Cuzco and Machu Picchu

As a kid, I was obsessed with the Giza pyramids in Egypt. Courtesy of my mother, before I could even read I already had books in my hands about the pyramids, the ancient Egyptians who built them, their gods, their hair and makeup, their incensed rituals… This site was, to me, the epitome of foreign travel.

As an adult though, it now brings me a staggering amount of joy to state that UNESCO’s World Heritage List includes 981 properties. That’s 981 constructions — ancient, modern, and natural — that have equal potential to command human attention and imaginations.

Peru is home to 11 of them.

In 2013, I got to visit two in one week.


For five days, Ivo and I explored the Historic City of Cuzco. During that time, we also made the trip to Machu Picchu.   1175289_10152146751463976_1735312708_n1234774_10152146745658976_749244145_n

The Historic City of Cuzco is the official title of several locations viewed as a single whole. UNESCO aptly describes the City with the following words:

It is a representative and exceptional example of the confluence of two distinct cultures, Inca and Hispanic, which through the centuries produced an outstanding cultural syncretism and configured a unique urban structure and architectural form.

However, while this is technically true, the words “confluence” and “syncretism” make Cuzco sound like the result of a lovely cultural exchange program. The Incas did not happily carry the Spanish folks’ luggage at the airport, and the Spanish did not offer to pay for brunch before a board room meeting to discuss architecture.

Here’s what really happened (as told by yours truly).

That’s not snow. It’s salt. The salt mines located in Maras are just one harrowing bus ride straight up from Cuzco. At some point between 200 and 900 AD, the Chanapata culture (pre-Incas) constructed approximately 3,000 shallow, terraced ponds that yield thick crusts of salt as the water evaporates in the dry mountain air. The Chanapata recognized the existence of a salt water spring, plotted out the mountainside into over 3,000 polygonal plots, then executed the massive and delicate project of ensuring the maze of channels would maintain a steady downward flow of saltwater.

They did such a profoundly good job that well over 1,000 years later, locals are still farming them. Yes, in the year 2013, my husband and I bought bags of salt from a salt mine that has existed for over a millennium.

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From about 900 to 1200 AD, the Kilke people (pre-Incas) were also busy demonstrating their architectural wizardry. All that remains of Saksaywaman (pronounced “sexAY woman”, as our tour guide pointed out at least five times) are its largest base stones. However, Pedro Sancho, a Spaniard with the fortune to visit Saksaywaman in its prime, described it as “labyrinth-like”; other accounts state the massive plaza-turned-fortress also had towers rising over the vast ceremonial area.

How effectively did they build this place? The Kilke built this place so effectively that the Incas and Spanish hacked each other apart trying to gain control of the strategic position. They build it so effectively that after the Spanish got it, they went to the trouble of ripping it apart, transferring the rocks, and then constructing their own buildings in the city using the Kilke’s stones.The Kilke built it so effectively that modern tour guides feel compelled to share “aliens did it” as a legitimate scientific theory as to how the walls were constructed.


Just take a second. Consider all the apocalyptic zombie stories out now, where the best modern heroes can’t pull themselves together long enough to plant a potato, let alone to construct an architectural masterpiece from solid stone. Yes, the ancients had fewer undead on their hands, but still: What have we built lately that is so incredible 1,000 years from now History channel will be willing to pay somebody’s crazy uncle to claim aliens did it? And, furthermore, the salt mines and Saksaywaman? These weren’t even the Incas yet! We’re still pre-Inca!

The point is, before the Spanish showed up, and even before the Incas had established their absolute empire spanning a full continent’s edge… the people in this region had their shit together.

Cue the Incas.

The Incas didn’t just drop out of the sky. They inherited, integrated, improved upon, and — full disclosure — stole a good part of what other societies had established along the continent. That includes the salt mines and Saksaywaman. From about 1400 to 1500 AD, the Incas built their empire using these resources and their own ingenuity, drive, and unique organizational forms. They called this empire Tawantinsuyu. Its capital was Cuzco.

As a white kid from Northern Kentucky, my mental image of Incas was (perhaps understandably, if not excusably) fairly one-dimensional. I’ll be totally honest: Prior to marrying a Peruvian, as far as I knew, the Incas were just another set of natives that got demolished as soon as the high-tech, more ambitious, disease-wielding white folks showed up. Wrong, wrong, wrong.



The Incan Empire


The Incas were scientists. At Moray, we visited a stunning feat of civil engineering. While everyone else was building up, the Incas built down, carving into the earth to create multiple circular terraces, the deepest almost 500 feet below ground level. They were constructing an agricultural laboratory with temperature control and inbuilt drainage. Yes, you read that right. Although it was whipping frigid misty rain into our faces at the top, by the time we climbed to the center-bottom ring it was almost 40° F warmer. Regardless of how much it rains, the laboratory also never floods; some scholars theorize there may be man-made canals running underneath, as well as a base of porous rock. 

To reiterate: They weren’t just farming here. They were genuinely experimenting. Cook (1925, in National Research Council, 1989) claimed that when the Spanish arrived, the Incas had almost as many crop species as all the farmers in Asia or in Europe. You like potatoes? Ames and Spooner (2008) found over 99% of today’s potatoes are descendants of the potatoes that the Incas’ ancestors domesticated. Really like potatoes? Our guide added that about 4,000 varieties are native to this area, much thanks to the Incas. Like food in general? Although I’m hard-pressed to find the study (it might be in Spanish), Peruvians including our guide repeatedly insist pollen found at Moray has proven the Andes to be the origin of about 60% of all contemporary crops.

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The Incas were engineers. They also had an eye for a view. At Ollantaytambo, the Emperor Pachacuti constructed a village and carved a ceremonial temple into the mountain. The temple faces out toward the open sky, giving a perfect view between the two neighboring mountains. Ivo and I decided we could see sufficiently from about 2/3 of the way up… in our defence though, the altitude here can cripple your breathing.

This village was so perfectly constructed, there is still running water today. The stones had been laid open in some places, revealing how the Incas had carved them to fit together like Lego bricks. Doorways were still solidly in place, revealing just how petite the natives had been.

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The Incas were artists, environmentalists, and astrologists. At Pisac, we observed the remains of military, agricultural, and spiritual structures. The view, as were most views, was magnificent. The terraces here formed wide, gentle curves alongside the mountain. The remaining structures were nestled up at the top, looking out over a vast valley.

One particularly eloquent engineer once remarked: “They remade the landscape without diminishing its beauty but heightening it in the manner of one who carves a gem” (Wright, 2008).

Ivo and I again did our best to make it up these mountainside ruins within our allotted time. We did well, considering the thin air, but at the very point where we decided it was far safer to head back, a native woman padded politely past us and headed fearlessly straight up the craggy rocks… with a baby tied to her back. Ah, well. We were still able to appreciate the mountains and valleys that inspired many of the ancient religions.

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The Incas were tough. They did not take the Spanish invasion lying down.

The Spanish showed up with swords, guns, and cannons. They showed up with horses, creatures never seen before. They showed up with insatiable greed. They showed up — in a total coin-flip of complete luck — with small pox and measles. They showed up — again, through sheer dumb luck — in the middle of a civil war and, arguably, at a time of decline in the Inca’s power.

The Incas were decimated by disease: Cook (1981) estimated that in just the first wave of disease-related population decline, about 30 to 50% of the Incas were left dead. They were isolated by political rivalry. Although they were originally far from outnumbered — Pizarro commanded only about 200 men throughout the main conquest — they were heavily outgunned in a literal sense. The Spanish were wielding steel against leather armour.

Nonetheless, the Incas dug in their heels, bared their teeth, and resisted like hell for nearly five decades. They fought past the point of hopelessness, they burned their cities and streets behind them, and they chiseled graves for their numerous dead into the mountain sides to prevent the Spanish from sacking them.

That’s the truth.

All of this comprises what makes Machu Picchu such a special place, and arguably one of the top Wonders of the World. The bottom line is that nobody knows for sure why this city was built. We only know that it was (and still is) magnificent. However, historians — and our tour guide — generally agree with the reigning theory: Machu Picchu was built by and for Emperor Pachacuti as a royal retreat. It was, in short, the king’s “beach house”.


The Spanish could not have given less of a plague rat’s butt about Inca culture or history. The Inca are therefore perceived now to be a mysterious people. As I see it, this is not because they were not artistic or careful record keepers; this is not even because their writing system was so different from our own. It is because the Spanish burned their history off the face of the planet. If it was Inca in origin, it was either torched, destroyed, murdered, or re-purposed for Spanish use.  That is, except for Machu Picchu.


Our guide told us the following story: Just about 100 years after this place of peaceful resort and reflection had been constructed, the straggling survivors within its walls were faced with a choice. Option one, they could stay and die in Machu Picchu. The Spanish would follow their trail directly to the city, and upon arriving they would murder the survivors, burn the city, and rip what remained into rubble and raw building material. The Incas chose option two. They gathered what they could and left the city behind them, choosing to sacrifice themselves in an effort to lead the Spanish away and thus rescue Machu Picchu, the only remaining relic of their once great civilisation.

As romantic as this story is though… historians do not seem quite convinced on all its details. This is the tale first perpetuated by Hiram Bingham, the archeologist who “discovered” Machu Picchu around 1911 (by discovered, I mean he asked an 11-year old native boy if there were any ruins around, and the kid walked him up to the city). Although Bingham’s conclusions were understandable given the science available at the time, we now know Machu Picchu is not the “lost city” of the Incas, nor was it the last city of the Incas.


It does remain, however, one of the few the Spanish simply did not find. As such, it is celebrated as among the best preserved, which is a feat in its own right. It is now a small representation of the grandeur we lost to a bad superiority complex and simple greed. A country worth of culture, science, engineering, architecture and spirituality… just gone.

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Much of the Historic City of Cuzco is now composed of Spanish constructions built on top of and out of the dismembered corpses of the Inca city buildings. Despite the lovely, consistent arches and charming Renaissance style, I can’t help but see it as a rather gory creation.


One of the best examples of this Frankenstein-esque process is the Church of Santo Domingo. In this case, the Spanish didn’t even bother to cover up the wreckage of the original Temple of the Sun. The bones of the Inca building still jut out and surround the Spanish church in the form of smooth, stone walls and a grassy plaza.


Despite the best efforts of the Spanish though, elements of the Inca culture survived through its people. Whether wilfully or by default, native habits persisted particularly within the art. As people raised under one religion were threatened and swayed into wrenching their culture into the form of a different religion, strange amalgamations took place. There are lots of examples, but one of the most-cited is Cuzco version of the Last Supper. While the native painter had been well informed of the party attending the event, the menu was free game. Naturally, he set the table with a classic meal, the main dish being a chubby guinea pig.


Conveniently, that brings me to our last adventure in Cuzco. People in different parts of the world eat different things. In Peru, one of the “different things” is indeed guinea pig. My “I won’t even try that food” list is pretty short: right now, the winners are monkey hands and anything off a dolphin (while I’m convinced the Incas built their own walls, dolphins might be intelligent aliens). Alas, poor guinea pig, though: They were not on my list.


Especially in the mountain areas we visited, many of the local restaurants had guinea pig “palaces”. Whether this is out of humor or respect, the little critters are definitely on the menu. Fortunately, the place where we ended up did not ask us to look our meal in the eyes beforehand. After some searching around the city and asking several locals, we ended at Pachapapa. If you ever find yourself in Cuzco, I recommend this place for guinea pig.


After an agonizing 45-minute wait — and about 2/3 of the wine — the waiter brought over our crispy friend… ears, teeth, and claws.545835_10152146795813976_1844000373_n

Thankfully, before we ate, the waiter gracefully swept the plate away and made the dish look a bit more like generic meat versus an actual guinea pig. Regardless of looks though, after 45 minutes in that old clay over on a bed of fresh herbs, the meat was just a bit smoky with a hint of that ecstasy-inducing grease that accompanies pork.

It was delicious.

After stomping all across some 2,000 years of history for a week, this was meal was a nice reminder that elements of Peruvian history — and, I assume, South American history in general — are still being unearthed.


After our tour of Machu Picchu was over, Ivo and I just sat for a while and looked off over the ledge. One of my favorite noteworthy comments of the trip was that the dense forest the mountain overlooks still offers more to explore. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that at least a few more untouched gems are waiting to be found.




Ames, M. & Spooner, D. M. (2008). “DNA from herbarium specimens settles a controversy about origins of the European potato”. American Journal of Botany 95 (2): 252–257.

Cook, N.D. (1981). Demographic collapse: Indian Peru, 1520–1620. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

National Research Council (1989).  Lost crops of the Incas: Little-known plants of the Andes with promise for worldwide cultivation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Wright, K.R. (2008). Tipon: Obra maestra de la ingeneria hidraulica del imperio de las Incas. Lima, Peru: Universal Nacional de Ingeneria and Universitat Ramon Lull.


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