Travels with V

Peru & Ecuador

From Inti Raymi to the city in the sky

Cusco part three

We are transported up to the old temple of Saqsaywaman, high on a hilltop above the city. This was the site of the last Inca resistance against the Spanish invasion of Cusco, the heart of the Inca empire. After the battle the invaders tried to demolish the temple, but the stone walls were built with heavy boulders and are still standing today.

Beneath the walls there’s a big field with a podium in the middle. There’s seatings for the guests of honour, the rest of us, 20 000 people occupy the surrounding knolls and bushes.

It’s like the world’s biggest picnic. Sellers balance food and drinks cruising the slopes, many offering the delicatess of this part of the world, Cuy. Grilled Guinea-pig. Others carry grilled corn cobs or beer, which is much needed, the waiting for the second part of Inti Raymi is several hours long.

When the back threatens to break In two, after the longest wait in entertainment history, the actors finally enter the field and the podium, and the show begins. This part of Inti Raymi tells some separate tales in the legends and lore from Inca history. Including a realistic depiction of a central ritual – the slaughter of a llama.

Here also the stage is surrounded by hundreds of dancers doing complicated tours in billowy rows over the fields, or kneeling before the king and his high priests.

But to be honest the spectacle is too long. The city inhabitants around us after a while start to frequently check their watches.

Early next morning we’re in a car driving in a fantastic mountainous landscape. My elevation meter says the highest pass is at 3750 meters above sea level.

After some hours of ascending and descending serpentine roads we arrive in the city of Ollantaytambo. From there we travel by train through a variety of sceneries. Agriculture in green valleys, forests, rivers and rapids between huge and steep mountains. 

Finally the train rolls into what used to be known as Aguas Calientes, the Hot Springs. But these days it goes more by the name Machu Picchy City. The town is scenic but littered with cheap tourist furbelows. Hundreds of bars, souvernir shops, massage parlours and b&b:s. We’re staying in an icy cold hostel so we take an evening walk, have something to eat and then go to bed.

The next morning there’s no hot water in the shower. We eat a pointless omelette with some dry loafes of bread and weak coffe. And then we take off to catch an early bus. But there’s something not right here. There’s a one hundred meters long que on the street before us. We realize this is the bus que and almost give up all hope of going to the top. But somehow the que rattles down the street and finally we’re on the way up to the city in the clouds.

The trip is 20 minutes of near desperation. When the bus going up meets a bus going down there are only a few centimeters to the abyss. But we arrive safely and even before we pass the ticket control we have negotiated with and hired a guide.

Everybody has seen Machu Picchu. On posters, pictures, historic TV programmes. Looking so grand with its grey stone walls amid the green grass and the pointy high mountains all around. In reality it’s exactly the same, but the effect is overwhelming. It’s stunning, almost unbelievable. How did they manage to build this mountaintop city, how were they able to find food and clothes and life’s other necessities? How could they live here and why was it all forgotten?

The first thing we learn is that these hilltop Inca settlements were not towns, they were reserved for the elite. The common people, the farmers stayed in the valley below. Except when they were needed in the construction teams, then they worked up here for six months and spent the rest of the year farming.

The Incas were masters of architecture with a great knowledge about materials and structures. On the slopes below the hilltop settlements they built impressive terraces that had a double purpose. One was to grow plants, the other to stabilize the ground. Earthquakes are common here, but Machu Picchu has no visible damages

Most of the destruction seen on other Inca hilltop settlements were caused by the Spanish invaders. But Machu Picchu was actually abandoned a few years before the conquistadors arrived. Why? Nobody knows. Maybe some epidemic disease wiped them out, maybe climate changes. The Incas didn’t have a written language, so there are no sources.

We climb the various levels in Machu Picchu and try to picture what life there could have looked like. Unfortunately there are no objects here, just the walls. Everything that could be carried away was seized by an American adventurer called Hiram Bingham III (his father was called Hiram Bingham II), the prototype for Indiana Jones who claimed he rediscovered Machu Picchu (but that was a lie, others had been there before him). Bingham shipped everything to Yale University, where it still is. Colonialism was once again at work, and the likeness to Indiana Jones is even more striking.

In the next chapter we are joyous after watching and listening to TV and radio reports from the WC Fotball games. And we get a closer look at the Inca’s advanced technology.

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