Equatable with the Mayas and Aztecs, the Incas made a significant impact during their empire's brief reign. They were the apex of Precolombian civilisation on South America's West Coast and Cusco was the heart of their empire.
Cusco remains to be a highlight of the trip. We were so excited to be there, we'd read so much about the Incas and we were keen to go deep. We spent two weeks in and around Cusco exploring ruins, visiting museums, learning about the culture and planning our trips. The fact that we had friends in the city at the same time just added to the buzz.
But before we get into the adventures some may appreciate a bit of background on the Incas. This was important for us because, although Saskia had always wanted to visit, I (Mark) had always viewed it with some skepticism. Basically I tend to approach popular spots such as this with wariness – does it really deserve to be popular or does everyone head there simply because it's the done thing? So one of the first things we did when we arrived in South America was buy a couple of books on the Incas to work out why Machu Picchu is important and find our own reasons to go there.
The Rise of an Empire
According to Inca mythology the first Incas came to Cusco from Isla del Sol. This creation theory is important because the island was considered by many tribes to be the origin of the sun god and therefore the Incas were the sun god's descendants.
The general consensus, however, is that the first Incas lived in the region around Cusco. Their quest for empire was triggered by an unsuccessful invasion from a neighbouring tribe, the Chanca, in 1438 AD. The Incas' unlikely victory inspired a belief that they were supported by the gods and a new visionary leader, the famous Pachacutec, came to power.
Pachacutec drove the Incas to build an empire, which would be called Tawantinsuyu, with Cusco as its capital. They first expanded south into Bolivia and his son, Tupac Inca pushed north into Ecuador. Through a mix of subjugation and alliances the Incas were able to extend their empire as far south as Santiago and as far north as Quito. They cleverly maintained power through forced relocation of tribes and the use of Inca tribesmen to act as governors in conquered territories. In this way they reduced the risk of rebellion and created a reigning elite based on Inca bloodlines.
To borrow a quote, “within a generation the Incas had grown from an anonymous small tribe of the Cusco valley to become the dominant force in the Andes” (A. Stewart, 2011).
Inca Sites and Network Theory
Pachacutec's vision was of a giant network of sacred centres connected by a system of roads. At each of these sacred centres he constructed large towns or fortresses. These served as centres of worship, commerce and symbols of dominance for the empire.
He recruited talented masons and constructed the gold plated sun temple Qorikancha and the fortress Sacsahuaman. He has also been attributed with building Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Machu Picchu.
His stone road network, the Capac Ñan, is estimated to have covered up to 30,000 kilometres, or 20,000 miles. The famous Inca Trail is actually part of this network but you will find restored sections of road in many parts of the Andes.
We will talk about this a bit more in latter posts but what is really impressive is the alignments between the towns, sacred geological landmarks and winter and summer solstice lines. Pachacutec was a genius who designed an empire that had an intimate relationship with nature and the gods.
Art and Religion
Prior to the Inca assumption of power several small civilisations existed along the coast and the Andes. These cultures, which go back over 5,000 years, developed art and religious concepts that were eventually adopted by the Incas.
The primary and enduring concept was that the world was divided into three realms: the subterranean, the earth and the heavens. Each of these had deities ascribed to them in the form of the serpent (subterranean), the feline (earth) and the bird of prey (heavens).
Religious beliefs were also linked to nature with worship of the sun and water and a reverence for the elements. These civilisations also conducted ceremonies and sacrifices (mostly llamas but also people) that aimed to appease the gods and ensure the seasons were favourable and the land produced bountiful crops.
Perhaps the most well known aspect of Inca art was their obsession with gold and silver. The stories from the Conquistadores are hard to believe but the Incas decorated their temples with extravagant displays of gold. The Qorikancha, their main sun temple, was apparently a marvel to behold and featured a garden of plants sculptured out of silver and gold. The lords and nobles also used metal adornments such as hats, ear plugs, nose rings, necklaces and arm bands. Cusco must have been an amazing place before it was lost.
Many will be familiar with this story so I will keep it brief. In 1527 AD the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish 'entrepreneurs' first came into contact with the Incas. The meeting was relatively minor and it was not until 1532 that Pizarro was able to meet with an Inca of high nobility. By this time the Inca empire had reached its zenith and was in decline. The empire had been torn apart by the rival sons of the Sapa Inca Huayna Capac, grandson of Pachacutec, who had died of a pestilence introduced from Europe (smallpox). The war and disease had left the empire weakened and Pizarro saw an opportunity.
A meeting was arranged with the victorious Atahualpa in Cajamarca, northern Peru. It was here that Pizarro and his company of 168 men met with Atahualpa's army of 80,000. Reports state that the Spaniards were not prepared for such a large, well organised army, and spent their first night planning how to survive the next day. Astonishingly, they decided to try and ambush the emperor and hold him to ransom. They had camped inside the town of Cajamarca, which had been deserted. Pizarro ordered his soldiers inside the surrounding buildings and to wait for the order to attack. The Sapa Inca was lured into the central plaza in the belief that the Spaniards could be easily dominated. The trap was sprung. Using cannons, rifles and swords, the Spaniards massacred Atahualpa's retinue and took him hostage.
Pizarro's plan worked and he was rewarded with a room full of gold and two rooms full of silver as ransom. Buoyed by this victory, Pizarro slaughtered his captive and began the shockingly rapid and ambitious destruction of an empire and its culture.
By 1572 the Incas had effectively been subjugated, their gold and silver plundered, their cities burned and religious sites desecrated.
Fortunately the Spanish did not completely erase all trace of the Incas' great accomplishments. Thousands of artefacts have been recovered and are held in museums in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. Many ruins have been excavated and much of the stone work and aqueducts have been preserved.
We had a great time exploring the area and it really helped to have read a bit about the Incas beforehand. There is so much more going on than Machu Picchu, and even if time restricts you to that site alone, these books will give you a better understanding of its design.
Mark Adams, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, 2011. An excellent recounting of Hiram Bingham's discovery of Machu Picchu. Sheds new light on the design of the site and is an indispensable guide to the Incas.
Kim Macquarrie, The Last Days of the Incas, 2007. In-depth, easy to read narrative on the conquest of the Incas. Kim has the talent of making history feel real.
Alexander Stewart, The Inca Trail: Cusco and Machu Picchu (Trail Blazer Guide), 2011. Excellent guidebook that provides hiking information on the many significant Inca sites around Cusco. Also provides great maps of the ruins, which meant that we didn't need to hire guides. A must for independent hiking.