Thinkin’ Inca

Over the last couple of days, we have been to several Inca sites.

  1. The Catholic abbey in the city of Cusco built on Inca foundations of the temple of Coricancha
  2. Sacsayhuaman (say “sexy woman” with a little bit of a Spanish accent), an Inca temple, settlement and fortress rolled into one.
  3. The market town of Pisac
  4. Ollantaytambo fortress/observatory and town, the only remaining intact and active Inca town.
  5. The Sacred Valley, still very much in use today.
  6. Macchu Picchu

I am going to cover Macchu Picchu in a separate post, because there is so much to tell, but it has quite a few things in common with the other sites we saw, notably excellent construction and pre-planning.

The historic places I visited and Inca society generally are subjects of much anthropological study and tourism. It’s taken me a little while to write and post about the Incas because adequate coverage would require far more education than I received in just a few days. I will tell you something about the history of the places I saw, of course, but also point you to a couple of books, if you want to know more. A lot of web sites about this area are for tourism purposes and not informative about history. was not bad, though the English is a little funky.
You might like:
“The Incas (Peoples of America)”, by Terrence N D’Altroy – a serious scholastic introduction
“Last Days of the Incas”, by Kim MacQuarrie – more poetic license applied for good readability, but still accurate enough.
And there’s always Wikipedia.

I think the Inca society is worthy of study, if only because their 560-year-old walls look better than the walls at my 1950’s house. And that’s after half a millennia of rain and at least two massive earthquakes. We could learn a lot from them. That said, there’s a whole lot we don’t know. The Incas did not seem to keep written records, and most of what we know is inferred or has been recorded by the Spanish conquistadors. The purpose or importance behind the cities is guessed at, but not truly known, and how people lived from day to day is a mystery. How they got granite from one mountain range to another is a complete enigma, and how some of the monoliths were shaped is equally unknown. The edges of the granite feel like they have been burned smooth on the massive rock pieces at Ollantaytambo. Someone theorized it was done with solar power, using reflected energy from massive parabolic reflectors (the Spanish report finding a 10 foot diameter gold bowl). But nobody knows. There are some theories, but I don’t believe any of them have been actually attempted as proof – correct me if you know better. The TV show Mythbusters should consider coming down here and trying to move some granite monoliths from one Andean peak to another with llama-hide rope to see if it can be done. Maybe that’s outside their budget and insurance.

Coricancha was the Inca temple to the sun, and was turned into a convent/abbey. I wrote about it in my last post (it’s the place that revealed its Inca foundation and walls after the 1950 earthquake knocked off the Spanish stuff). It’s right in town, in Cusco, and the first chance you get of seeing Inca construction, doorways and windows, if you are acclimatizing in town.

Sacsayhuaman was the first major site that we visited, a few miles outside of central Cusco. There, the stones were larger than any at other sites. They were huge monoliths, quarried and brought from somewhere else kilometers away. No one knows for sure if the Incas built it or if another, pre-Inca civilization did. In fact, no one knows how it was built at all. The rocks are many tons, the largest estimated at 120 tons, and the Incas were not familiar with the wheel. So, big mystery here! This is where those hokey alien/Inca web sites come in, by the way. Interesting to see this place and how large the stones are, and how many. They held off the Spanish here for some time, but eventually the Incas were overwhelmed. Unfortunately, a lot of the place is gone because it was also the local quarry for many years – my guide reports that you could come here for five soles (local currency) and take whatever you needed until a few decades ago. Fortunately, most of the lower levels were too heavy to move.

The next day, we got back on the bus and drove for a while, eventually entering the Inca Sacred Valley, which is a beautiful, fertile zone. The train to Macchu Picchu runs through this valley as well. It is used largely for farming and herding, and is full of small towns and little tourist hotels and restaurants. After seeing a pottery workshop, the wool co-op and the bird/animal park that I wrote about in the last post, we went to Pisac. Pisac was more of a market stop, as they have the largest market in the Sacred Valley on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. I think everyone was shopped out though because we didn’t need to spend much time there. There is also a large Inca ruin site there, but it was not on our tour. If you get there, it’s probably worth checking out if you have the time.

On our tour with us were Nick and Barbara, a nice couple of retirees who have lived all over the world and done a lot of traveling. You never know who you are going to get stuck next to on an organized tour and it was a real pleasure to meet these folks and make a couple of new friends. It was just the four of us and our guide after the first day around Cusco, and it made for a really nice time. We were all together all the way through Macchu Picchu.

The next big site was Ollantaytambo. This site is rather large, and consists of some impressive mountainside storehouses, essentially carved into cliffs, a hillside farming terrace area and a still-functioning town complete with excellent streets. Lots of people live there still and use the same doorways and walls as their ancestors. In town, we ran into a little girl who was carrying her teddy bear on her back, like her mother would do with a baby. She must have been four or five years old. Our guide talked to her a little bit about her bear and she very seriously taught us how to wrap up the baby and carry it. Tom took a video of her and then she pointed at the camera because she wanted to see, and he gently squatted down and showed her. She was mesmerized. It was really sweet. The kids here are able to roam around as they wish and no one worries too much about them because they are safe here. No one would hurt a child in this village. It’s a nice change from the US where a stranger taking a video of a child would be viewed suspiciously. We have also noticed there isn’t a lot of vandalism in Peru, even in Lima. People have some really beautiful (new) cedar wood doors and garage doors, but no one has scratched them or spray-painted on them, despite their being right up against the sidewalks. There’s definitely crime in Lima, to the point where those same houses will have electrified upper fencing to keep out thieves, but deliberate, wasteful ruin of someone else’s goods doesn’t seem to happen.

But back to Ollantaytambo. Above the town are large terraces and a lot of uneven, steep steps (182) leading to the top of the terraces. The area was never finished, and on top of the terrace area are some giant stones, the size of compact cars, on “ramps” of lesser stones, apparently waiting to be moved into position. You can see the scorings of the master masons on the stones’ edges, and you can also see that not all the rocks come from the immediate hill – again “how did they do that?” comes to mind. There are elaborate joins between the stones that are in position, as many as 12-17 corners on a rock, and some of them have benches or stairs carved into them. This was the place where we could feel the edges of some stones had been burned smooth in some way. We felt as though we were quite high up, though it was not as arresting in height as Macchu Picchu turned out to be, and walked a cliff-side trail to get to another section of the ruin and back down. In theory, I suppose, it would be possible to get to the far higher cliff-side storehouses above our position, but I have no idea how it would be done without grappling hooks and crampons. Again, I found myself wondering how on earth these people built these structures. We’d have a hard time with it with today’s technology. A lot of unanswered questions here in the land of the Incas.

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