We jumped into the tour company’s white van waiting for us outside the Cusco Cathedral and slowly made our way through the narrow streets. We were heading to the nearby ruins of Saqsaywaman. Located only a few miles from the town center, we ascended along the edge of a mountain road. We rose above the terra-cotta rooftops and brown stucco homes. In the background, I could hear Sheila engaged in a question and answer exchange with Jose. I was mesmerized by my new surroundings, gazing through the Eucalyptus trees that occasionally obscured the town below. The sights seemed so vivid. Clarity was exponential. I wondered if it was because the air at this altitude was free of pollutants or the coca leaves, I had chewed earlier, enhanced my vision. I should have read up on the effects of raw coca leaves more thoroughly!
Saqsaywaman was the vision of Inca Pachacutec, according to the chronicler, Sarmiento (1572). When Pachacutec took power as king, he reorganized the city of Cusco into the shape of the powerful puma. Saqsaywaman was to be the head. In the ancient local language, Saqsaywaman means festooned head. The monument stood on the rounded mountain tops overlooking the city.
At four in the afternoon, a small crowd of tourists still poured into the ticket entrance. Even in mid- October at this late hour, it was hard to avoid crowds. Once inside the park, I understood why. Mammoth rocks, some of them the size of a two-story house, formed walls that zigzagged along the contours of the mountain. Later I would learn that these rocks were estimated to weigh over 100 tons. Placed together like a jigsaw puzzle, I wondered how they were positioned one on top of the other.
Jose explained that Saqsaywaman was still the subject of debate regarding its purpose. Evidence in the complex indicated that it was used as a religious center; however, its strategic position and description of lookout towers, noted in the 1533 chronicles of Pedro Sánchez, Pizarro’s secretary, suggested it was used as a fortress. Whatever the reason, it was impressive.
Garcilaso de la Vega in 1609 described Saqsaywaman the best when he said, “…the power and majesty of the Incas was the fortress of Cusco, the grandeur of which would be incredible to anyone who had not seen it, and even those who have seen it and considered it with attention, imagine and even believe that it was made by enchantment…”, from Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru. As with other perplexing sites that used megalithic construction, Saqsaywaman seemed to be built by a race of giants.
Llamas grazed on a wide grassy field that stretched out before us. Tourists were scattered throughout the complex. Their bright-colored clothing breaking up the grey of the rock. We veered off to the right and approached a sizeable graded area. The ground was inlaid with blocks of stone. They formed geometrical shapes, but it was the fluid, circular design that left me with an eerie recollection. I had seen it before. The thought nagged at me until a vision of a wheel that served as a passage to other worlds finally hit me. Could it have been the blueprint for the gateway used in the movie “Stargate”? Wow! Was it a coincidence, or had a writer visited this site, using the design in his story? Or was I simply watching too many sci-fi movies?
Garcilaso de la Vega, who is noted for his all-encompassing book on the culture of the Incas, described one tower’s interior walls plated with gold and silver, “…with animals, birds, and plants imitated from life and fitted into the wall, serving as a kind of tapestry.” He goes on to say that “The towers went as far below ground as they did above it. Tunnels were made… There were so many underground passages….that one entering the maze soon lost his way…”
It is speculated today that the Inca may have used these passages to whisk away some of their gold when the Spanish began to pillage the town. All I could think of was how much had been lost in history.
Check out YouTuber Barry Kusuma’s Sacsayhuaman The magnificent Inca fortress, Cusco Peru, or type Sacsayhuaman drone. The aerial video, that’s about a minute, shows a great view of the towers’ foundations.
We eventually made our way to a viewpoint that overlooks Cusco. Here we could grasp the vast city as it spread along a basin and crawled upward onto the mountain slopes. Near us, groves of trees swayed in the gentle breeze. After taking a few “shelfies,” we meandered on dirt paths, dropping down from the elevation of the viewpoint, passing the tops of walls, and stepped through giant doorways to the field below. Stopping along the way to take photos in front of the massive stones, we could hardly comprehend the effort it took to create this complex.
Garcilaso de la Vega talks about “the Weary Rock” that was so massive that it took 20,000 men to pull it up to the Saqsaywaman site. Using cables and ropes, it was dragged up steep slopes. At one point, the bearers became careless and lost hold of the stone, after which it rolled down the hill, killing some 3,000 to 4,000 men. Garcilaso said the story came from a verbal tradition handed down to him, as was the custom to remember notable events. The complex had been built before he was born.
Making our way along the length of the bulwark of three successive walls in the complex, we ended up at the far end of the fortress. Quechua women standing in traditional costumes were waiting to sell their wares. Montera hats adorned their heads. Short jackets in pinks and reds sat on their shoulders while black skirts wrapped around their legs. Their skin was weathered from the elements. Their broad smiles beckoned a playful manner with the folks visiting the ruins.
I was enchanted with a group of women that stood behind a roped-off area, waiting for photo opts. Standing with their llamas and alpacas by their sides, I noted how docile the animals were. One was holding a baby alpaca in her arms. My love of animals drew me to them, and I asked how much they wanted for a photo. One of the women yelled out an amount that I couldn’t understand. I expressed my confusion. Another woman spoke, “she said whatever you can afford.” I dug in my pocket and found a couple of pesos. I stepped over the rope to pose with the women and suddenly had a baby alpaca thrust into my arms. It was a surprise but a pleasant one.
We found ourselves beside a dirt parking lot. Jose paused for a moment and asked if we would be interested in walking a little further across a ditch to an enormous statue of Jesus, the Cristo Blanco. It loomed over the town. More climbing was involved, but we were going to see as much as we could.
My lungs stressed against the thin air as we traversed the rocky terrain. Jim was ahead and eventually disappeared from our sight. Sheila and Ken were behind me, taking the narrow trail with slow strides. The walk took us about 10 minutes. When we reached the base of the statue, more Quechua women were waiting to sell their items. It was near the end of the day; they sat in quiet slumber with merchandise spread on the ground. One woman lounged on her side, a friend talking softly into her ear. I noted the deep folds of wrinkles on her face and wondered what stories she could tell. There was a loveliness in the whole scene. An intimate, relaxed exchange that exuded peace.
As I looked beyond her, I saw my husband at the base of Jesus. He had lifted his arms up in supplication. I didn’t know how to interpret this. Was he elated that he had conquered another set of hills? With little time to adapt to the altitude, we were managing quite well. Saqsaywaman is even higher than Cusco at 12,120 feet. Or had the imposing Christ compelled him to repent his sins? Jose, slightly out of breath himself, began his narrative. My ponderings fell to the wayside.
We took one more look at the valley below us, the city peacefully residing under the grace of the Cristo Blanco. Instead of driving down the mountain, Jose led us on a pilgrimage. Following a creek, we descended to a trail that met the road we had used. Through narrow passageways, we passed stucco homes, rambling stone staircases, tiny restaurants that commanded excellent views of the city below. Eventually, we arrived at our hotel and said our goodbyes to Jose. It was an exhilarating day.
Our guide had the right idea when we walked back into town. We had the opportunity to familiarize ourselves with our surroundings. Our hotel wasn’t that far, but the uphill climb to Saqsaywaman would have been difficult.
We stopped at a roadside food stand. A woman was boiling corn. The kernels are gigantic, like everything else in this land. It was served with a wedge of white cheese and was delicious! I highly recommend it.
Bring a bottle of water even if your time at Saqsaywaman is short. Keeping hydrated made a huge difference.
In my last post, I had mentioned that we chewed on the coca leaves offered at the airport. I believe it helped in our ability to move in the high altitude. There were no life-altering effects. Since it is an ingredient in making cocaine, all of us were a little wary, but as a dried leaf, it’s properties are harmless. Some folks claim that they don’t even notice any effects. If you want more information, take a look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coca.