Getting sick while travelling is never fun. We were struck down with a combination of the flu and food poisoning, and were forced to lie low in Cusco for a few days feeling sorry for ourselves. Luckily we were staying in a really beautiful old colonial building near the main plaza (Ecopackers Hostel), which had a great TV room full of lounges and beanbags so we didn’t do much apart from rest there.
When we started to feel better we felt like we needed to see a few things in one go so we were pretty happy to find a half-day horseriding tour that goes to all the main archaeological sites around Cusco. This was a quick and easy way to tick a few things off the list ($35 booked through the hostel) while having a bit of fun riding horses past some beautiful scenery.
Our fifth horse ride in South America was lovely. It was a nice change to ride a horse that wasn’t starving or looking like it would collapse underneath us!
We started by driving out to pick up the horses and rode in a loop to visit the Qenko ruins, the Salapunco moon temple, the fortress of Puca Pucara, and the water temple of Tambomachay. We finished up the tour with a quick visit to the famous archeological site of Sacsayhuaman before the sun set.
While not the most impressive of Incan ruins, we were excited because these were the first major ruins we had seen. It looked like a pile of rocks from a distance, but up close you could see that the rocks had been cut and placed there for a specific purpose. Unfortunately the Spanish destroyed much of the Incan architecture but it is possible to see that there were huge rock statues of pumas at the entrance to these ruins. There is also a carved stone that apparently casts a shadow of a puma’s head when the sun rises on the winter solstice.
Our guide also pointed out several significant ceremonial sites, including where the Incas performed sacrifices (mostly llamas). One rock had a platform for the sacrifice, with two crevices cut into the base below for blood to drain through. Apparently the Incas used this as a way to tell the future depending on which path the blood flowed down.
Not far from Qenko is Salapunco, otherwise known as the Temple of the Moon. Again it just looked like a giant pile of rocks and we wouldn’t have taken much notice if it wasn’t pointed out to us. The entrance inside the cave had snakes carved into it and led to a small chamber. This chamber featured a platform that was lit by a crevice in the roof. Apparently the Incas would perform rituals here when the full moon passed over the rock, casting light into the chamber. You can see where the script writers for Indiana Jones have been geting their ideas!
As we entered the cave we disturbed a group of people who had apparently been meditating in the caves for several days. Cusco and the Sacred Valley attract a lot of spiritual tourists and these temples were no exception!
The ruins at Puca Pucara are a collection of stone buildings overlooking a valley. While no one really knows exactly what it was used for, there are theories that it was either a fort or checkpoint along an Inca road leading to Cusco. We do know that the Incas used to tax farmers by demanding a portion of the seasonal yield be donated to the empire. It is likely that Puca Pucara was a site for storing this food and tallying the contributions from neaby provinces.
People may be interested in knowing that the Incas did not write or use paper. Intead, they would send messages using quipu, which recorded information using multiple chords that would feature several knots. These would be interpreted in a similar fashion to morse code and allow basic accounting. Messengers would transport these records across the empire, on foot using a relay system. Apparently the runners were renown for their speed and stamina.
We were running out of time if we wanted to make it to Sacsayhuaman before it got dark, so we tied the horses up to a fence and caught a minivan up the hill to the water temple. There are ruins everywhere along the road, with the remains of various temples, lookouts and fortresses scattered throughout the landscape. After walking a short distance up the hill (which is harder than it sounds because of the altitude) we came across the ruins of Tambo Machay. This temple has carefully cut stones that channel fresh water from a spring in the mountain down through the terraces to a fountain. Nice.
The giant stones used to construct the fortress of Sacsayhuaman have left many people perplexed. The stones at these ruins are so massive that they have caused some theorists to conclude that they must be the work of aliens. Some stones have been discoloured from people touching them after claiming that the rocks have a particular energy that emanates from them – or it could just be that they are in the direct line of daily sunshine, which heats up a massive black surface and generates heat…either way, there is no denying that it would have been a huge undertaking to cut such giant pieces of stone and place them together so perfectly (the largest stone is 8.5m tall and weighs 361 tons). Apart from their size, there are also archways and patterns in the stones such as snakes and llamas.
The Spanish Conquistadores destroyed most of Sacsayhuaman when they were trying to overthrow the last of the Incas, but it is possible to get an impression of how imposing it would have been. Something also impressive about this site is that the zig zag shape of the fortress forms the shape of a puma head, which is connected to Cusco, whose original shape was that of the puma body and legs. Clever!