the inca fortress of sacsayhuaman

After spending part of our morning on our own ambling around the city center of Cuzco, Hubby and I ate a vegetarian lunch at a small cafe near our hotel. We’d seen the Cathedral in the main plaza and now looked forward to a long, busy afternoon visiting the ruins surrounding the city,  Puka Pukara, Tampu Machay and the renowned fortress and religious site of Sacsayhuamán.

My focus in this post is the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuamán (pronounced like “sexy woman” which also makes it is easier to remember). The imposing terraced fortress is more than one third of a mile long, and located on the perimeters of the hills overlooking Cuzco.

Experts believe that the city of Cuzco was set up in the form of a puma whose head was the hill of Sacsayhuaman.  The origins are uncertain, but it’s generally attributed to the period of Inca Pachacuti (1438-71), the man who essentially founded the Inca empire, after he succeeded his father as emporer. (For fun information on Pachacuti and his people check out this article.) They conclude that it was completed by around 1508. Pizarro reached his first Inca land in 1526.

sexywoman by robert

Some of the boulders are estimated to weigh more than 20 tons; the largest is 12 feet thick and 25 feet tall. Without a doubt the Incas were highly skilled stone cutters.  Since the quarries that yielded the Yucay limestone used for the foundation are located about 20 miles from the city, it boggles the mind how they were able to move the massive boulders across rivers and down deep ravines, then up to the hilltop site of Sacsayhuamán.


Spanish conquistador and chronicler of Peru, Cieza de Leon, wrote in the 1550’s that some 20,000 men had been involved in its construction: 4000 men cutting blocks from the quarries; 6000 dragging them to the site on rollers; and another 10,000 working on fitting them together and finishing the work. Legend has it that 3,000 lives were lost when one huge stone being dragged uphill broke free.

However they cut the stones or managed to get them here, or how many men it took and lives were lost, they were so skilled they were able to fit the massive boulders together without mortar, so perfectly that a mechanic’s thickness gauging instrument cannot be inserted between the rocks of the walls as Ivanoff proudly points out.

Of course these mysteries continue to contribute to numerous fantasies that the structure wasn’t built by the Incas but rather by extraterrestrials who landed on earth thousands of years ago, or that only they could have come up with the technology which they used to teach the Inca how to do it.

feeling vibrationsIn fact many Spanish priests and historians of the day attributed the fortress to demonic enchantment because they viewed the Inca people as inferior.

Some people claim they feel an incredible cosmic energy here and that, rather than a fortress or religious site, this site was built as an astronomic observatory. Ivanoff suggested we might want to get close to the wall to see if we could feel the energy ourselves.

did you feel anything?

Nope. Can’t say that I felt much, but the wall was warm from the sun, and there was a bit of the chill in the air. Neither can I say it didn’t feel peaceful there. Maybe that’s what they mean about cosmic energy.

serpent in stone

If you remember the Cathedral paintings in my previous post about Quechua artists imprinting their religion into their paintings, it won’t surprise you at all to note the way the stone cutters and setters included religious symbols in the fortress walls. See if you can see the snake that represents the underworld in the Inca religion. Hint: Ivanof is pointing toward the head.


And of course the whole travel group is quick to notice, having been away from our home state for 12 days by the time we came upon this part of the wall, this boulder shaped like an inverted  Utah (the cutout should be on the right side) right there in the wall.

pasu & me by Judy

Some of us liked to joke that once you’ve seen one ruin in Peru, you’ve pretty much seen them all. But upon reflection this many days after returning home, I say or have you? Looking more closely, each ruin has its own story to tell. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it like this:

Rise, too, ye shapes and shadows of the past
Rise from your long forgotten graves at last
Let us behold your faces, let us hear
The words you uttered in those days of fear.

Revisit your familiar haunts again
The scenes of triumph and the scenes of pain
And leave the footprints of your bleeding feet
Once more upon the pavement of the street

quechua artists leave lasting impressions in cuzco cathedral

You may remember the post about our encounter with the protesters in Aguas Caliente and how we were delayed several hours leaving for Ollantaytambo by train after our visit to Machu Picchu. Because of that delay our bus to Cuzco was delayed as well, and resulted in still another delay as our bus driver maneuvered a typical traffic jam caused by a packed parking lot full of tourist buses and cars all trying to leave at once. Needless to say, we arrived very late to our hotel that night, too late for dinner in fact. Luckily we’d had sandwiches on the train which sufficed, and were all just very happy to be there at last.

The next morning we found that Cuzco had protesters too. It altered a few of our touring plans for the morning, but we’d seen many ruins already by that time and decided we could easily forgo a few in exchange for a few hours on our own to explore the city itself. Here we are in the main plaza, within walking distance of our hotel, in the middle of the city where the protest we encountered the day before was continuing. In fact we’d later learn there were demonstrations all over Peru. When we saw a member of this peaceful demonstration throw a supposedly symbolic stone, we decided to take the steps leading to less crowded areas of the plaza.


These Quechua women walking around the plaza are far too typical of modern life in Cuzco as they lead their pet llama around the plaza for touristas like Hubby and me to pet and admire. They’re just trying to eke out a meager living from the visiting tourists. Under the same circumstances, I’m sure I would be doing the same thing if it was necessary to feed my children. What is impressive about the people in Peru, in my experience, is that there are very few beggars. Most, like the street kid and other artists who are everywhere, are offering a commodity in exchange, i.e., their images for photos to show friends and family back home, or colorful paintings of Peruvian scenery and people to decorate our homes and remind us of our visits.


Sometimes, you can get even more interesting snapshots just by surreptitiously clicking the camera at random for more candid photos of city life, like these, when no one knows or cares that you have a camera in hand.





For me, after living in a perpetually new city like Las Vegas for nearly nine years, a city known for destroying historical buildings every year in order to make room for new ones, it’s always refreshing to find a city that finds value in both the old and the new.

Below is a wide-angle shot of the main square of Cuzco as it looks today. The Spanish Church of Santo Domingo is on the left, and the impressive Church of La Compañia built by the Jesuits on the right. Many visitors claim it surpasses its neighbor to the left as the most beautiful church in the city. Of course the plaza didn’t look like this when Pizzaro arrived looking for gold in 1533. From accounts of the original Inca Temple of the Sun as described by the first Spaniards to enter the city we can only imagine how magnificent they must have been.


They told of lavish ceremonies taking place here day and night by the 4000 serving priests. Decor was described as fabulous beyond belief with carved granite walls covered in more than 700 sheets of pure gold, and a spacious courtyard filled with life-size statues of animals made of pure gold standing in the midst of a field of corn. The temple was aptly called coricancha which means corridor of gold. Naturally, anyone whose original purpose in exploring Peru was to find gold, the first order of business would be to loot the palaces of their treasures, melt down the gold from the temple. Afterwards, they would build their own church and begin to convert the native Peruvians from their ancestor- and nature-worship to Catholicism.

Major earthquakes have severely damaged the church, but the Inca stone walls, built out of huge, tightly-interlocking blocks of stone, still stand as a testimony to the superb architectural skills and sophisticated stone masonry of the Inca. In fact, when it became apparent that the stone supports were too difficult to completely destroy, the new church  was built directly over the original Sun temple foundation.

Of course the church is again filled with impressive artwork, as well as gold altars and statues of the saints, including Jesus, gilded but no less impressive. In fact, art was another way to change the Inca culture. Spanish painters from the Cuzco School were brought in to teach Peruvians to paint pictures from Christian biblical history.

Ivanoff, our guide, told us about one such artist, a Quechua painter from Cuzco named Marcos Zapata (1710-1773), and one of the last members of that school, who is famous for adding elements of his own culture into his 1753 rendition of The Last Supper.

800px-Marcos_Zapata (2)It shows Jesus and his disciples gathered around a table set with roasted rodent of some sort–a viscacha or perhaps cuy–as well as an assortment of fruit and vegetables of the Andean diet then and now rather than the bread and wine of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting.There are also glasses of Chicha, a fermented drink usually made from corn, featured in mug-like glasses.

Other artists included aspects of the ancient culture in their paintings as well. One that I hadn’t noticed before Ivanoff pointed it out is an interesting difference and one I believe worth noting here. In Renaissance paintings of the Christ figure, European painters show Jesus with his head tilted slightly to the left looking upward–presumably towards his father, God in Heaven, while those by Peruvians show him with his face tilted to the right and looking downward–towards Mother Earth, Pachamama, perhaps?

I’ve only touched the surface of the wonders of the talent and abilities of the ancient Chechua civilization, but our brief exposure to the lasting impressions of the culture left by the artist Zapata and other Peruvian artists have taught me to look at religious art in a whole new way. My next post about Peru will feature the religious site of Sacsayhuaman, famous for its cosmic energy.

the ruins of Machu Picchu

The prevailing story of Machu Picchu is that it was built by the Inca as a royal estate and religious retreat in 1460-70. It would have been practically impenetrable, since reaching them would have meant ascending a steep slope covered with dense vegetation. The whys and wherefores are still open to speculation. One is the Incas wanted to protect themselves from the Spanish.

Whatever the reason, after a hundred years the site was abandoned and forgotten for 500 years. Due to the nearly insurmountable terrain, it became well hidden and many thought it to be only a city of myth. Indeed there is not one sign of the Spanish culture nor the Catholic religion to be found there to this day.

Then along came Hiram Bingham, an explorer in charge of a Yale University expedition, who wanted to see if the legendary capital of the governing Inca’s descendants was real. Although disputes continue about other explorers having made the discovery as early in 1894, without question it was Bingham who introduced Machu Picchu to the outside world after his re-discovery on June 24, 1911.

zig zag road from aqua calientes to machu picchu from brian mcmorrow

There are several ways to reach the famous ruins. One is the classic and famous Inca Trail Bingham and other explorers used, which takes even seasoned hikers four days to cover with a guide, or the way we arrived there, by train from Ollantaytambo to our abode in the village of Aguas Calientes and from there a tourist bus over the zig-zag road you see here in a photograph taken by international traveler Brian McMorrow who graciously gave me permission to use it here. He has a very impressive photo-journal of his extensive travel in Peru and you can access all his travel albums by clicking here.

In the past five years, another trail–the Camino Salcantay–has begun to emerge as a popular alternative to the Inca Trail. In fact, a network of high-end lodges have opened for business along the route. You can either set up your own camps along the way or book the lodges, indulging in a hot shower, Jacuzzi, and a home-cooked meal at the end of the day.

Maybe if we had done this trip in our 20’s, 30’s–even our 40’s–I would have chosen the alternative trail, but for this stage of my life, the bus was just fine–thank you very much–and at the end of the ride, I was no less impressed with my first glimpse of the ancient citadel.


Our guide Ivanoff explained the city’s design. Terraces were built for purposes of farming, the sizes varying according to the slope of the mountain, but some also may have had other purposes, such as securing the mountains from seismic activity of earthquakes.

IMG_0026 (2)

Whether the ancient city was built as a sanctuary for noblemen or as a religious sanctuary of sorts, it functioned much like any other city with areas set aside for residences. Others were reserved for temples to the gods (Condor, Sun, Three-Windows, as well as the principal temples, all named by Bingham) for for the houses of the priests, as well as a uniquely designed water works area built with stone. For stone walls assembled in 1460 and still standing in the 21st century, the walls of these temples are excellent examples of Inca masonry.


Some visitors, after seeing this area of the Temple of the Condor (see the head in the foreground) have suggested this as a torture site with cavernous cave like areas (background) built to hold prisoners awaiting execution.

temple of condor.mp_judy

From all accounts, however, Incas were an extremely advanced civilization in many ways. They developed a distinctly organized hierarchical class system with the nobility at the top as supreme leaders, religious leaders or chief priests second, then the relatives of those two in third rank. Last were all the other Incas.

As the empire grew, Incas were organized by a pecking order of privilege, beginning with those who had lived in Cuzco for a long time and spoke the ancient language (Quechua), under them were the public administrators, then the former leaders of the conquered states, and then came the artisans. The most important point of the whole civilization, however, was that everyone contributed to the whole society, not just themselves or their family.


How the terraced areas were landscaped and maintained during the 15th century is up to interpretation and speculation by thousands of real and armchair explorers before us and the thousands more that will follow, but it’s easy to speculate that these modern-day inhabitants who have become popularly referred to as living lawn mowers are one of if not THE most photographed.


We ate lunch that day at the famous Sanctuary Lodge located a short distance away. I had seen the lodge and restaurant featured on a television travel show in high definition and had been so looking forward to having lunch there. It turned out to be one of the few disappointments of the trip though. Obviously the strict class system continues in Machu Picchu, which a capsule room rate description will further clarify.

The cheapest STANDARD rooms available (no views) at the only lodge available outside Aguas Calientes where our group is staying is at this writing $852 per night. A suite with mountain views commands $1490. Food service likewise. I found there are TWO restaurants in the lodge. There’s the Tampu Restaurant with seating for 72, where you can enjoy Peruvian cuisine with spectacular views of the countryside.

Then there’s the Tinkuy that hosts a daily lunch buffet. Guess which one we lunched at? The food, Peruvian as well as international dishes, was definitely good, and there was even a local band trying to play loud enough above the noise of the crowd so as to be heard, but it was really difficult–even with the most positive of open minds–to enjoy it while feeling like a herd of cattle being shunted through the feeding stations. By the way, the relatively small dining area holds a maximum of 200 people. There were at least 188 already seated by the time we arrived.


After lunch, we were free to board any one of the many buses headed back to Agua Calientes, or re-enter Machu Picchu. Hubby and I chose to do a little more looking on our own. Nearly all the tourists crawling the terraces were now gone–I suspect to the lodge restaurant–and we saw the lost city in a far prettier, less crowded light.


IMG_0073We were both really happy we’d decided to go back, as it was one of the quietest periods of the whole day. And nobody messed with Texas that day either as far as we could tell. Then we walked up to the bus lot to head back down that curvaceous road.

zig zag road from aqua calientes to machu picchu from brian mcmorrow

You may be surprised to learn the road is two-way! Looking at the road here, I find it extremely difficult to imagine the severe turns or the agility of the hundreds of tourist bus drivers who make the drive each day, but we made it safely. On the way back down, I remember thinking we would be stuck for hours at the very least when our driver was headed into the curve itself and a couple of automobiles coming the opposite direction pushed ahead ignoring the apparent protocol (the driver in or near the curve has right-of-way). None of us could believe it when the driver not only stopped, but began backing up. I think you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.

Luckily I was sitting on the side nearest the mountain and wouldn’t see us slipping off the edge of the road and bouncing all the way back to Machu Picchu. I think all our hat’s all went off to the driver after he deftly managed  maneuvering that one! The cars, by the way, were those of the police.

The class system of the ancient Inca not only continues, apparently it thrives!