The Beginning of the End of the Incas, Sacsayhuaman

sacsayhuaman cusco
Looking at what is left of the walls of Sacsayhuaman after the Spanish carried off most of the fortress to build their homes and churches in Cusco.

I've been reading, for the second time, a book called The Last Days of the Incas by Kim McQuarrie. It makes traveling so much better when you know something about the history of what you're looking at. It's a terrific lot of historical research that reconstructs in great detail just how the Spanish destroyed the Inca empire, including the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, and fits in beautifully with Hiram Bingham's accounts of his rediscovery of the Incan sites, particularly Machu Picchu. (Did you know, btw, that Bingham was looking for Vilcabamba, the last Incan capital, and thought that's what he'd found at Machu Picchu? Oh well, that's another story for later, and to be told by someone else–scholars, for instance–who are interested in academic credit.)

The basic story of the Inca/Spanish conflict is one that started out with trickery and treachery. Ostensibly the Spanish came in peace, lured the Inca emperor Atahualpa into a city they had occupied, then overpowered his guard and captured him. Most Americans have heard that Atahualpa, still not understanding the depth of Spanish greed and depravity, offered to fill a large room with gold and silver if the Spanish would agree to leave and free him. And, making a long story short, the Incas paid the ransom, denuding their kingdom of its decoration in the process (the Incas didn't use gold for money, only as ornament of the nobility and of their temples to their sun god) and then the Spanish killed Atahualpa anyway and (eventually) appointed one of this brothers, Manco Inca, the puppet emperor.

Manco Inca went along with the Spanish for a while (he still hoped they'd leave when they had enough gold) but after one of the Pizarro brothers forcibly took his wife and threw him in chains, Manco Inca escaped (by promising to go get some more gold and bring it back to the Pizarros) and reconstituted the Inca army and tried to throw the Spaniards out of Peru.

The zig zag walls allowed the Incas to fire on the flank of the enemy wherever they attacked.

That brings us to Saqsayhuaman. Well it brings me here. You're probably still in Minnesota enjoying the blizzard. Pass the sunscreen, please, the Andean summer sun is sort of strong. Don't forget your hat. I just realized I'm writing this in a hotel room. I think I'll go out into the courtyard of this former monastery and watch the llamas while I finish it. (The hotel is the Sonesta Posadas del Inca in Yucay, btw. Highly recommended. Nice rooms, great service, not too expensive, and llamas in the courtyard.)

The hotel pets.
The Spanish breached the lower wall at this gate, but were repulsed here before finally climbing the walls using ladders the following night.

So, back to Saqsayhuaman. After knocking off most of the Spanish who had moved out into the countryside to better subjugate the Indians there, and killing most of the Spanish troops who'd been sent out of Cuzco to subdue the rebellion, Manco Inca occupied the fortress/temple at Saqsayhuaman on the mountain above Cuzco and laid siege to the Spaniards in the city at the bottom of the hill.

But after assaulting the city with thousands of troops, and pretty much burning it down, very few Spaniards were killed or dislodged. In fact, fifty Spaniards, led by Juan Pizarro, along with a few hundred Indian supporters, counterattacked up the hill to Saqsayhuaman, and defeated the Incas there. The Incas retreated to Ollantaytambo (more on that later), but the Spanish occupied Saqsayhuaman, and eventually destroyed most of the fine stone buildings there and used the stone to build their own estates in Cuzco and surrounding areas.

The Incas usually built temple walls around natural rocks that jut from the ground. Some rocks were used as altars. Others as symbols of the Inca connection to the mountains.

What is left now is the ruins of the three towers of the citadel at the top of the mountain, and most of the three tiered walls that the Spanish breached to get to the citadel. Also on the other side of the plain in front of the fortress walls is the temple area with the usual Incan mix of fine stonework merged beautifully with natural stones jutting from the earth. (The natural stones represent the Incans' religious connection with the mountains.)

These seats carved into the rocks at the temple areas were used as sacrificial altars, or sometimes as resting places for sacred objects, such as the mummified remains of emperors or other sacred images.

Saqsayhuaman is best visited while you are staying in Cuzco. (There are also lots of other Incan sites in and around Cuzco that you can see on a tour.) If you are fit and acclimated to the altitude you can walk up the old Inca road to the site. If you aren't up for the climb, you can take a taxi for about $2 and walk back down. If you're too lazy for that, you can take a taxi back down, too. There are always one or two waiting in the site's parking lot.

To visit Saqsayhuaman and the other sites, you'll need a boleto turistico (a tourist ticket) which costs 130 soles (about $45) and is also good for all the sites around Cuzco and in the Sacred Valley. It's well worth it. If you show up without this ticket, you can buy one on the spot, but it will be a lot more expensive. (You have to buy the boleto turistico in Cuzco. Ask at your hotel where to get it.)

To thoroughly visit the site, you'll need at least two hours. If you haven't done any reading beforehand, you might want to hire one of the guides who hang out at the entrance. In general, they seem to really know their history and Inca lore, and the $7-10 it will cost you is well worth it. (We've done the Inca sites both with and without guides. Our guides so far have been very good. The detail they know adds a lot to your appreciation of what you're looking at. Also, if the guide has bothered to learn English, that probably means he's a pro, and he's also made the effort to learn his subject.)

Some of these stones weigh over 300 tons. The Spanish probably carried off that much gold, but weren't interested in moving stones like that. Thank God.

So, marvel at the size of the stones of the defensive walls, and realize why the Spanish didn't bother to destroy them, too. And wonder at the skill of the civilization that could create such works of religion and civil engineering…and also wonder what was lost when the Spanish systematically destroyed them.

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