be part of everyday society. That's what we are trying to promote."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Lima, Peru. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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