The temple complex of Raqchi

Having been in Peru for a couple of weeks and spending most of our time amongst ancient Inca ruins I feel like this blog has gotten a bit too archaeological. However, on our way from Cusco to Puno we stopped off at a quite different but equally wonderful set of Inca ruins in Raqchi. I guess that is the thing about the Incas, they constructed an amazing array of towns, forts and ceremonial centres in little more than a century of empire building and they are everywhere you go in Peru.

Set amidst beautiful countryside and surrounded by imposing mountains on a clear, crisp morning Raqchi is an impressive and moving sight, and one that could be easily overlooked as you speed past the modern-day village on the road between Cusco and Puno.

Temple complex at Raqchi, Peru

Raqchi was a major religious centre and home to a temple complex and palace that housed the great and the good of the Inca world. It is also home to a unique set of approximately 100 circular buildings that were used as storehouses for foodstuffs to be used for ceremonial purposes and to distribute to people when harvests were poor.

Circular storehouses at the Raqchi temple complex, Peru

Circular storehouses at the Raqchi temple complex, Peru

Circular storehouses at the Raqchi temple complex, Peru

Being circular rather than square or rectangular, the storehouses are unlike virtually any other building in the Inca empire. No one knows why they are circular, but it is likely to be symbolism to do with Raqchi’s role as a religious and ceremonial centre.

Temple of Wiracocha, Raqchi, Peru

The most impressive building is the Temple of Wiracocha, which is an imposing two storey building about 100 metres long. Prior to the Spanish conquest and the subsequent destruction of Raqchi this building is believed to have had the largest roof anywhere in the Inca world. I know that doesn’t sound particularly impressive, but roofs are hard to build and this just highlights the mastery of the Inca as architects and builders.

Wiracocha was the Inca Creator God and is believed to have performed a miracle at the site where the temple was built. The whole complex is large, comprising a residential section and a palace for Inca nobility as well as the temple and storehouses, testimony to the importance the Inca placed on the site as a religious centre.

The temple complex at Raqchi, Peru

The temple complex is probably the best surviving example of Inca adobe building in Peru. Which is pretty amazing given the site has suffered the destruction of the Spanish, seismic activity and the degradation of the weather over several centuries – and adobe is only mud. It is also one of the best places to see the unique Inca construction technique where the lower half of the wall is adobe and the upper half is stone.

Remains of Inca palace at Raqchi, Peru

Bird of pray sits on a wall at Raqchi, Peru

Surrounding the site, and still in use by villagers today, are a number of Inca agricultural terraces. According to our guide the whole site was also enclosed by an enormous wall that skirted the hilltops around the site and was six feet thick and very high. Unfortunately not much of this wall remains as the Spanish used the stone to construct a church and village at the site.

Modern day Raqchi with Inca terracing still in use, Peru

The Sacred Valley of the Inca: Chinchero and the citadel of Pisac

The small village of Chinchero hides a secret. You wouldn’t guess it driving past on the road from Cusco to the Sacred Valley, you wouldn’t guess it as you walk the village’s ancient cobbled streets, not even walking into the plaza outside its ordinary looking adobe church is it hinted at.

Chinchero’s secret is only revealed when you walk through the thick wooden doors of the church itself. Inside, the church is emblazoned with beautiful naive paintings that literally cover every inch of the walls, ceiling and wooden beams. The paintings and frescoes cover all manner of religious subjects, some with angels dressed as conquistadors wielding swords, but it is the simple floral designs that are most attractive.

The adobe church at Chinchero, Peru

Many of the paintings are in poor repair, but somehow that makes them all the more evocative. It isn’t permitted to take photos inside the church, so if you want to see a beautiful example of colonial-era religious art you’ll just have to visit Chinchero.

As with most things in the Sacred Valley, the church sits on top of an important Inca temple and is surrounded by imposing Inca terracing. Pre-conquest, Chinchero was an important Inca religious site and was believed to be the birthplace of the Rainbow.

Inca terracing stretches off into the distance, Chinchero, Peru

Inca stonework next to the colonial church, Chinchero, Peru

It is a lovely village situated on a small hill with tremendous views of the surrounding mountains. Although the once weekly market that fills the plaza outside the church wasn’t on when we visited, the village has lots of beautiful crafts and weavings for sale in the narrow streets that lead to the church.

Typical cobbled street, Chinchero, Peru

Landscape outside of Chinchero, Peru

After the sublime Iglesia at Chinchero, the dramatic location and grandeur of the Inca ruins at Pisac come as a sharp jolt – particularly as when we arrived several tour groups were marauding around decked out in hardcore walking gear as if they were about to set off on a multi-day trek over mountain ranges rather than tackling the somewhat less demanding trails around Pisac.

A former Inca citadel, Pisac sits at a strategic point above the gorge at the entrance to the Sacred Valley guarding Inca trade routes from the highlands down into the Amazon basin. Clambering up to its former battlements gives you a panoramic view over the Sacred Valley that is breathtaking. The site itself is large, much larger than Machu Picchu but also much more spread out along a mountain ridge that extends for a mile or more.

Inca terraces at the citadel of Pisac, Sacred Valley, Peru

The citadel of Pisac, Sacred Valley, Peru

The views over the Sacred Valley from the heights of the citadel are magnificent, but leaving the crowds at the citadel behind the walk along the ridge reveals much more of the landscape of the valley below. The walk passes numerous other Inca ruins and ends at another dramatically located group of ruins set above yet more terracing.

Gateway at the start of the ridge trail at Pisac, Sacred valley, Peru

Views of the Sacred Valley, Pisac, Peru

The trail winds itself around the mountain and you can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of the Inca architects who designed and built this enormous complex of agricultural terracing and military fortifications.

Ruined fortifications at Pisac, Sacred Valley, Peru

Impressive ruins overlooking the Sacred Valley, Pisac, Peru

Inca buildings above terracing, Pisac, Peru

Inca fortifications guarding the Sacred Valley, Pisac, Peru

After a couple of hours of wandering the ruins we went down into the valley to visit modern town of Pisac, which is home to one of the largest markets in the region. Although interesting, the whole of the central plaza and surrounding streets were crammed full of tour buses and tour groups, turning modern-day Pisac into a lucrative hell-hole. We had a drink in the lovely Blue Llama cafe and left.

The fun wasn’t over yet though. En route back to Cusco our taxi driver started acting erratically, until he finally pulled over and stopped entirely. It took a few minutes of questioning to get the whole truth, which was that he wasn’t licensed to take tourists outside of Cusco and that there was a police roadblock ahead where he’d be fined 1500 soles (£360) if we stayed in the car.

So, in the heat of the afternoon we were unceremoniously turfed out of the car to walk for 2kms while he drove through the roadblock and waited for us out of sight on the other side. Whether the police were fooled or what they thought when four Gingos walked past them in the middle of nowhere we’ll never know, but it was clearly a common problem as we met several car loads of people walking the other way.

The Sacred Valley of the Inca: Moray and Salinas

Lying north-west of Cusco is the beautiful Rio Urubamba valley, better known today as the Sacred Valley of the Inca. Plunging a thousand metres down to the the valley floor from the hills surrounding Cusco, this was the heartland of the Inca empire and is the dramatic location for a number of spectacular Inca sites.

The wealth of archaeological sites that litter the Sacred Valley is testimony to the fertility of the land which was able to support a significant population prior to the arrival of the Spanish; it also hints at the military and religious importance of the region pre-conquest. To journey through the Sacred Valley towards Machu Picchu is to begin to understand the true scale of the Inca world and just how advanced a civilisation it was.

The concentric circles of Moray, Sacred Valley, Peru

One of the most visually stunning Inca sites is at Moray, where concentric circles of Inca terracing form an amphitheatre-like bowl deep below the top of the surrounding hills. It is both beautiful and mysterious. Believed to have been an agricultural experimental site, with each ring of the bowl providing a distinct micro-climate to experiment with different crops, it is also thought to have been an important ceremonial site.

So unusual looking is Moray that were it not for all the historical evidence it could easily prompt new age conspiracy theories about aliens and spaceships – think crop circle spoofs, just on a much grander scale.

Inca stairs leading into the bowl of Moray, Sacred Valley, Peru

Walking down into the bowl is an eiry experience, particularly as you descend the steep steps that generations of Inca once used. Reaching the centre of the bowl and looking back up gives you a unique view of the amphitheatre, which, with its graceful curving walls could easily be mistaken for an art installation – I think I know where Andy Goldsworthy got the idea for his installations of walls and sheepfolds in Cumbria.

Graceful walls at Moray, Sacred Valley, Peru

View back up from the centre of Moray, Sacred Valley, Peru

From Moray it is a short journey via the village of Maras to reach the equally spectacular site of Salinas. The journey itself is pretty beautiful, driving down gravel roads with a backdrop of snowcapped mountains and scenes of rural life seemingly unchanged for centuries.

The village of Maras with mountains behind, Sacred Valley, Peru

A woman herds sheep on a dirt road near Maras, Sacred Valley, Peru

Turning yet another corner with a 1000 meter drop off the side, the sudden sight of salt pans at Salinas is breathtaking. Perched on a brown hillside and blazing bright white under the intense sun, the salt pans are created by an unusually salty stream that drains down the valley and have been harvested since Inca times.

Salt pans at Salinas, Sacred Valley, Peru

Salt pans at Salinas, Sacred Valley, Peru

The water is trapped in the pans and evaporates under the Andean sun, leaving behind salt crystals that can then be extracted by hand using the hi-tech method of wooden planks and a colander.

Salt crystals forming in a salt pan, Salinas, Sacred Valley, Peru

The salt isn’t used for human consumption, instead it is used for salt licks for cattle and sheep – creating the bizarre situation where the salt that’s for sale in nearby gift shops comes from Cusco. The salt pans continue to be harvested commercially, although today tourism probably does more to support the local community.

A family harvesting salt, Salinas, Sacred Valley, Peru

Salt is carried out to a waiting truck, Salinas, Sacred Valley, Peru

A woman walks amongst the salt pans, Salinas, Sacred Valley, Peru

The views back down to the Sacred Valley from Salinas are also pretty special…

The Sacred Valley seen from Salinas, Peru

The zigzag citadel of Sacsayhuaman

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.

The three-tiered stone ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

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.

The three-tiered stone ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

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.

The ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Close up of the stone work of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

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.

The archaeological site of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

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.

The ramparts of Sacsayhuaman, Peru

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.

The Rodadero sacred site, Sacsayhuaman, Peru

Carved stone seat known as an Inca Throne, Sacsayhuaman, Peru

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.

Cusco, city of saints and parades

“This is Cusco, there’s a parade every day somewhere in the city.” At least that was the claim of one of the many people selling tourist souvenirs in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas.

Masked reveller in a religious procession, Cusco, Peru

It’s an easy claim to make but try to find out when and where the action might be and chances are you’ll draw a blank. Cusco may be a city geared almost wholly towards tourism but the religious processions that are a regular feature of city life are largely for domestic consumption. Tourists just have to be content with chance encounters.

We were lucky enough to see several parades associated with the city’s many churches and their various saints, in particular St. Jeronimo who was having his own fiesta. We knew St. Jeronimo was having a fiesta because there was a poster in the tourist office to this effect, but the people working there knew nothing about it except that it wasn’t in the city centre…sorry not to be much help but wouldn’t you prefer to go to one of the song and dance shows for tourists instead? Hmmm!

Dancers outside the Iglesia de San Pedro, Cusco, Peru

On our first day in Cusco we bumped into a group of revellers/worshipers outside the Iglesia de San Pedro, opposite the city’s main market. They were dancing and singing outside the church before heading off to parade around the city streets. Many of the costumes and masks represent the Spanish – with their white faces and very long noses. Male performers all carried a bottle of unopened beer – if this had been Bolivia there is no way the beer would still have been unopened.

Dancing the handkerchief dance outside Iglesia de San Pedro, Cusco, Peru

Female dancer parades the streets of Cusco, Peru

Parading the Virgin in the streets of Cusco, Peru

Dancing through the streets of Cusco, Inca wall in the background, Peru

Returning to the main plaza we were greeted by wave after wave of school children protesting about the way cars were driven in the city, and demanding drivers respect pedestrian crossings and traffic lights. As a pedestrian on the receiving end of some pretty poor driving I couldn’t have agreed more…there are traffic police in Cusco who blow their whistles furiously every 3 or 4 seconds but drivers simply ignore them.

Children protest in Cusco, Peru

Some of the children were even parading on stilts – all in front of traffic police bigwigs sat in front of the cathedral.

Children on stilts protest in Cusco, Peru

Children protest against terrible driving in Cusco, Peru

Children protest in Cusco, Peru

That wasn’t to be the end of things though. As if two parades in one day weren’t enough there was a big military-religious parade with lots of very serious looking soldiers and solemn priests setting out from the Templo y Convento de La Merced. This was a much more upmarket and somber affair, without masks and bottles of beer, although a military band was pumping out some music.

The Virgin emerges from the church accompanied by lots of soldiers, Cusco, Peru

Risking life and limb, this woman appeared on a balcony (without any safety features) about 20 feet above the entrance to the Templo y Convento de La Merced and began sprinkling petals over the Virgin as she emerged from the church.

A woman sprinkles petals over the Virgin, Templo y Convento de La Merced, Cusco, Peru

Petals float down over the Virgin, Templo y Convento de La Merced, Cusco, Peru

Without any further fanfare, the gathered throng was off on a parade around the streets. The large carriage with the Virgin on top reminded me of the huge religious parades during Semana Santa (Easter Week) in Malaga, Spain. Cusco feels very Spanish and this is a very Spanish tradition, although the carriages in Spain are several times larger and require up to 100 people to carry them.

Parading the Virgin around the streets of Cusco, Peru

To round things off nicely, later that night after a couple of delicious Pisco Sours we found ourselves back in the Plaza de Armas only to be confronted by another religious parade. This time a number of young people and school children were parading the Virgin from the Jesuit Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus.

The Virgin leaves the Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus, Cusco, Peru

There was an unsavoury whiff of militarism about this parade as well, the school girls following the Virgin were carrying banners and marching in military time.

Parading the Virgin from the Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus, Cusco, Peru

The Virgin passing Cusco Cathedral, Peru

“This is Cusco, there’s a parade every day somewhere in the city.” Apparently this is true.

Cusco, ancient capital of the Inca empire

The Inca empire lasted little more than a century before the Spanish conquistadors, accompanied by Dominican priests, arrived in what is now northern Peru and began their wholesale destruction and looting of the empire and the slaughter of its people.

The Inca’s achievements in such a short period of time amount to nothing less than extraordinary: their empire ranged from modern-day Colombia all the way south to central Chile; they constructed large, well planned and earthquake-proof cities in impossible locations; centres of population were connected by an excellent road network; art and culture were highly advanced; they were agricultural pioneers, constructing thousands of kilometres of agricultural terracing and domesticating a number animals for food, clothing and labour, enabling them to feed a population of over nine million.

Incan terracing at Pisac, Sacred Valley, Peru

Unfortunately for the Incas, when the Spanish arrived their achievements meant little compared to what they didn’t have: there was no steel to make armour or swords; there were no horses in Latin America and the largest animal in the Inca world, the llama, was no match for the military might of Spanish cavalry; and they didn’t have immunity to European diseases, which probably arrived from central America several years before the Spanish arrived in person and claimed the lives of thousands of indigenous Andean peoples, including Huayna Capac, the last Inca emperor to rule a united kingdom.

Until that fateful day in 1532 when Francisco Pizarro and his band of zealots turned up, the Inca empire would have rivalled any civilisation on the planet. The empire was centred on Cusco, an enormous city by the standards of the time and home to some of the largest and most elaborate buildings in the Americas, including Qorikancha, the richest temple in the Inca world with walls covered in gold sheets and featuring solid gold alters and gold replicas of llamas, vegetables and the sun.

Inca gold sealed the fate of the empire, and the Spanish melted down the cultural and religious wealth of the empire and sent it back to Spain as ingots.

Birds eye view of Cusco, Peru

Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Peru

Arriving in Cusco’s central Plaza de Armas today is to arrive in a city that could have been transplanted from southern Spain. It feels more Spanish than Spain, as if the Spanish conquerers were determined to wipe out any trace of its Inca past by building an indenti-kit Spanish city in place of the Inca capital.

Cusco’s cathedral is as imposing as anything you might see in Spain, a political, cultural and military symbol of the power of the the Spanish conquerers. Although it isn’t permitted to take photos of the interior, I promise there is enough silver and gold inside to wipe-out debt throughout Latin America. For me though, the interior felt as crude, oppressive and brutish as the Spanish conquest was in its dealings with the peoples of the Andes.

Cusco’s cathedral

The cathedral is also home to some imposing colonial art – literally on a grand scale – including a painting of the Last Supper featuring Guinea Pig as the central dish. The cathedral’s sacristy has walls adorned with paintings of all Cusco’s bishops, including Vincente de Valverde the Dominican friar who accompanied Francisco Pizarro. Valverde is reputed to have aided the slaughter of the Inca in Cusco by encouraging the Spanish troops in their ‘work’ with the words, “Kill them, kill them, I absolve you”.

Despite 500 years of remodelling and rebuilding, Inca history still seems to seep from Cusco’s walls. Evidence of the former Inca capital is on display down almost every street – the readily identifiable Inca building style still forms the foundations of almost every structure in the historic centre of Cusco, only topped with Spanish colonial buildings.

Cusco street with Inca foundations and Spanish tops, Peru

Inca doorway with colonial doors, Cusco, Peru

The Spanish either destroyed Inca buildings and used the materials for their own structures, or they simply built on top of the Inca foundations, which means some excellent examples of Inca building still exist cheek-by-jowl with colonial structures.

Foundations of a once grand Inca building, Cusco, Peru

Inca stone work, Cusco, Peru

Contemporary Cusco comes as something of a shock. It thrives off its Inca and colonial past and is one of the most touristed places in Latin America, with large groups of Europeans, North Americans, Chinese and Japanese wandering the streets following a flag waving tour guide explaining the terrible history of the city. After 5 months in Bolivia where tour groups are, mercifully, an endangered species, the sheer number of tourists and the tourist prices of Cusco are deeply disconcerting.

Having said that, the city authorities have managed to preserve the historic city in a way that would put most European cities to shame. There is a McDonalds on the main square that is so hidden away, without any external signage, that unless you walk right past it you wouldn’t suspect it was there. That is definitely something to be proud of.

The former temple of Qorikancha at night, Cusco, Peru