So much for our leisurely entry into Cusco – now we get to the real hiking, climbing, gasping for breath while simultaneously cursing the seemingly unending cascade of uneven, slippery steps. And I loved every second of it. Here is our itinerary for the first official day:
- visit (translation: CLIMB) 4 Inca Ruins: Saqsayhuaman, Qenko, Puka Pukara and Tambomachay
- Learn the difference among alpaca, llama, guanaco, vicuna at a breeding center
- Be amazed at the ancient weaving techniques used to create Andean clothing unmatched in softness (BABY, not MAYBE Alpaca) and the incredible beauty of the woven designs using threads dyed with only natural items
- Receive sustenance sorely needed at a lunch of local delicacies in a tent just outside the Sacred Valley in Urubamba.
Understanding that this pace may appear daunting (thanks Classic Journeys – I will split up the telling into a few separate posts so you can savor each element – believe me it is totally worth it. First off – our first serious climb at Saqsayhuaman.
i. Our first Inca ruin is a short walk from our hotel passing once again through the Plaza de Arma, the site of our welcome festival parade. Along the way we walked between trapezoidal old Inca stonework and got our first architectural lesson on how these walls have remained intact. Sloping inwards and constructed in levels that get progressively more narrow creates a wall highly resistant to seismic shaking. Earthquakes are a common in the Andean region, and yet this and many other Inca stonework structures have survived for centuries:
There were other Inca markers as well:
I was constantly struck by the great similarities of many of the carvings and the importance and reverence of nature with those seen during my visits to Egypt and the Native American Reservations in the Southwest of the United States. Look, for example at my pic of a cartouche (an oval carved enclosure denoting a royal name) for Ramses II, one of the great Pharaohs of Egypt:
Note the snake figured prominently here – it stands not only for the animal but also symbolizes water and there are countless examples of this symbol in the areas we visited. An even stronger connection is the reverence to the sun deity and the cultures use similar disc designs (also seen in the above cartouche) to portray the heavenly orb:
Qurikancha – Temple of the Sun, Cusco
Robe, North Dakota, Mandan, Mato’ Tope, “Four Bears,” 1830. Part of collection of “The Plains Indians Artists of the Earth and Sky” exhibit at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
Balance with and respect for the plants, animals and celestial bodies is a common theme running through all – this is much more than a coincidence.
The breadth and massiveness of Saqsayhuaman hits you head-on. This archaeological complex has an area of 3,000 hectares or 322,917,312 square feet. The Incas called it the House of the Sun and the Spanish invaders called it a fortress because its zig-zag shape was nigh impenetrable. Constructed in three platforms, one on top of the other, this site was one of the most important religious complexes of its time. The enormous boulders, weighing up to 125 tons were put together without using mortar, yet the seal was and is so perfect the stones were not torn apart during war and even earthquakes have not succeeded in toppling the walls. The Spanish conquerors were nonplussed to discover that not only could they not penetrate these walls, they could not replicate them either. It was infuriating to these invaders that these indigenous people, who they believed to be ignorant, wild, without ability of logical reasoning, could have built with such exactitude. As is often the case, the invaders rationalized that the walls were a work of demons or malign spirits as a justification of their subsequent looting, pillaging and attempts to erase the culture altogether.
Yet Saqsayhuaman still stands – and a handy pneumonic (Sexywoman) given to us by our learned as well as funny guide Edgard will ensure that we will never forget its name – or its powerful images:
Saqsayhuaman was the former capital of the Inca Empire. Like many Inca constructions, these walls are made of massive, irregularly shaped boulders that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle without cement or mortar. Understanding the dynamics of building a sloped wall it is still difficult to fathom how these walls stay together. We will learn more of the secret at another site – hang in there.
This will give you an idea of the immensity of this wall:
You can also see that our visit fell on an exquisitely perfect sunny day- which turned out not to be exactly ideal for climbing up approximately 5 miles at an elevation of 12,000 feet. But the views from the top were spectacular – including a tantalising misty glimpse of one of the Andes’ beautiful glacier tipped peaks, topping the scale at 20,000+ feet above sea level (that mountain, not us)!
We got more up close and personal to a number of glaciers during our travels in Peru – and I will share those breathtaking vistas later – this is just a teaser of what’s to come.
By now you must be bursting with another question – what does Saqsayhuaman mean? I have read a number of interpretations but think this one makes the most sense: Saqsayhuaman can be translated as “speckled head” since it is said that the city of Cusco was laid out in the shape of a puma, with Saqsayhuaman forming the head:
Interestingly, our hotel is set under the belly of the beast.
I asked our guide the obvious question – how did the Inca “see” the layout of the puma? With a quiet smile he answered: “I have no idea. Maybe they had help. – like those who made the crop circles.” I will let you ponder that thought but suffice it to say there are many more inexplicable phenomena to come.