Inca masonry, Sacsayhuaman

Today we had a free day in Cusco. Our primary goal was to visit Sacsayhuaman, the magnificent Inca temple fortress high above the city. As the first Incas expanded Cusco they envisioned their capital being in the shape of a puma, the South American mountain lion they held in high reverence. Cusco itself served as the puma's body while the fortress of Sacsayhuaman formed the lion's head, its neck a stone highway leading down to the center of town.

We ate breakfast at 7am inside a café along the northern side of the Plaza de Armas, just to the left of the cathedral. We had discovered the café the morning before; while its menu was basically the same as every other café on the plaza, this one opened early (7am instead of 8am) and piped in an assortment of classical music while we ate. Susanne and I fortified ourselves with a hardy American breakfast of eggs and toast (well, at least I did - Susanne was more healthful with her yogurt con muesli). We'd need the calories, though; Sacsayhuaman lies several hundred meters above Cusco, and the hour-long ascent has demoralized many an unprepared (and unacclimated) traveler. We were determined to take our time no matter how long the ascent. Both Susanne and I very much wanted to enjoy Sacsayhuaman; if we got to the top in record time, nausea and hyperventilation would surely ruin any chance of adventure and fun.

After breakfast we walked northeast from the Plaza de Armas along Calle Suecia. The cobblestone road rose slowly - certainly less steeply than your average San Francisco hill - yet we quickly felt the effects of the altitude. About five minutes into the walk we reached a pedestrian stairway known as Calle Rebalosa. We had to pause every 20 steps or so in order to catch our breath but the picturesque views down the stairs and across the hillside gave us ample excuses to pause. Rebalosa terminated at the Iglesia de San Cristobal, a pretty church with a vast courtyard. Yesterday we had driven by the church on our way to the sacred valley and there had been several Quechua campesinas posing with their llamas for photographs. Today the plaza was deserted save a young boy playing a solitary game of soccer with an empty plastic water bottle.

A paved road stretched up the hill counter-clockwise until we reached the entryway to the Sacsayhuaman ruins. A tourist policeman greeted us with a subdued "buenos días" as he punched a hole in our Cusco tourist tickets. We now had a steep 20-minute climb up the old Inca road (the puma's neck) leading to the fortress itself. In its heyday the road must have been a masterpiece of Quechua engineering; today it's a jumbled mess of insurance-premium-rising rubble. An elderly campesina in her traditional long skirt, sweater and bowler hat entered the site about the same time we did. She soon passed us as Susanne and I tripped over the stone pathway with heavy breaths. Her strong lungs were designed for climbs like this, I thought as she made each step, taking her time while maintaining a determined pace. Occasionally we caught up with her but we'd always fall behind as we stopped to catch our breath. Eventually the campesina veered right towards an unpaved rocky path with an even steeper incline - vaya con dios, señora. Soon we reached a classic Inca wall extending far along our left - this must be the edge of Sacsayhuaman. Moments later three Quechua kids appeared out of nowhere with their llamas, each animal decorated with colorful pierced earrings. We knew they wanted us to photograph them for money so we gladly jumped at the opportunity. Susanne snapped away as I paid them 50 centavos each.

After saying goodbye to the kids and their llamas we entered the main fortification of Sacsayhuaman. Even though the Spanish dismantled the majority of the fort in order to use the stones for new construction in town, the remains of Sacsayhuaman are still a magnificent testament to Inca engineering and ingenuity. The temple fortress is comprised of three tiers of 22 zigzagging ramparts. Strategically it's an excellent defensive design, taking advantage of pointed ramparts in the same way that their European counterparts used star-shaped forts in order to repel cannon fire. It's hard to comprehend what Sacsayhuaman would have looked like in its prime 500 years ago: three great towers once stood over the 22 ramparts while as many as 5000 Quechua warriors called the citadel home.

Susanne poses above Cusco
We climbed to the top of the fortress and discovered a stupendous view of the valley around us. To our north lie Sacsayhuaman's grassy plaza; beyond that stood Rodadero, a giant rock hill with numerous stairwells and benches carved into the rock. Off to the northeast I could see another hill with a giant statue of Jesus. And below to the east and southeast, Cusco appeared as a vast, quiet expanse of Spanish architecture as far as the eye could see. Climbing the hill just behind Sacsayhuaman we found an even grander view. A woman sat in the grass sketching the scene below while a young cyclist, probably exhausted from conquering the mountain, contemplated the vista in silent solitude.

The ramparts of Sacsayhuaman.
Rodadero Hill can be seen in the top right quarter of the photo.

Andy overshadowed by an interverted "Utah"
Susanne and I scurried down the hill back into the fortress, making our way to the first tier of ramparts. The walls of the lowest tier were made out of gargantuan granite stones, many weighing well over 100 tons, interlocked with such precision it almost appeared as if a giant, flat wall had lines carved into it to create the illusion of individual blocks fitted together. I didn't realize how massive they were until Susanne had me pose leaning against a wall. I walked towards a stone shaped like the state of Utah (as seen through a mirror, though). As I got closer and closer the giant block seemed to grow as if it really were the size of Utah, towering at least ten feet over my head. And all of this was somehow built without the aid of modern machinery. Incredible.

I could feel the sun bear down on the back of my neck as we crossed the grassy field to Rodadero hill. Somehow I had neglected to put sunscreen there this morning and I was now paying the price of it. A group of schoolchildren, perhaps in the first or second grade, were picnicking at the base of Rodadero with their teachers. Each student had a kite kit with them. The grassy plaza below Sacsayhuaman seemed like a great place to fly a kite - I hoped the winds would be in their favor.

The main reason to climb Rodadero is to take advantage of its strategic view of the 22 ramparts. The rock is smooth and rounded so it's difficult to climb the hill but the view still makes it worthwhile. Four British tourists were sitting in the Inca's Throne, a large stone bench carved into the hillside. After a while we got our chance to occupy the this popular spot. As we settled into our stone dais we could see that the young students had finished their picnic and were now starting to fly their kites. Most of the youngsters could only get their kites a few feet off the ground but their teachers proudly applauded each attempt. A little further up the hill a young father was teaching his son how to fly a kite as well. It seemed so ironic - yet so marvelous - that a fortress once heralded for its strategic aptitude was now the best place in the valley for a child to fly a kite. I bet neither the Inca nor Pizarro ever fathomed such an end result for this sacred place of warriors.

By the time we climbed down from Sacsayhuaman it was mid-afternoon. Susanne and I wanted to stop by the tour agency that had planned our Sacred Valley trip to see what arrangements had been made for our excursion to Machu Picchu. Luis Guillen, the man who had helped us previously, wasn't around yet so they suggested we come back in 20 minutes or so. Susanne and I decided to walk to the Iglesia Santo Domingo, a Dominican church built over the Incan temple of Coricancha. In its time Coricancha was one of the greatest temples of the Tawantinsuyu empire. Coricancha, Quechua for Golden Courtyard, proved a fitting name for this place since its outer walls were covered with a staggering 700 sheets of gold, each weighing in excess of four pounds. Sadly, the Spanish melted down every ounce of gold in a matter of weeks after capturing the city. None of the riches of Coricancha survived the conquest. Francisco Pizarro's brother Juan was given the temple as his private estate but he soon died in the battle of Sacsayhuaman in 1536. Juan's will stipulated that the temple be given to the Dominicans, and they've occupied it ever since in the form of Iglesia Santa Domingo. The outside of Coricancha/Domingo is a testimony to the history of Cusco. The lowest level of the structure represents architecture of the early Inca period. The middle layer is a grand example of classic Inca architecture at the peak of empire. The top layer is, of course, Spanish colonial. Just as layers of earth can represent epochs of time, the layers of Coricancha tell a story of imperial birth, growth and collapse.

Coricancha lies at the end of Calle Loreto, not far from our hotel. The last time we walked down this long street of Inca stone, the skies opened and poured rain on us. Today seemed to be no exception: as we penetrated further down towards the church the skies clouded over. By the time we reached the ancient temple a foreboding blue-black cloud blotted out the sun. Today, apparently, would not be a day to fully appreciate Coricancha. We contemplated its exterior layers of Inca and Spanish architecture for several minutes before retreated back down Loreto. Like clockwork, the closer we returned to our familiar surroundings at the Plaza de Armas, the sooner the clouds cleared, reinstating the sun to dominate the skies above.

Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Having returned to the plaza we figured it was as good a time as any to visit Cusco's cathedral. It's hard to give an impression of the cathedral's interior except to stress its darkness. As far as cathedrals go, this one was unusual for its utter lack of windows, be they stained glass or otherwise. The darkness made it very difficult to appreciate what was probably a beautiful church. The Quechua artisans of Cusco had little to go on when the Spanish set them out to paint Catholic churches. Apart from a resident Van Dyke and some Spanish renaissance paintings, the local artesenias had never seen European religious art before. This ignorance led to the evolution of a unique style of painting known as the Cusqueño school. Cusco cathedral is perhaps the world's best collection of Cusqueño religious art, but the interior of the church was so dark I found it difficult to appreciate it. Perhaps one day I'll return on a major holiday when the entire cathedral is awash with the flicker of candles. That might make all the difference.

After sending emails to our families from a local Internet café we returned to the tour agency to find Luis. Alas, he still wasn't there; his assistant said he was stuck at the airport. Another agent, Carlos Quispe, promised us that Luis would pick us up at 5:45am the next morning to catch the 6:30am tourist train to Machu Picchu. Luis would have our tickets and vouchers to visit the ruins and to stay at a hotel in Aguas Calientes, a small jungle village 1500 feet below the ruins. I didn't like the idea of not having our tickets until the morning of our departure but I realized that's the way the game was played here in Cusco. Tour operators controlled the whole Machu Picchu tourist trade; it's extremely inconvenient to put together your own plans without their help. A case in point: in early August Susanne had telephoned a popular hotel in Aguas Calientes affectionately known as Gringo Bill's in order to make a reservation for our stay. Today we called them to reconfirm but they changed their tune and now insisted we go to a specific tour operator in Cusco and purchase hotel vouchers from them. Of course, this operator wasn't the same agency we had been dealing with, and our guys could only get us the vouchers at an inflated rate. To make matters worse, each time we ran by the other tour agency it was closed, a large padlock latched defiantly to the door. Eventually we concluded that Gringo Bill's must now be managed by jerks, so we grudgingly accepted a hotel voucher from our agents. The hotel, La Cabaña, received grim reviews from Lonely Planet - "stark" and "basic," or something to that effect. Carlos promised us that the hotel was now much nicer and swore we would have a private bath with hot water. We'd just have to see about that.

After finally settling our hotel situation I was in bad need of a beer. We visited the Cross Keys Pub, a quasi-British hangout on the southern end of the plaza. Susanne started with a Coke while I tried the local cerveza, Cusqueño. I sat on the balcony writing in my journal until it became too chilly to sit outside. Susanne had resettled inside the pub next to a roaring fireplace. We were in no rush to leave so I ordered a coffee while Susanne snacked on a small plate of cookies. The remainder of the afternoon passed by as I continued to work my journal, hoping to get caught up with the day's events.

Around 6pm we decided to get an early dinner at the Inka Grill. The restaurant appeared to be a recently refurbished place that played up a nouveau cuisine atmosphere, even though the menu didn't stray far from standard Cusco fare. Susanne and I both each ordered a bowl of quinoa soup and split an entree of lomo saltado (sort of a beef teriyaki with fries). We sipped our maté de coca as the bartender channel-surfed on the resident TV: Beastie Boys on MTV ("Intergalactic"), local soap operas, the evening news. He eventually settled on the Discovery Channel, which turned out to be showing a accurate summary the last two years of our travels. As a program featuring Bangkok's Wat Po wrapped up, we were then treated to the highlights of northern India, including Humayun's Tomb in Delhi and the majestic palace of Fatehpur Sikri. I've rarely seen any of these monuments on TV back in the States so it was a little odd to catch them while here in South America. The quinoa soup was really a fish soup - trout, I think - with only hints of quinoa sunk to the bottom of the bowl. Nonetheless it was quite delicious. Our lomo saltado soon arrived and we ravenously devoured it. Not long after finishing dinner I felt a disconcerting rumble in my intestines as I paid the bill. I took this disturbance as foreshadowing possible trouble over the coming days.

Along the perimeter of the plaza we stumbled upon the evening market, a nightly cavalcade of Quechua art, trinkets, candies, woolen goods, and practically anything else a Gringo might desire while passing through Cusco. I considered buying an alpaca sweater, for the sweatshirt I had packed for the trip had proven to be poor protection against the chilly Andean night. Most of the market stalls had similar sweaters, each with a checkered pattern around the neck hole. I didn't really care for the style so I ducked into a shop to check out its selection. I soon found a nice sweater Susanne and I both liked, though it appeared to be too small for my build. Susanne encouraged me to try it on anyway; to my surprise, the sweater fit perfectly. I asked the shop owner how much she wanted for it. "Cinquenta y neuve soles," she replied, just under 20 dollars. Inwardly I was ready to buy it, but ever the negotiator, I removed the sweater and said, "Cinquenta y neuve? Más barato, por favor. It's too expensive." Wanting to recover the sale the owner grabbed a similar garment and said, "Treinta soles - cinquenta perciento alpaca." Fifty percent alpaca wool for 30 soles, but what was the other half made out of? "Acrylic," she replied. "Forget it," I shook my head. "Ok, señor," she said. "How much, mister?" "35 soles," I answered. The woman began to spout something in Spanish I could only imagine meant "But sir, even the wool and workmanship alone are worth 40 soles. How can I stay in business for 35 soles?" I knew I was lowballing, but it got the reaction I wanted. "Okay," I said. "45 soles." "No, 50 soles," she replied. Sole by sole, I went up as she went down. Finally we both settled on 48 soles, about $16, for the 100% alpaca sweater. I was quite happy with the purchase.

My happiness soon faded as I attempted to go to sleep that night. My stomach growled with displeasure from eating the lomo saltado. What was I thinking? I don't even eat red meat in the States. Worse still, the coffee and Cusqueño I had guzzled at the Cross Keys Pub earlier that day had left me feeling simultaneously wired and dehydrated. My dehydration was probably exacerbated by the Diamox, which acts as a diuretic in its own right. I spent the entire night tossing and turning, my pulse racing as fast as my mind was from one useless thought to another.

The last time I checked the clock it was 3am; I have to get up at 4:45am to catch the train to Aguas Calientes and begin three potentially grueling days at Machu Picchu. I hope I can get at least an hour of sleep tonight.