Friday, October 19, 2012

2012, 25th September – 7th October: Cusco, Perú

Cusco and environs is awash with archaeological sites and ruins, predominantly from the years of the Inca civilisation – the most famous of these being Machu Picchu.

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

The City

To see that Cusco was originally an Inca city (their capital in fact); you must look down rather than up. This is because in an attempt to say ´our way is best´ the Spanish conquerors planted their buildings on top of the walls of the Inca ones. The Inca sections are clear to see at the base of many buildings thanks to their mastery of construction in stone.

An example of the architectural imposition of colonial presence is at the Inca site, Qorikancha. Here one can see the Inca walls sitting beneath the Spanish Iglesia de Santo Domingo. The Inca stonework is incredible, with the large pieces fitted together with millimetre precision and without mortar.

Inca Master Stonework at Qorikancha - No Mortar Required

 At Qorikancha, the stones were cut and formed to be generally square or rectangular in shape, leading to the straight horizontal and vertical lines that one is used to seeing in walls. However, in the street Hatunrumiyo, things are somewhat more artistic. Here a colonial building sits on top of the original walls of an Inca palace. The stone boundaries and joins of the Inca construction are all based upon the idiosyncrasies of the stones´ original shapes. As a result, the walls look like a giant and intricate jigsaw puzzle with the mating stones cut to follow each other´s irregular edges. There are few pieces with four edges, in fact the most famous stone has twelve sides – each perfectly mated with the adjoining ones. With the strength afforded by such interlocking construction and the inward inclination of the walls, they were far superior in resilience to the earthquakes that have struck the city over the centuries when compared to the later colonial buildings.

An Inca Jigsaw Puzzle in Stone: Wall in Calle Hatunrumiyo

The Twelve-Sided Stone in Calle Hatunrumiyo

Alleyway in Cusco

Sites Around the City

In the countryside and small towns near to Cusco there are many archaeological sites worthy of a visit – a number of these are situated in ´The Sacred Valley´, which includes Machu Picchu. The organized and scientific approach to agricultural development adopted by the Incas means that terracing abounds across the sites.

At Moray, the Incas built an amphitheatre shaped system of terraces 150 metres deep. The resulting variation in temperature across the elevation of terraces allowed them to develop a greater understanding of the conditions ideal for various crop species. At nearby Salinas de Maras they made use of a natural phenomenon to collect salt. An aquifer exits from a hill where there is a large underground salt deposit. The salt-laden water is directed to successive terracing where it is dried in the sun. The salt is still collected today, and 80% of the terracing in use is that put in place by the Incas.

Inca Terracing for Crop Experimentation at Moray

Salt Terraces at Salinas de Maras

At Pisaq there is a substantial amount of terracing for crops and the ruins of a small settlement as well as some tombs cut into the mountainside. At Ollantaytambo, above the small Inca town is evidence of their reverence to the sun, with alignment of features in their stone constructions to summer and winter solstices. Stone features also include references to the three planes of their spiritual belief – the earth below us, the plane on which we exist and the heavens above us. The huge stones were transported from a quarry on a neighbouring mountain - I do not think that the Inca Empire was built without forced labour.

Crop Terracing at Pisaq


Machu Picchu

In terms of tourist-draw, Machu Picchu is an absolute icon; goodness knows how many millions of dollars it brings into Perú. I visited it with Julia a Russian woman who was in the same home stay as me in Cusco. To afford a very early arrival at Machu Picchu we stayed the night before at the small town of Aguas Calientes – a place that more or less exists for the hordes visiting the ruins. The only reliable way in or out of Aguas Calientes is to take the, very highly priced, but fun train from Ollantaytambo.

Early Morning View of Machu Picchu Ruins
with Huayna Picchu Peak Behind

While in the ruins of the ´city´ of Machu Picchu, there are a number of interesting features to seek out – most notably on the raised section where there is the temple of the three windows and a rock carved to allow observations of the passing of key points in the year (such as the equinoxes). The three windows in the temple are aligned to present three shafts of sunlight at the summer solstice. The nearby carved rock (Intihuatana) has four carved protrusions that align with the four points of the compass, while a vertical section at the top has a face cut at an angle that reportedly corresponds to the tilt of the earth´s rotational axis. Another rock has been carved to create a model of the mountain peaks the other side of the valley.

Temple of the Three Windows

For me, the greatest charm of Machu Picchu is not in the ruins themselves, but in the setting. The topography of the site is incredible. The ridge descends from Machu Picchu Mountain to the plateau which tops the steep sided ridge on which the ´city´ was built. Behind this is the view for which Machu Picchu is most famous, the egg / gherkin shaped mountain of Huayna Picchu (pronounced ´Waenapicchu´) and its smaller sister peak. With the steep sided valleys on either side and Huayna Picchu behind it, Machu Picchu´s setting is both majestic and beautiful. For this reason, my most enjoyable moments were spent at points above the ´city´ where I could look down to the ruins and see view them in their natural context.

Route to the Summit of
Huayna Picchu - Through a Small Cave

The Ruins Set in Their Spectacular Mountain
Setting - As Seen From Summit of Huayna Picchu

The importance of Huayna Picchu in creating the classic views of Machu Picchu was clear when I climbed to the summits of this mountain and its sister peak. When looking down to the ruins without the view of Huayna Picchu included in the vista (because you are standing on it), Machu Picchu just looks like ruins in a beautiful mountain setting. However, when one enjoys the vista from the other side of the ´city´ so it includes Huayna Picchu behind, the view is simply captivating and inspiring – a masterful and synergistic fusion of ancient architecture and natural beauty.

One of the Calssic Views of Machu Picchu
with Huayna Picchu Behind

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