THE GOLDEN, BUT EPHEMERAL, INCA CIVILIZATION
"It's pronounced Sexy Woman," said our guide. She was referring to Sacsayhuaman, an impressive fortress on a hill overlooking Cuzco, Peru, erected over five centuries ago when the Incas ruled. Smiling at her comment, I wandered amongst towering walls made of huge rocks, some weighing more than 100 tonnes. I tried to imagine the religious ceremonies and bloody battles these silent stones had seen.
This fortress is a remnant of the once-mighty Inca empire, which at its peak in the late 1400s stretched from southern Colombia to southern Chile, about 4,000 km. My goal was to visit a handful of the impressive monuments that dot this stretch.
Woman in traditional clothing at Sacsayhuaman.
We descended to Cuzco, once the capital of the Inca empire. Both figuratively and literally breathless (at an elevation of 3,326 m/10,910 ft), I marvelled at the artistry and engineering skills of the Incas as I strolled through Coricancha, a temple built for the Sun God Inti. The temple walls and floors were once covered in sheets of gold and the courtyard was filled with solid gold statues. When Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro arrived in 1553, they were dumbfounded to find such superior metallurgy, elegant architecture and wealth. The Spaniards proceeded to gut Cuzco and built the ornate Santo Domingo Cathedral and convent. The main square, which is lined with restaurants, shops, and old buildings with attractive balconies, was bustling. Indigenous women wore colourful shawls and bowler hats.
The agricultural terraces at Moray.
We drove into the Sacred Valley and, with the snow-capped Andes glistening in the sun to the east, followed a dirt road to Moray, about 75 km from Cuzco. A series of sinuous terraces are laid out in concentric circles and arcs on a hillside so they mimic different climatic zones. We watched an archaeological excavation, where a scientist explained that with a temperature difference between the top and bottom of about 15 C°, Moray was probably an agricultural laboratory that was used to help develop food for the empire. The Incas, who ate little meat, grew more than 20 varieties of corn and 240 varieties of potatoes.
Glistening saline pools at Maras.
Our next stop, the nearby Maras, is renowned as the oldest and most unusual salt mine in the world. It consists of about 2,000 small pools that glisten like a surreal white honeycomb along the valley bottom. Water from a saline-rich stream is directed into the pools where the water evaporates leaving salt, which is shovelled into bags. I was amazed at the simplicity of the operation, which is still "mined" as it was in the Inca days. I dipped my finger into the source stream, barely two feet across and licked the salty fluid. The flow of water is controlled by a man who meanders about, raising and lowering piles of rocks placed like dams in the network of channels.
As we travelled through mountainous country toward Machu Pichu, I was impressed by the administrative skills of the Incas. They constructed an extensive road network including two main roads that ran the length of the empire, one in the highlands and one along the seacoast. All travel was by foot, nevertheless, they achieved excellent communication by using a series of trained runners, who carried quipus, i.e. several coloured strings knotted in different positions conveying numeric and other information. It was the closest the Incas came to writing.
Stunning architecture at Machu Pichu.
I stifled a scream as the bus careened around a hairpin turn, and clung on desperately as we dodged downward bent buses on our ascent up an absurdly steep mountain to Machu Pichu. But the scare was quickly forgotten as I walked through what Condé Nast magazine considers the world's number one tourist attraction. Stone buildings, temples and terraces, overwhelming in their elegance and size, lay before me arrayed high on the side of a frighteningly precipitous mountainside. This architectural masterpiece is in perfect balance with its surroundings and is also aligned with the sun's orbit. The structures are built of chiselled boulders that fit pefectly without using cement and are extraordinarily stable, an important feature in an earthquake-prone area. Abandoned by the Incas when the Spanish invaded, Machu Pichu was not re-discovered until 1911.
With my back resting against an enormous sun-warmed boulder and the splendour of Machu Pichu laid out before me, I wondered at life's ephemerality. The mighty Inca empire was built in just under a century. But it crumbled as the conquistadors lust for riches led to treachery and cruelty. In a decade, they destroyed one of the most advanced societies in the world.
Now only these amazing, silent stones remain.
IF YOU GO:
Photos by Hans Tammemagi
1. 3853: Woman in traditional clothing at Sacsayhuaman.
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