August 4, 2008
Cusco a pie (by foot)
Today we hiked with our guide, Juan all over Cusco. And I do mean all over, Juan estimated we walked about 7 miles. It was 7 miles of one incredible site after another, our heads are swirling with the enormity of the cultural sites we saw today! The elevation ranged from 11,000 to 12,000 feet so we are still huffing and puffing but it's getting easier each day.
All along the way Juan told us about the local culture as well as the history of the Inca Empire and the Spanish conquest. Before the Spanish conquest in the 1500's, the Inca Empire which began in the early 1400's was going strong and expanding much like the Roman Empire. In slightly more than 50 years the empire extended from Colombia to Chile and included portions of Bolivia and Argentina. As the empire conquered other cultures they studied and assimilated the culture's textile techniques, architecture, gold-working, irrigation, pottery, and healing methods. As a result they quickly accumulated a massive amount of information and advanced the Inca culture by leaps and bounds. The Incas developed irrigation systems into the desert creating farmlands there, built about 14,000 miles of roads throughout Cusco, and installed 12,000 "Tambos" or way-stations along the roads which would contain supplies and weapons. There were also many ceremonial sites built using huge stone blocks fitted together so tightly it's unbelievable. The layout of the buildings usually related to some astronomical meaning. Once the Spaniards conquered Cusco they did their best to eradicate all traces of the Inca culture, frequently leveling the temples and building their churches on the foundations. Nowadays there is a resurgence of study and restoration of the original Inca culture, seeking the advanced techniques and trying to create an accurate picture of the culture rather than rely on the highly edited version of the Spanish Catholic church records. Fascinating!
We began the day visiting Qorikancha which was once the most magnificent temple in Cusco. The Spanish leveled it and built the Santa Domingo church over it but parts of the original complex still survive and have been uncovered. The stone walls are perfectly fitted and have survived at least 2 major earthquakes which destroyed most of the city. Spanish chronicles recall the Europeans' astonishment when they saw the wealth decorating the temple; walls were covered in 700 gold sheets studded with emeralds and turquoise with windows positioned for light to enter and cast a blinding reflection off the walls. The courtyard was filled with life sized gold and silver statues of llamas, trees, flowers, people, sheep with their lambs and shepherds! It's no wonder the Spaniards were determined to conquer the Inca Empire.
Keeping in the church theme we went to the main plaza to see Cusco's Cathedral which is actually 3 churches, 2 smaller side churches and one large main church. Begun in 1559 it took 100 years to finish and a whole lot of money! There are many alters gilded in gold or silver and the huge main alter is solid silver. The most interesting thing to me was how the local people managed to blend aspects of their religion into the catholic paintings and symbols. There are many examples of this throughout but here's my favorite; There is a very large oil painting of the last supper where Christ and his apostles are dining on roast guinea pig (cuy), hot peppers and Andean cheese. Clever!
Next we hiked (uphill of course) just outside the city to Sacsayhuamán (pronounced very much like "sexy woman") another area for worship. WOW! You feel tiny when standing next to these huge stones, some of which weigh around 130 tons. The biggest cornerstone stands 28 feet high and extends another 4 feet below ground. They are fitted perfectly together using no mortar and you can't even slip a razor blade between the rocks. 3 Tiered walls stretch in a zig-zag formation (a common theme) for almost 1,200 feet each and lead up to a ruined tower, which is in the process of being reconstructed. Experts speculate that tens of thousands of people labored for 70 years to complete the site. The enormous rocks were most likely placed by a series of ramps and pulleys.
We reluctantly left this site and headed to Qenko another shrine with a circular amphitheater that has an 18 foot stone block positioned to aid with astronomical observations. Unlike Sacsayhuamán which was built with carved stone blocks this site was carved from a huge limestone formation found at the site. It includes water canals cut into the stone and a subterranean room.
Next was Puca Pucara which is a ruined tambo. You can only see the foundations now but the buildings are estimated to have been about 80 feet high. Here the stones are a reddish color and not as precisely fitted as it was just a way-station and not a place of worship.
Across the road from Puca Pucara was Tambo Machay a sacred bathing place. It is a hydraulic engineering marvel and has an aqueduct system which feeds water up through the stone walls into a series of showers. Although it is in ruins too, the water still runs up through the walls!
Lastly we visited a cave which some call Temple of Laqo or Temple of the moon. It was actually a mausoleum where some mummies were found and not a temple at all. It was interesting as portions were natural and portions carved out. There was a snake and a puma carved onto the entrance wall, which are common animal themes in the Inca religion. The three different levels or steps are commonly represented in Inca art and architecture. The three steps represent the three worlds: Hanan Pacha, the world of above (representing the gods of the sun, moon and stars); Kay Pacha, this world (representing this life); and Uqhu Pacha, the world of below (representing death). Each of these worlds was represented by an animal: the condor, the puma and the snake.
Juan left us at our hotel around 5 pm. That evening we spent some time browsing the shops and having dinner in the plaza. It was a long yet exciting day, can't wait for tomorrow!