Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Ruins of Sacsayhuaman

Looking up from almost anywhere in and around the city of Cusco, it is possible to see Christo Blanco and nearby, the sprawling ruins of Sacsayhuaman.

Historians can’t agree on the meaning of the name, some believe that it means satiated falcon, while other assert speckled head or city of stone. What we do know for sure is that it was Emperor Pachacuti who commissioned work on Sacsayhuaman in the 1440’s and that it took nearly 100 years to complete. Many diverse types of rocks were utilized in the construction, like diorite blocks in the outer walls, limestone in the foundations and andesite at rumicola for the towers and buildings within the walls.

Now a days, one can find the ruins of Sacsayhuaman filled with tourists ready to explore some history. For about 70 soles, one can explore the ruins the rest of the day, and perhaps get some pictures overlooking Cusco. Not far off in the distance is the grand Christo Blanco, quite a site around dawn when the sun begins to shine behind him, waking up the sleeping old city of Cusco with its light. One can find tourists, joggers, and the occasional mystic preforming a sun ceremony in and around the ruins. It’s even possible to explore some of the ruins around Cusco on horseback! But back to the history.

Sacsayhuaman was a highly protected area, one side had a great wall of enormous stone blocks like many other of the Incan sites, and the other side was a steep slope facing the city of Cusco. The construction of this fortress was an amazing task of architecture and will, being that the blocks could weigh much more than the men themselves. Even more impressive, the Incas made use of only the most basic of tools such as natural fiber ropes, stone hammers and bronze chisels. But upon completion of an Incan wall, a coin wouldn’t have fit between the stone blocks, that is how perfectly the blocks fit together. However, all of this carefully crafted stone couldn’t protect the Incan from the relentless assaults of the Spanish.

During the battle of 1536, Juan Pizzaro (Son of Fransisco Pizzaro, one of the first Spanish conquistadors to come to South America) was killed leading the charge during a surprise assault on the gates of Sacsayhuaman. The Incas fought valiantly, repelling many of the invaders. An unnamed Incan Nobleman particularly held the defense together, killing many of the Spanish with one of their own swords. However as the conquistadors continued to try and scale Muyu Marca the last of the towers left in Incan control, the advantage shifted to the Spanish and their sheer numbers and bloodthirsty will to conquer what was not yet theirs. The Incan Noblemen, sensing the inevitability of defeat, leapt down from the tower into the oncoming Spanish rather than surrender in defeat. There would be no dishonor on his conscious at the end.

Today all that’s left of Sacsayhuaman are of course, the ruins.  However, even what is left behind by the Spanish is more than impressive, a testament to the architecture skills of the Inca. A dichotomy of emotions can emerge in the visitors of Sacsayhuaman. Standing in the ruins, it’s easy for the traveler to feel shame at something so beautiful and formally mighty, knocked down and reduced nearly to rubble but alternatively, feel awe that what was left behind remained for thousands of years. Even as a ghost of what once, the ruins are an impressive monument to the crafty Inca. On you trip to Peru, I highly recommend a trip up to Sacsayhuaman around dawn. If you stand quietly in the weak light, and look hard enough, you can perhaps picture the walls restored as they were in their glory days. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Heart of Cusco

Plaza de Armas (The Heart of Cusco)  

Resting in the highlands and fed by two rivers, Cusco Peru is known as the ancient capital of the Incas. Walking through the city streets, it's as if you've traveled back through time to a place much different than anything you can remember. But there isn’t a place in the city quite so historical and mesmerizing as the main square. Known as the heart of Cusco, the bustling Plaza de Armas is the epicenter that we will be examining in more detail. 

  The location of Plaza de Armas correlates roughly to the ceremonial Huacapata, or the Incas central plaza. It is an ideal location to go to get your bearings in Cusco. A highlight in every city tour, any local will be able to point you in the right direction. If you opt out of a tour, it's also easy to find on any tourist map. Furthermore, even if it wasn’t the easiest place to find in town, this historic spot would be worth quite a long journey to see.

When you arrive you can take a walk under the Portal de Panes, the covered brick pavement that goes all the way around the square. It is a beautiful spot, many of the restaurants having a second story all supported by pillars. You can take you time, walking around the plaza under the safety of the old columned roofs, and peruse the menus for dining options. It is an ideal place to go if you are hungry. In fact, there are many bars and restaurant to choose from, so many that it could at first be overwhelming. However, there are always servers standing outside with a smile, eager to tell you all about their options. In fact, if they could drag you into their respective restaurants, they probably would. While Plaza de Armas isn’t the cheapest place to eat in the city, you will definitely have your pick of exquisite meals and decadent local cocktails.

Aside from the modern amenities you can enjoy, there are of course the historic draws of the Plaza. A main attraction for tourists is the old Cathedral, located in the Plaza on the foundations of the Inca Viracocha Palace. The cathedral is massive, but beautiful rather than intimidating. Anywhere you sit in the Plaza, you can see this grand old building towering over you like a monument from the past.  Built in the shape of a Latin cross back in 1560, the Spanish and Peruvian influence is striking. There are two entrances to the Church, the grand main doors on the front. The second and more commonly used is through the Triunfo Chapel, the very first church to be built by the Spanish in Cusco. 

Another similar draw of the Plaza is the Temple de la Compania de Jesus. If you are standing in the center of the Plaza and looking downwards, it takes up much of the skyline. The building was first constructed over the foundations of Huayna Capac’s Palace of the serpents, in the late 1570’s. However, it was mostly destroyed by an Earthquake in 1650 and was rebuilt about 15 years later. When you enter, you can see the gold leaf altar, and as you further explore you will see wonderful oil paintings, guilded altarpieces, and majestic towers. The cool dim interior of the church is definitely worth a visit.

Aside from the attractions in the main square itself, there are many things to see and do just outside of the Plaza. If you look up, you will see the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, and the commanding Christo Blanco. An amazing sight from the plaza, it’s even more magnificent close up. Any traveler will surely want to get pictures of it from far off, as well as from within.

The outskirts and side-streets surrounding the Plaza are also full of shops, locals peddling their wares, restaurants, and museums. For example, the Museo Inka North of the cathedral, located just a bit uphill. Or the Museo de Historia natural, next to La compania. These are ideal locations to stop and learn some more in depth history after you have visited Plaza de Armas, and a great place to pick up some souvenirs. 

The main square really is the historical lifeblood of the city, a beautiful fusion of past and present. At the moment dressed up in glowing blue lights for Christmas, Plaza de Armas is a must see for every traveler visiting Cusco.