Cuzco is one of the highest cities in the world. My body, which has mostly lived at sea level, is having some trouble with it. As soon as I stepped onto the airbridge connecting the plane to the airport, it started struggling to adapt to the thinner air: My breathing became heavier, my heart thumped harder than usual and a gentle incline of ten metres seemed a challenging hike.
This physical alteration preoccupied me on our taxi ride to the hotel. As beautiful as the surrounding landscape was, as fascinating as the city was with its beautiful people in distinctive dress, its old Spanish churches, modern murals and red-tiled houses, my breathlessness and growing confusion lent the scene a forbidding aspect. To my dismay, the taxi was going higher and higher– the historical district seemed to be right on top of a hill. When he dropped us off about half a kilometer from our hotel—some concrete bollards prevented him from going further—I felt a rising panic. Ordinarily, a short walk to a hotel wouldn’t be a problem, but being 3,400 metres up in the atmosphere, I got to thinking about what would happen if the hotel didn’t exist at all. The prospect of hauling a suitcase anywhere was appalling.
Thankfully the path leading to where the hotel should have been was mostly downhill so it was manageable, though I was still puffing hard. On either side of a narrow, cobbled alley, adobe walls were slowly reverting to nature, paint peeling to reveal the fibrous mud beneath, with scraggly cacti poking up on top. The streets were redolent of dog poo, and dazed tourists plodding up the street had to choose their footing carefully. Eventually we passed a big square where locals were selling jewelry and colorful textiles and stray, scarred dogs were dozing peacefully.
For the first few hours we felt non compos mentis. After putting our stuff in our room, we went to a nearby restaurant tried mate de coca – tea made with whole coca leaves, which is supposed to alleviate the symptoms of soroche. Whether or not this is true, the tea definitely had a soothing effect. We tried some of the local cuisine: causa rellena (a kind of mashed-potato sandwich with mayo-and-veggie filling), pollo a maní which is chicken in peanut sauce, and quinoa soup.
As we sat zombie-like in the little restaurant, we watched people pass by outside. Among them were three young women in traditional dress carrying baby alpacas in their arms, some of the animals wearing pink pom-pom earrings. Peruvianas wear broad-brimmed felt hats, white blouses with colorful woolen shawls, pleated woolen skirts and woolen stockings. They wear their beautiful black, straight hair in braids that hang down their backs. They carry their burdens and their babies in colorful cloth bags.
After eating, we returned to our hotel feeling very sleepy, headachy and tired. That night I had a vivid dream about the city. I was convinced that there were …things, not exactly people or ghosts or gods or demons, but local supernatural entities with thin, shadowy bodies and stark, stern faces who did not want us here. Waking up, I could easily rationalize the dream as my brain’s attempt to explain the effects of being at altitude. All the same, it got me thinking about Cuzco’s history and whether spirits of the past might be lingering in more than just the architecture.
The next day we visited the Museo Inka, an artistic and archeological summary of the human history of Peru, which goes back 14,000 years. I had no idea there were so many different peoples, each with their own customs and artwork. There were a lot of interesting ancient artefacts—gourd, ceramics, gorgeous textiles, an early edition of Comentarios Reales de Los Incas (1609) by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a conquistador and an Inca princess. However, the most striking exhibit for me was a surprise and involuntary glimpse of actual Inca mummies. As soon as I saw them I was convinced that they were the figures in my dream and that they were highly pissed off with the whole situation. I exited that particular room posthaste.
By our third day here, I finally felt up to doing something relatively strenuous, so decided to walk to Saqsaywaman, an ancient Inca fortress/temple/ritual centre/astronomy node. My map told me that it was a 14-minute walk to the entrance gate, so it seemed an absurdly easy trip. I set off in the afternoon with a bottle of water and some quinoa biscuits.
About 20 minutes later, after being barked at by two bluffing dogs and taking several wrong turns, I finally reached the gate. A young man named Riccardo tried to talk me into buying a ticket for a horse-riding tour. I kept telling him I was afraid of horses and would have to decline; he responding by merely adjusting his sales pitch, saying that I wouldn’t be on the horse the whole time. Finally extricating myself completely, I went up to the ticket office, where another guy told me it was closed. He said I’d have to go to the main office, which was 20 minutes’ walk up the road.
“Taxi, ten sol,” he said hopefully.
“No thanks, I’ll walk,” I said rather grumpily, because I was already starting to feel that headache come on again. The walk up to the second gate was pleasant enough, though there was barely enough room on the verge of the road and cars hurtled down at a great speed. There were lots of eucalyptus growing in that area and the smell, as usual, reminded me of New Zealand. Bees and butterflies were dithering about and it felt good to be back in a natural setting again.
Up at the top of the hill, I paid 50 sol for a ticket into Saqsaywaman and found myself in a grassy area with several large rocky edifices in front of me. Seeing a sign with an arrow, I decided to follow it. Suddenly, I heard someone panting behind me.
“Excuse me, do you want a guide?”
I turned to see a woman in her sixties wearing dark glasses and a thick coat.
“Well, I only have 50 sols left,” I said doubtfully.
“Without a guide, all you will see are walls.” She had a point. I knew almost nothing about the Inca, to the point that I frequently mixed them up with Aztecs.
“How much?” I asked.
“And with a guide, you will know some of the important history and the names.”
“How much?” I asked again.
“Fifty sols,” she said.
“All right, but I’m sorry, I won’t be able to add a tip because this is all I brought.”
“That’s OK. My name is Maria,” she said. “I was born in Cusco. I am a mestizo, like our great Garcilaso. My first language is Quechua. By the way, the quechua for ‘yes’ is arí. ‘No’ is mana. This place is called Saqsaywaman, which you can remember in English as ‘Sexy Woman’. Some people call it a fortress and yes it was, but mainly it was a temple for the Inca, the rulers of Cusco. In fact the rulers were buried over there,” she pointed over to a group of rectangularly arranged stones, “They were placed in foetal position, as they believed in reincarnation.”
She showed me a picture of a map of Cusco, over which was superimposed a drawing of a puma.
“The Inca called Cusco the ‘lion city’” she said. “The tail was here,” she pointed to the confluence of two rivers, “The body was where the main square is now, and the head is exactly here, to the north.”
Maria then took me up to the top of the hill where three towers had once stood whose foundations are now all that remain. One had been a circular water tower, one had been a rectangular granary, the other had been an armory. When the Spanish conquered the city in 1537, they took all the stones they could carry and used them to build Spanish Cusco.
Near the top of the hill was a grove of trees with grey-green leaves and shaggy red bark. I asked Maria what they were and she replied that they were queñuel (Polyepis incana), a tough tree that goes easily at over 4,500 meters above sea level. Its papery bark forms a warming, protective layer over the trunk and the small waxy leaves prevent too much evaporation.
The stone walls are almost incredible when you imagine how they were built. Each block of stone was dragged by rope from the quarry, which would have required amazing manpower and very strong rope. There were no work animals like oxen or elephants—llama would not have been much use for such heavy-duty work. Then there is the matter of how precisely the stones fit together. Pedro Pizarro, who participated in the siege of Cusco in 1537, marveled at their construction:
“And in the lower part of this wall there were stones so large and thick that it seemed impossible that human hands could have set them in place…they were so close together, and so well fitted, that the point of a pin could not have been inserted in one of the joints. The whole fortress was built up in terraces and flat spaces.”
As Maria pointed out, more than four hundred years later, in a zone known for its seismic activity, these stones stand just as solid as ever.
Apart from its value as a defensive stronghold, there are intriguing reminders of the structure’s religious purpose. The walls include gates topped with lintels that are designed to welcome the rising sun, particularly at winter solstice, which was an important Inca festival. Even in modern times locals celebrate Inti Raimi (the sun festival) on June 24. And then there are the ways some of the stone work has been constructed to suggest the shapes of sacred animals. Maria pointed out stones in the shape of a llama, a guinea pig, a puma’s paw print, a hummingbird and a snake. It is probable that these stones and indeed, much of the surface of the walls were covered with plates of gold, but the Spanish quickly stripped it for commercial and religious reasons.
After viewing the three tiers of walls, Maria left me to explore the other part of the area on my own. She had told me that it was a mound used as a sacrificial altar, mainly llama were sacrificed. The mound itself seemed to be designed around a natural crop of stone with beautiful rounded, rainbow shapes. Children were sliding down the rocks laughing and yelling.
Beyond this sacrificial mound lay the ruins of something else. Maria had shown me an intriguing artist’s impression of a round lake in which the Inca used to star gaze, but I wasn’t sure how the image fitted into the ruins I saw nor even if I’d correctly remembered her explanation. So I contented myself with merely admiring it. At the far end, a little old Peruvian woman in brightly colored apron, hat and skirt was hobbling along to sit on a stone.
To my left a herd of alpaca came bumbling along, either harassing or being harassed by a yellow dog. The shaggy brown herd leader made a final lunge at it and the dog zoomed away as fast as it could, its tail between its legs. It reminded me of the time when I’d gone for a walk with my dog May in the hills near Vancouver. We’d heard a very strange sound, a kind of high-pitched singing growl, and I barely had time to notice the cougar a few feet above us before I saw May running as fast as she could, already half-way down the mountain, leaving me to my own devices.
Walking to the edge of the ruin area I looked down and saw a football game in progress. There was a festive feeling in the air. Children were playing on the edge of the field, families were picnicking and it all felt very relaxed. The locals, it seems, are very proud of their history but it is part of their everyday life, not something to put aside and revere from a distance.