Little more than a 30 minute walk from Cusco’s Plaza de Armas, sitting atop a viciously steep hill, lies one of the most impressive Inca archaeological sites within modern-day Peru. Known as either Sacsayhuaman, Saqsaywaman or ‘sexy woman’ depending upon who you talk to, the dizzying walk to the site is instantly rewarded once you reach the main walls.
Comprising three enormous stone ramparts that zigzag across the mountain top, Sacsayhuaman incorporates such massive stones into its defences that walking beneath these monumental walls is an experience in feeling insignificant. So monolithic are some of the stones that it is impossible not to feel ant-like by comparison.
If Inca mastery of stone work were in doubt a visit to Sacsayhuaman would quickly settle any dispute. The ramparts are over 20 metres high and the largest stone weighs-in at over 300 tonnes, and all of this was constructed with only stone and bronze tools and without the aid of mortar. It was estimated by an early Spanish chronicler that up to 20,000 people worked on the site over a one-hundred year period and some of the stone was transported from over 30km away. It makes Stonehenge look like a children’s toy.
While today only the walls and foundations of Inca buildings remain the site was home to several impressively large structures including the Muyu Marca, a 30 metre high tower of three concentric circles that served as an imperial residence. There were other towers and a Temple of the Sun but the Spanish looted most of the stones to help build colonial Cusco, forcing today’s bewildered tourists to rely on their imaginations.
For many years Sacsayhuaman has been considered a fortress, and despite being the scene of a number of bloody battles, recent excavations have revealed a number of sacred objects that have made archaeologists rethink its purpose. If it was an imposing and impressively designed fortress, it was almost certainly a major ceremonial and religious site as well.
The zigzag shape of the walls may have been physical representations of either the teeth of the sacred Jaguar or possibly of lightening. Alternatively they may just have been a clever defensive design that exposed the flanks of an attacking army.
Sacsayhuaman was the site of one of the most vicious battles between the invading Spanish and the defending Inca. In 1536, two years after the Spanish had captured Cusco, Sacsayhuaman fell to an Inca force during a rebellion led by Manco Inca (a thorn in the Spanish side for several years). Retaking Sacsayhuaman was a bloody affair, it cost Juan Pizarro, son of head Conquistador Francisco Pizarro, and thousands of Inca their lives.
When the Spanish finally recaptured Sacsayhuaman the whole site was littered with Inca dead, whose corpses soon attracted carrion eating Condors – so many in fact that the coat of arms of the City of Cusco features eight Condors in commemoration of the battle.
Across the wide expanse of grass in front of the main defensive walls is a ceremonial site known as the Rodadero. This features intricate carvings in the stone and would have been used as a viewing platform for the Inca Emperor during ceremonies. Behind this lies more sacred sites, including the spring of Calispucyo where initiation rituals were performed.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Sacsayhuaman is that of all the tens-of-thousands of tourists passing through Cusco not that many seem to make it to the site. I spent an entire morning there and saw only a handful of tourists, not that I’m complaining, it was my birthday and I had the place to myself.