Sacsayhuaman: Where the Inca Empire was lost

Top view
Sacsayhuaman, on the wall looking down at the parade ground

Cusco, Peru, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 — In 1536, there were 190 Spaniards in Cusco, eighty who had horses. Juan Pizarro, half brother to Francisco, had freed Manco Inca, made ruler by Francisco Pizarro after he executed Atapaulpa. The newest Inca leader made haste to the hills to raise as many as 200,000 troops to get rid of the Europeans.

The Inca force returned, burnt the city and holed up in Sacsayhuaman where they could sweep down on the besieged Spaniards.

“Thus ended the Inca capital: stripped for Atahualpa’s ransom, ransacked by Spanish looters, and now burned by its own people,” says John Hemming in “The Conquest of the Incas.”

Peter Frost’s book, “Exploring Cusco,” called the “bitter struggle for these heights became the decisive military action of the conquest. Manco’s failure to hold Sacsayhuaman cost him the war, and the empire.”

Spaniards, protected by steel helmets and bucklers, killed thousands of Manco’s forces by wielding steel swords and using their horses to charge into the Incas armed mostly with slings and stones. An example: The Spaniards wiped out about 1,500 Inca holdouts in the last battle for Sacsayhuaman. And not all 190 went up there. One who surely didn’t go was Juan Pizarro, killed previously by a stone dropped from one of the towers at Sacsayhuaman, the first of the Pizarros to go.

Frost tallies the rest of the Pizarro clan: Gonzalo executed in 1548 for rebelling against the Spanish crown; Francisco was assassinated in Lima in 1541 by rivals; Hernando spent 20 years in a Spanish prison for either provoking Manco’s rebellion, killing a Spanish nobleman or both. He died an old man whose wills and other efforts to control his vast fortune all ended in naught.

Big stones
See that rock behind us? Could you drag it three or four miles?

Our guide, Yakelin, said it probably took 20,000 people working for 60 years to complete the Sacsayhuaman. The stone quarry was three to four miles away from the site, and if you look at the size of the stones you can see what a struggle it must have been to drag them to Sacsayhuaman. They had no horses and did not know about the wheel. So they pulled the stones themselves by rolling them over logs. (It seems that someone might have thought, “These logs could be cut into segments, hitched behind a llama and we could open a John Llama dealership.”)

Cut stones.jpg
And once you got it here, could you carve it to make it fit?

The three towers on top of Sacsayhuaman were torn down, and the Spaniards forced the Incas to drag the stones into the city to build cathedrals.

That tickled a question in my mind that I had had since finishing Hemming’s book: Why did anyone in Peru allow anyone to speak Spanish? After independence, why didn’t they put every European they could find on a boat and head them back home – or drown them?

My effort to get those questions answered never worked. But Ramsey, a doctor on our tour who would make a good reporter, got it right when he asked Yakelin about her heritage: Given that she is mestizo (mix of European and Indian blood), what side of the family do you lean toward?

“I don’t worry about Spaniards or Inca,” she said. “No one separates things that way.

“The Incas incorporated others into their Empire, some asked, some forced.”

She learned basic information about Incas in school — some of it wrong. She grew up in Cusco and said they were taught that the Incas only lasted 100 years. Actually, they had been around for at least 400 before the conquest. This short-lived story of the Incas was also used as a justification by the Spaniards for the conquest: The Incas had only ruled for a few generations, and the Europeans “supplanted other equally unwelcome conquerors.” Maybe.

Yakelin explained that Quechua, the native language, is being reintroduced with medical professions and educators required to learn it. The CIA Factbook notes that the Peruvian population is 60 percent mestizo, Amerindian 25 percent, white 6 percent, African descent 3.6 percent and others (Chinese, Japanese, etc.)

It’s a mixed bag in Peru, native religion mixed with Catholicism, Quechua and Aymara languages mixed with Spanish. And no one is being led down to the boats for a journey to somewhere that would no longer feel like home.

Leaving Cuzco
A baby goat, a woman in native dress — who could resist?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Machu Picchu: Comparing a visit in 1975 to a visit today

Kt good light

Tuesday and Wednesday, September 25 and 26, 2018 — Since returning from our trip to Machu Picchu, I have been comparing our visit there to one that my friend Jeff made in 1975. His experience there seems almost impossible for the Peruvian ruins now.

He took the train up the Sacred Valley to a very deserted place, as he remembers it, which today is probably the busy town of Aguas Calientes. There was only a miniature school bus run by the rather dilapidated hotel at the top of the mountain next to the ruins. So Jeff hiked the switchbacks up to the ruins, planning to camp up there.

He toured the ruins, remembers that there were a couple of Peruvian students there to hire as guides. There were not more than maybe 30 or 35 people in the entire site. The hotel held a few people, mostly older. But Jeff bedded down in one of the enclosed stone structures. The next day he hiked up to the Sun Gate and then headed down to the train to continue on his journey through South America.

Now the buses run from 6 a.m. until closing time when guards (attendants) chase everyone away. The max they allow at the ruins each day is 2,500, but word has it that anyone willing to buy a ticket is let in.

I’m glad Peru has developed a tourist industry, and Machu Picchu deserves to be the star of the show. Foreign cash welcomed there, and it’s better than visitors scared away by the Sendero Luminoso. But it does make me wish I would have continued on with Jeff from Central America in 1975, although grad school paid off in the end.

Not sure how good the student guides were, but the modern day ones are excellent – at least Yakelin was. Our two-day tour was filled with facts, observations and numbers.

It probably took 40,000 people to build Machu Picchu, most of them doing their “mita,” two years of labor as a tax to the Inca Empire. It was built there because of water sources, a quarry of stones to build with and perhaps some idea of defense because of the cliffs surrounding it. But with eight ancient trails leading into it, defense may not have been the highest priority. It may have been an advance post for the Incas move into the Amazon region to take over supply of coca leaves (a mild stimulant that helps with altitude sickness, not cocaine, which came later).

The terraces were used for agriculture with drainage built into them, and the place could support a population of 500 to 700 residents. The stone temples and houses, once covered with thatch roofs, were built between 10,000-foot Machu Picchu – the Old Mountain – and Wayna Picchu – the Young Mountain.

Wayna Picchu
Ruins on Wayna Picchu

There are ruins and a Moon Temple up on Wayna Picchu, but we did not have time to climb it. You need a permit, and we had a schedule to keep. We were up at 5 a.m. on our second day to get to the front entrance before the buses started to arrive. My second cup of coffee put us behind two early-arriving buses. So we joined the crowd of about 200 people who all had the same idea we had: Hike to the Sun Gate, a thousand feet above the main ruins. Four-hour hike up and back for us, and too cloudy to get much of a sunrise. However, the view up there is worth the climb.

From Sun Gate
At the Sun Gate with the ruins behinds us.

The best way to avoid the really big crowds is to stay late in the afternoon (maybe walk down to Aguas Calientes or dig deep into your wallet to stay at the post-1975 hotel next to the entrance) or go early, getting in line for the first buses climbing the switchbacks up to the site. Your best shot at getting off by yourself is to climb Wayna Picchu. A climb Jeff and guidebooks say can be tricky with the last 20 meters on steep rocks with a ladder and rope to help out. Only 400 are allowed up there each day – 200 at 7 a.m. and 200 at 10 a.m.

The authors who wrote the guidebooks we used have a longing for the past – fewer crowds, fewer people “reconstructed” the ruins. Peter Frost in “Exploring Cusco” says that when the anthropologists arrive, the gods depart. Too much work to get everything down to bare stones with no vegetation, no lichens, no wilderness to entrance the imagination into picturing what it once was. Too many government departments with some control over the site. Too much intervention “where entire walls and even buildings have been assembled upon little more than a vestige of the foundations. Visitors are presumed to be insufficiently intelligent to imagine how an unreconstructed site might have looked.” He says that having seen the ruins before and after reconstruction and he “immoderately begs to disagree.”

Yakelin pointed out that there some terraces that have not been dug up yet, but they are far down the mountain and not easy to see.KT with llama

Ben Westwood in the Moon Handbook “Machu Picchu” notes that the millions visiting there each year has the site, built on a man-made mound of earth, actually sinking, “albeit very slowly.” So get there before it slips away. It’s right up there with my other favorite pre-Columbian archeological site, Tikal in Guatemala, which has unreconstructed temples that allow your imagination to run wild.

When you do visit Machu Picchu, do as Peter Frost asks: Don’t litter, don’t remove stones, plants or animals. “Remember, the Machu Picchu park is a sanctuary: for ruins, for wildlife, for trees and flowers – and for you. Please treat it that way.”

Kt up high