How long had it been since we’d stayed in a city so interesting? It might have been back in Rio, or Brasília, or Salvador. But none of those cities has what Cusco has, which is layers.
Cusco was the knot at the center of the array of strings that connected the Incan Empire. It was a beautiful Incan city, lavished in gold and silver, ornate sculpture and ingenious architecture. It was the Rome of the Americas so naturally the Spaniards thoroughly sacked it. Within months of the Spanish conquest, the city had been stripped bare of thousands of priceless items, all melted down and shipped to Spain.
In 2001, when the Taliban blew up two ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, the world was shocked. But an equally hypocritical band of religious zealots pillaged the Incan Empire 500 years before and we don’t think much about it. Golden statues were deemed idolatry, so they were melted down for gold bullion, worshipped in Europe above all things.
After the Incan city was partially raised, the Conquistadors built on its foundations. Either because the Incan walls were so solid they couldn’t be easily torn down, or because they were so solid they made for fine foundations, the Spaniards remade Cusco in their preferred Italianate style with Incan buildings as their base. Today in place of Incan temples and palaces stand fantastic cathedrals and villas. In Plaza de Armas, once the nerve-center of the empire, memorials to the indigenous people’s slaughtered ancestors stand beside symbols of Catholic piety.
Okay, you might sense I’m a bit down on the Spanish conquest, and aren’t we all. Didn’t the same thing happen in North America? It did. Unfortunately for us up in Gringolandia though, we don’t have a city like Cusco to memorialize the dual nature of our native and colonial past.
To walk around Cusco is to be on an archeological expedition. Sketchy restaurants with clear plastic tablecloths are housed in the ruins of royal palaces. Fancy hotels catering to foreigners have walls of perfectly fitted blocks of stone running through their centers, incorporating the highest quality Incan design into modern interiors. The streets were designed for llama traffic and a culture without the wheel. Occasionally a pre-columbian carving of a snake, condor or a puma can be found in the walls of a library, a hostel or a church.
On top of all of this is the beautiful Spanish architecture. Balustraded balconies and colonnades that run the length of giant plazas. Ornamental wrought iron screens and floral stone carvings embellish even the narrowest alleys. Many of the hotels and hostels in town are converted villas, complete with large interior courtyards reminiscent of cloisters.
It made sense for the Conquering Spanish to make their capital Cusco after the empire was theirs, until it made more sense to move it to Lima on the sea. Afterwards the gleam of pre and post colonial Cusco faded.
Then in 1911, Machu Picchu was rediscovered. Cusco regained some of its glory as tourists flooded in, as they do to this day. I’m not sure how I feel about the Irish and American bars, the five star hotels or the Starbucks Coffee on Plaza de Armas. On one hand the globalization brought by tourists seeking the comforts of home has stripped the city of its indigenous authenticity. On the other hand, hamburgers.
Exploring the city primed us for more Incan ruins. One morning we found our way to a little bus station and caught a combi-van headed into the countryside. It let us off at the site of Tampumachay, the Incan baths and a temple to one of the pillars of Incan religion, water. Complex aquifers channel spring water into elegant shoots where the Incan royalty once bathed. Now herds of sheep graze on its surrounding terraces.
We planned on walking back to Cusco, passing a succession of ruins along the way. After the hill fortress of Puca Pucara, we struck out cross country instead of waking alongside the road from Cusco. Soon we were in farm fields, hiking up ancient terraces and stumbling over pigs wallowing in muddy creaks. There was no direct path, so after getting stuck on the top of a hill we crossed the valley and reunited with the road.
When we’d told the clerk at our hostel our plan he looked dubious. He said it sounded difficult and that we’d be better off renting horses. We in turn looked dubious, renting horses did not sound like the easier option.
Back at the road, we found a group of boys with a little herd of mangy steeds. They offered to rent us some. When we declined, they mounted up and galloped off at top speed in all directions, the horses looking miserable. We followed the tracks of one of the youths down a hill, past more terraces and finally to a large rocky outcrop that had a giant stone staircase carved in its side. Even I had to climb up them like a baby crawling upstairs.
When we reached the top we had a commanding view of the surroundings. The outcropping of stone was massive. In it had been carved many odd shapes that turned out to be thrones, water channels and moon-dials. The rock wasn’t on our map but it turned out to be known as the Temple of the Moon. At the foot of the rock were entrances to tunnels running throughout. Inside were chambers used for specific Incan rites. More condors and pumas were sculpted in hidden corners, watching the proceedings and icily observing our sacrilegious exploration.
We left the Temple of the Moon via a wide grass covered road. Each side was lined by the finely wrought stonework typical to Incan construction. We were on an old road from Cusco that bore a striking resemblance to one of my favorite places in the world, the old Roman Appian Way. The road led in a direct line to the city through cornfields and past ruins with no name.
We were looking for the last two ruins on our map, but apparently were headed the wrong direction. We came across a couple of teenagers, the boy carrying his girlfriend on his shoulders. Aside from this arrangement they were walking along the old road as normally as could be. They pointed the way across a dirt path that led through a little town. From there we picked up the trail again, exploring Qenko, another pile of rocks the Incans had transformed into a complex burial site, and finally to Saqsaywaman, the imperial fortress that overlooks Cusco.
The problem with looking for Saqsaywaman is the pronunciation. We stopped several people in the little town and posed this inappropriate question:
“Do you know where we can find Sexywoman?”
Given that this is almost exactly the way the word is pronounced, locals were unfazed, but English speakers struggled to control a childish giggle.
When we finally found the fortress, the sun was low to the mountainous horizon, casting long shadows and a golden light across the surrounding fields. Saqsaywaman was the site of a bloody battle with the Spaniards as Manco Inca Capac attempted to take back control of his Empire. Despite the zig-zag patterned impregnable walls, incredibly constructed of enormous perfectly fitted boulders, it took 50 mounted Conquistadors and an army of Indian soldiers to take the fortress. Thousands of Capac’s warriors were massacred on the fields that we were walking through to reach Saqsaywaman.
Once we were inside the walls it seemed even more inconceivable that Pizarro’s men could have successfully captured the fort. The walls are 20 feet high and remain mostly intact today, despite war, earthquakes and the ruins being used as a quarry to build Spanish Cusco. The approach from the city is up a narrow river valley, dominated by fortifications on both sides. I found myself being irritated with the Incans that they’d not been able to use this impressive place to rebuff the attack – though I know I shouldn’t have been – Spanish military technology was far more advanced and far more ruthless than the Incan’s. Still, the silent walls in their peculiar layout looked magnificent and impregnable to my untrained eye and had in fact almost turned the tide against the superior technology of the Conquistadors. But there are no almosts in history.