Stone Altar by Steve Smith and Christine Smith for In The Know Traveler
For the Inca, spirit was present in everything and shaped the very essence of life. Believing themselves to be living at the center of the sacred world, they drew imaginary lines of energy and demarcation into the world around them. These lines, in Quechua called ceques (rays), project outward to special huacas (sacred spots) located in nearby hills and the night sky. They also served to divide the empire politically; Tiwanitasuyo, the word for their empire, was quartered into four administrative regions by these ceques. Sacsayhuaman is one such site located on a sacred ceque, a temple soaring high on a hill above Cusco, Peru.

There is little doubt Sacsayhuaman was first, and foremost, a temple, but also doubled as a fortress in the final days of the Inca Empire. Conventional history says it was built in the 15th century and construction was reported to have required the labor of over 20,000 Incas. However, a Spanish chronicler, who wrote about the building only a few years after completion, could not find a single person alive who was involved in its construction. This lead to speculation that Sacsayhuaman is much older than conventional history dates it? Were the Inca only involved in its re-construction, building on something previously there? Some, including a professor from the University of Puno who we met traveling through the Andes, believes that a much older civilization was responsible for the construction.

Standing in Prayer Hole by Steve Smith and Christine Smith for In The Know TravelerOur visit to Sacsayhuaman was part of a group "adventure" tour, with a guide who explained the history and various features of the site. As we walked through the ruins of three massive towers and a spectacular view of Cusco below, one rather mundane looking spot filled us with curiosity. It was nothing more than a small depression in the bare dirt, about the size of a frying pan. When you stood in the depression and called out, a distinct echo returned. Okay, not so strange, but when we left that small concave area and stood only inches away, there was no echo. Nowhere else on the hill could you get an echo but from that small spot. The tour guide explained this is called the prayer hole, and it was a sacred place to the Inca. Today experts and engineers are stymied in their attempts to explain its strange anomalies. We decided we'd return later for a closer look.

The following day, Tuesday, we set out in the morning to walk the steep trail from Cusco for our return visit to Sacsayhuaman and that mysterious spot. Once there, we stood quietly reading our guidebook, which mentioned that Tuesday is considered a sacred day in the Andes. A solitary man stood across from us in the round astrological structure where we stood reading and enjoying the peaceful vista. He stepped into the center, seemingly meditating with some large stones in hand. He then motioned for us to join him. He placed a stone in each of our hands, and both of us felt a pull, and found our arms slowly rising to the sky. It was noon, and he later said, as sun worshippers, this was the most powerful time to the Inca.

Parade grounds and Rodedero Hill by Steve Smith and Christine Smith for In The Know TravelerWaving for us to follow, this man and our conversation continued down into the great courtyard below. He pointed out a gigantic rock that formed a piece of the serpentine rampart wall, which were inscribed with positive and negative symbols. Did these symbols have the same meaning for the Inca, we wondered or were they carved after the conquest? Next he took off in a direction opposite those rampart walls and across the courtyard. Rodedero Hill, a giant igneous rock formation with numerous stairwells and carved benches now stood directly in front of us. The Spanish had named this the "Inca Throne," recognizing it as a reviewing seat for the pageants that still occur in the field below.

We sat on the Inca Throne and took a break to catch our breath. Our "guide" identified himself as a shaman, and spoke some broken English as well as Spanish, although we heard Quechuan too. He pulled out a compass and showed us the magnetic anomalies surrounding this spot. Resourcefully, he next grabbed a pen and wrote the scientific symbol for iron oxide on his hand to tell us it was lodestone. He explained that underground passages riddled this hill and urged us to visit a “tuna” with him. Fortunately, we translated this into "tunnel" and set off once again.

The tunnel was located some distance behind Rodadero Hill. Explaining that it was a ceremonial passage used to simulate birth, giving those who passed through a rebirth of their spirit, we followed. Very dark, and for long moments pitch black, some fearful thoughts entered our heads as we scrambled down it – was this a wise idea? We’ve all heard stories of naive tourists being led to a remote area and robbed. If so, bad karma for him, as we'd only brought a few bucks for lunch and a taxi back. Deep in the center, he stopped to begin softly chanting and fanning above our heads with a bird feather. He made some bird-like sounds and we experienced the strange sensation that a bird flying too low had brushed us. The passage continued for about another 100 feet and we emerged, newly born into the blinding sunlight. All our fears were left in the darkness behind us. We sat with this man to share the water we'd brought with us, and talked a bit before he walked away. While the tour the day before had been informative, this had been interesting on a whole different level.

There are other ruins to visit in the area in addition to Sacsayhuaman, which make a good day excursion.

Portal to Sacsayhuman by Steve Smith and Christine Smith on In The Know TravelerQ’enko – These ruins are about a ½ mile from Sacsayhuaman on the road to Pisac. They are not really ruins so much as a large outcrop of limestone that is another huaca, a crypt of caves that held Inca mummies. Visitors can easily spend an hour scrambling through the caves and sitting in the amphitheater with its Greco-Roman appearance. Also check out the smooth stone altar (some claim it was used for human sacrifices).

Tambomachay – Also located along the road to Pisac, just a short distance beyond Q’enko. This site is also known as Los Baños del Inca (Inca Baths). Water from a spring is diverted over of three tiers of stone platforms using a sophisticated system of aqueducts and canals, and it was likely used to perform rituals and not to bathe in. An excellent picnic spot, give it at least one hour to explore and see the exquisite stonework.

Cusco – Of course, don’t neglect the city itself, which is beautiful with a rich history. However, that’s another story.

Steve Smith & Christine Johnson

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