For many tourists, the city of Cuzco is little more than a stopping point on their way to Machu Picchu. Yes, they look at the churches, plaza, and cobbled lanes, but they wouldn’t really be visiting Cuzco (spelled Cusco in Peru itself) were it not the gateway to the most famous of Inca archaeological sites in the Andes. That’s why the impressive Inca ruins of Sacsayhuamán, just over a mile (2 km) north of the city, are still bypassed by many visitors. Fortunately, on my own recent visit our guide led my group to this amazing – and puzzling – complex.
Sacsayhuamán (the guides joke it’s pronounced “sexy woman,” but it’s actually ” sak-sigh-wah-MAHN”), features a spectacular, fortress-like structure built of huge carved rocks, joined perfectly without any mortar or mechanical aids. We approached it from below, looking up at the walls, for it sits on a hill overlooking Cuzco, which was the sacred center of the ancient Inca empire.
Teeth of the Puma
Now preserved in a national park, Sacsayhuamán was constructed over a period of seven decades, mainly in the 15th century, using some 20,000 laborers. Limestone blocks, many weighing more than 50 tons (45,360 kilos), have survived time and earthquakes in their original place, so tightly fit together that it’s impossible to slip in even a sheet of paper.
Cuzco was designed to mimic the shape of a reclining puma, with Sacsayhuamán as the head. The zigzag design of one large wall of the site is believed to represent lightning, creation, and the teeth of the puma. Doorways are small (the Incas weren’t tall people) but constructed with protruding stones that give off shadows which make them seem larger.
Some researchers believe the name Sacsayhuamán derives from the local Quechua language for “satisfied falcon,” the bird of prey that was Cuzco’s traditional guardian — and in fact, terraces on the hill overlooking the city do afford visitors birds-eye views. But despite its lofty location and the fact that it’s surrounded by three slopes and massive walls, Sacsayhuamán was not primarily intended as a fortress — after all, the Incas were not yet facing any major threats during the time it was built.
Rather, its shape and location, as well as the harmonious blending of architecture and landscape, points rather to a center of worship. And a 2008 discovery of a temple among the ruins, one that dates back to 900-1200 A.D., supports the theory that Sacsayhuamán was used for ceremonial purposes.
The longest of Sacsayhuamán’s three walls is over 1,300 feet (400 meters) long and almost 20 feet (6 meters) tall. The techniques employed in transporting, carving, aligning, and setting these colossal stone blocks remain a mystery; they must certainly have been a monumental feat for a people whose tools consisted of dragging tackle and cutting implements of stone, copper, and bronze. Unless you subscribe to some far-out theory of help from ancient astronauts, you have to marvel at the accuracy, organization, and ingenuity of the ancient Inca in pulling this off.
Although Sacsayhuamán was a center for religious festivals and celebrations — up to when the Incas were overcome by the Spanish invaders in 1533 — it was probably occupied by royalty rather than priests. In fact, the immense main wall is where the Spaniards finally conquered the Incas, effectively ending several centuries of a major world civilization’s greatness. After the temple here was destroyed, its stones were used to build Catholic churches and other buildings — often atop Inca foundations, which then remained hidden for centuries.
Wandering among the rocks, I felt overwhelmed by these incredible accomplishments. How an ancient people conceived and built this complex grouping of towers, terraces, and temples with premodern tools simply boggles the imagination. Gazing at the immense walls and precise rock placements, I sensed the mystery that archaeologists are still trying to unravel. As they uncover more pieces of the puzzle, they hope to better understand the role Sacsayhuamán played in Inca history.
How to Visit Sacsayhuamán
If possible, acclimate yourself to Cuzco, whose altitude is 10,900 feet (3,326 meters) before visiting Sacsayhuamán, because its elevation – yet another 740 feet (225 meters) higher — might cause lightheadedness or worse (see how it was described earlier in this blog). You can walk there in about half an hour from the center of the city (several paths lead right up to the entrance booth); a taxi will run about five soles (US $1.75*), and a bus ride three soles ($1.05).
A ticket valid for Sachsayhuamán and some 15 other sites in and around Cuzco costs about US $10, but it’s best to hire a guide to explain what you’re looking at (you can find one through your hotel or at storefronts on and around the city’s Plaza de Armas; they usually charge US $10-15, including transportation; otherwise, you can hire local guides at the site itself for a few soles).
*For equivalents in other currencies, see Tripatini’s Currency Desk.