A little history of Cusco
After the snacks, I suggest you to walk around the Plaza de Armas, the authentic key center od the city, where you can establish your coordinates; it’s a matter of situating yourself in the area, and the best way to do so, is with a city map. There are good ones you can buy in the shops at Lima’s airport. So you should get one there before flying.
In the Hispanic period, the area where the current plaza is was a swamp, located in the elevation where two rivers met. Manco Capac, the founder of the Inca Empire, decided to install his home in the surroundings because it was certainly a safe place if an invasion buy ethnic rivals took place. The city flourished around this swamp. And the first Inca built his palace on what is now known as Colcampata, a platform located in the lower area of the Saphy Street and was channeled and covered due to the city’s expansion. This river flows south all the way to Piquillacta, and is the main sewage collector of Cusco, a problem that has no prompt solution.
Sinchi Roca, son and successor of Manco Capac, decided to drain the swamp and cover it with land brought from the mountains, creating a huge ceremonial central space. It was Pachacutec, the ninth Inca, who finally decided to dry out the place with sand brought from the coast. Known as Aucaypata (“the place of the warrior”), or Huacaypata (“the place of sorrow”), the plaza became the symbol of the Empire (it occupied twice as much space as the current one.) According to the chronicles, Aucaypata extended all the way to Plaza Regocijo (originally known as Cusipata, which means also “rejoice”), where the Municipality is. The plaza attracted the city’s life. The palaces of Pachacutec, Huayna Capac, Sinchi Roca, Wiracocha, Tupac Yupanqui, and Wiracocha Inca were built around it, and the Spanish built their churches on top of these palaces. The plaza was the place where all Inca celebrations took place, including Inty Raymi or the Dance of Amaru, as well as fairs and exhibitions of the Inca army. The arrival of the Spanish conquerors changed completely the plaza.
Inca buildings were intervened, and some of them completely destroyed. The Cathedral was built on top of Wiracocha’s palace (the construction lasted a century); other religious buildings were also constructed on top of Inca monuments around the plaza, on both sides of the Cathedral such as the Chapel of the Sacred Family (headquarters of the inquisition) and the Chapel of Trumph,besides the impressive Church of the Company of Jesus. The Plaza was also the scenario for the executions of Tupac Amaru I, in 1572, and Tupac Amaru II and his wife Micaella Bastidas, in 1780m in reprisal for their rebellion against the Spanish Crown.
Today the plaza is surrounded by the buildings mentioned before and a bunch of shops and fast food chains. Its Colonial two-story portals and balconies have been modified through time and are different in style, even though they keep a certain homogenous character, despite they have been fractured by the amount of stores that open its doors. An average rent on this place can be almost the same as in Rome, without exaggerating.
You can spend the rest of the day visiting the archaeological circuit nearby the city, which includes Sacsayhuaman, Quenco, Puca Pucara, and Tambomachay. I suggest you to hire the services of a guide with greater knowledge than tha average guide: At the entrance to Sacsayhuaman there are good professional guides standing by. Have in mind that, according to Peruvian Law, guides to work in Cusco must have a university degree and be born in Cusco. Foreigners cannot guide, no matter how much they could know about the place. It is what it is. But a good way to know if the guide is really knowledgeable about this archaeological circuit is asking (before hiring) if they know about the chinkanas and where they are and about the huaca Cárcel. If they say “yes,” no doubt they‘re good.
Avoid horse riding in the archaeological park, since it generates a negative impact on its grounds. Besides, you will enjoy better the landscape walking. Calculate around five hours for the complete circuit, starting at noon until 6 pm. Your first stop, 2 kilometers north of the city, will be at the wrongly-named fortress of Sacsayhuaman (“the place where the falcon satisfies its hunger”.)
The construction was started during the reign of Pachacutec, and Tupac Yupanqui continued the works (14th and 15th centuries.) The most common theory says it was a fortress, but more recent research argues it could have been a ceremonial center. Its construction demanded the work of 20 thousand men during 70 years, which means there was a powerful logistic and impeccable engineering (huge boulders that were carved fitting precisely, without using a mortar.)
Sacasayhuaman was a titanic compound, with sacred lagoons and dozens of ceremonial temples. On the walls there are carved images made by the Incas, and there also are chinkanas or subterranean entrances to the tunnels, amphitheaters and constructions reserved only for ritual (you can ask your guide the story of two school kids that, during the fifties, reached the basement of Santo Domingo Church through a chinkana, and what happened to them.) The walls (you can only appreciate 20% of the original building) from three superimposed platforms in zigzag that connect through staircases. The rest of the building disappeared when the Spanish used the place as a quarry to extract construction material to build their temples, convents and manor houses in the city.
According to anthropologist Theo Paredes, only the sector that has been worked in Sacsayhuaman can be seen. This fortress would be Cusco’s real marvel, even more surprisingly than Machu Picchu, and more important within the historical context. Hence, if the new airport is built in Chinchero, there is still hope that the crowded city could be cleared sending the masses to the Sacred Valley. Cusco and its surrounding would become a two-day visit, as some sort of Lhasa or sacred city. “There is more under the city,2 says Theo, “but they don’t dare to unearth. That would trigger a lot of problems. Why do you think that when they remodeled the Plaza de Armas, they opened a pit and closed it? There is a whole city beneath,” assure this archaeologist and anthropologist that really knows Cusco’s secrets deeply, as well as those of life.
Only privileged chaste could enter Sacsayhuaman, and the Inca would climb up the Muyucmarca Tower, once and then, to lead a ceremony. From the top of the tower Chauide leaped into the void (Battle of Sacsayhuaman, 1536) to prevent being capture by the enemy. Today you can see one tower, but there were two more: Sallacmarca and Paucarmarca, built with a rectangular base. Muyucmarca was 12 meter high with a base 22 meters wide. The chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega describes it in his Comentarios reales de los incas as “a tower that was connected to the other two by subterranean tunnels.”
But there is more under Sacsayhuaman. If the Chuquipampa esplanade was initially thought to be the original floor, a deeper one has been discovered, five to six meters under. The place then would be more colossal of what it currently is, and most probably it was a ceremonial center. Remains of llama sacrifices have been found quite recently, as well as huacas carved in stone and wells where youngsters underwent some kind of baptism ritual to become adults. “The stone slide was a temple. Many areas are still completely covered; we are excavating just now. The last excavations done reveal that, even during battle time, the entrance gets located in the center were tried to be blocked. Besides, there is the Temple of the Moon, possible where Pachacutec’s mummy was located. There is a specific moment in which the moon lights up everything. That is when the ceremony of fertility took place, in which individuals entered the womb of Pachamama through a gateway and would exit through another to be reborn, “ explains Sabino Quispe, a resident archaeologist.
The stone slide is located north of the Chuquipampa esplanade and it is a huge geological formation that is currently used as a slide. On top is located the Inca’s Throne (k’usillup hink’inan, “the monkey’s jump”): a carved rock with two rows of steps. There are also terraces, tunnels, tombs, carved tunnels and steps and even a water spring.
Every year, the celebration of Inty Raymi takes place at Sacsayhuaman (a customthat can be traced back to the Inca Empire and was banned by the Spanish; recovered in 1947.) According to the weekly magazine Caretas, approximately a hundred thousand people attend the festival, and the majority located themselves outside of the ceremonial place in Sacsayhuaman. As a result, the place has been deteriorated and it is left as a dump after the celebrations.
You can obtain a magnificent panoramic view of the city if you walk from Sacsayhuaman towards the image of the White Christ that the Palestinian community donated to Cusco in 1945. It is still possible with the help of a guide to spot the original Inca trace of the city with the shape of a puma; this is not a legend. The academic Luis Nieto has researched that this shape corresponded to a sophisticated management of water by the Incas, using basically the course of the Huatanay River.