On our last weekend in Cusco, Peru, two weeks ago, we visited 2 more sites of historical importance to both Cusco and the myth/realities of the Incas, and spent some time considering both the Inca stories and modern-day Cusco.
Cusco – looking north from Pachacuti’s tower
First though we should say – if you visit this part of Peru don’t just be seduced into visiting only the Inca$h-cow of Machu Picchu. Go to Cusco as it is well worth a week of your time, as well as serving as a good base for excellent day-trips nearby. It is a place of enormous historical, cultural & economic interest, as well as offering a good insight to the reality of Peru today and the enormous wealth inequality that exists (from rhe time of the Incas to the modern day) – to discover that you only need walk 15 minutes south of the Plaza de Armas tourist area, past the Mercado Central in San Pedro, and just wander.
On the Saturday we checked out the tower & museum dedicated to Inca Pachacuti (or Pachacutec), perhaps the greatest Inca of them all, who developed the Inca’s from just another largeish mountain tribe into the Empire they are now famous for. The tower dedicated to him was initiated as a response to the 500th anniversary of Columbus arrival, in 1992. It stands at the southeastern end of Avenida Sol, close to the bus terminal, and features a stone tower with a huge metal statue of Pachacuti on top. The museum inside covers Inca history and the development of the empire.
Pachacuti made his name in the early 15th century when he fought off an attack on Cusco & the Incas by the neighbouring Chanca (or Chanka) tribe. At the time several tribal kingdoms existed in what is now the region of Cusco, every now and then one would attempt to take over a neighbour. In this case the Inca king, Pachacuti’s father, fled the city, leaving his younger son to defend it, as other tribes looked on to see who would win. Surprisingly Pachacuti did, and subsequently kicked his father out as top Inca. As with all Inca history, the battle is filled with myths, such as the Inca gods helping out by turning stones into warriors!
Over the next few decades Pachacuti massively expanded the Inca ruled areas, defeating allcomers. He developed Cusco into a huge city designed in the shape of a Puma. Perfected the Inca domination of the economy via first-rate administration and agricultural management. Engaged in massive social engineering in relation to conquered foes. Offered those he conquered guarantees of food and safety, in return for servitude. And made the Incas very wealthy and powerful in the process. It is said he ruled for over 100 years until the age of maybe 125. In reality he may have ruled for 40 years, whilst his son Tupac Yupanqui followed for another 20+ years and continued his father’s expansionism. The Quechua (Inca language) word for this empire was ‘Tawantinsuyu’, meaning ‘the four directions under the sun’. This name is still used by indigenous people who desire their lands back from the European invaders, often in the context of the whole of south America, not just the Inca part (from Ecuador down to Bolivia/northern Chile, from the Andes westwards – the Inca never made it down to the jungles east of the Andes).
Remnants of Sacsayhuaman
On the Sunday we visited the fortress/ritual site of Sacsayhuaman, accessible on foot via steep 50 minutes climb north from Plaza de Armas. This was a walled complex that overlooks the city from a steep hillside to the north, and was started by Pachacuti, but took many decades to build. It was intended to offer impregnable defence to the Incas, and represented the ‘head’ of the Puma design of Cusco. The site offers amazing views over the valley, as well as an insight into the Inca’s ability to build large complexes, using enormous & carefully chisseled rocks and stone, that were moved there from far away.
Nearby are several other Inca sites, including the one at Qenko – this is where Pachacuti’s mummified remains are said to have been buried. Intriguingly, his remains are said to be have been found in the 1570’s by the Spanish, in the area of Cusco now called San Blas, which was originally where the Inca elite were based in Cusco. The Spanish quickly removed his remains to Lima, never to be seen again. San Blas is now perhaps the most expensive Tourist area in Cusco, stretching uphill behind the cathedral, and still features much original Inca stonework.
remnants of large walls at Sacsayhuaman
We pondered on how the mighty armies & fortresses of the Incas fell so quickly to the puny forces of the Spanish invaders? It is worth noting the Inca never invented the wheel; they never saw a horse until the Spanish arrived (they used llamas as their packhorses); their weapons were pathetic in the face of Spanish guns & cannons & metal armour, and their military tactics were similarly inferior; they had developed no written form of communication, and relied on the spoken word carried by relay-runners. Perhaps most importantly, when the Spanish arrived the Inca regime was split by family infighting, and its empire had become uncontrollably large, AND the indigenous peoples were being decimated by diseases brought to central America by Europeans a decade earlier, specifically smallpox, which may over time have wiped out as much as 95% of the indigenous population. The Inca were also extremely elitist and hierarchical, as with all hierarchies they ruled by fear, and as with all hierarchies beneath there was much dissatisfaction waiting for a chance to rise up – so quite a significant percentage of peoples conquered by the Inca actually sided with the Spanish initially, realising too late that they had swapped one brutal regime for another.
Cusco today makes much play of its Inca heritage. The heavy promotion of Macchu Picchu has made it the no.1 tourist site in south America. Cusco and the wider Cusco region are the recipients of much tourist money. We saw much talk and writing about the ‘cultural fusion’ that Cusco represents, between its Colonial and Inca heritage, and there is much made of the Inca myth. And myth much of it is – with no written record, and much of its pictorial history destroyed by the Spanish (including the melting down of most of its silver & gold ornaments and idols, themselves carrying pictorial information), their is in fact very little real evidence about much of the Inca history. The Spanish destroyed/reused many of their buildings, and built over many others, leaving just architectural conjecture to feed the myths. Plus of course the 16th century decimation of the indigenous population left little oral history to be carried forwards.
Cusco expanding south from Pachacuti’s tower
The tourist industry feeds on and exaggerates the Inca myth, be it their military feats, their organisational and agricultural skills, their gods & mysticism, their relationship with the earth (pachamama). Inca tourist tat is in itself a huge earner, alonside the fees paid to access Inca sites, and get to them. The industry tends to airbrush over, or out, previous cultures, that in their time were arguably more advanced than the Incas, and from whom the Incas borrowed (or at least developed further) their religion and skills – cultures/empires such as the Chavin Cult, Mohica, Warsi, Tiahuanaco (centred on Tiwanaku in Bolivia), Chimu and others all created urban centres, temples, advanced agricultural practices, and religions or spiritualism linked to nature (animals, plants, sun & moon etc). In many instances the Inca both built on or over the structures of these earlier cultures, and adapted their religious beliefs.
Then there is the whole mystical/religious side to the Inca myth. By focusing on its alleged closeness to and harmony with nature and the earth we live on, one can see its appeal to travellers from first world countries looking for some thing different, an escape from the rigours of corporate capitalism. Throw in a few mind-altering drugs, and you are onto a sure-fire winner. Let’s remember shall we, if you want to buy into the Inca story, how it all began. Their ‘creator god’ Viracocha sent out from Lake Titicaca the Inca Manco Capac and his sister Mama Occlo. They were direct descendants of the sun god, as indeed were all subsequent Inca kings, thereby giving the Inca the power to do or say anything. Oh and the sun and moon were created from a huge rock on the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca. This is as fanciful a fairy story as anything Christianity has come up with so far!
Pisac – less bulshit than Macchu Picchu, and easier to get to!
Now westerners with money to burn may get a kick out of Macchu Picchu at dawn, but essentially its just one of many amazing views available in the Andes, with some ruins thrown in. Any mindbending experience will be the result of chemical aids, not some sudden commune with nature or pachamama. For indigenous peoples Macchu Picchu may indeed be an important cultural & spiritual site, but that is based on decades/centuries of tradition. But we cannot get close to that purely on the basis of an early morning walk, or bus, up the hill. So who gains from this myth? Travellers get a lighter wallet and some cracking views, the authorities and a few entrepreneurs make a killing. What do the indigenous peoples get? To clean our hostels, serve us in cafes, and sell us tourist products? And have their beliefs trampled over?
Which returns us to Cusco and its cultural-fusion, celebrating both the Inca and Colonial (Spanish) heritage. Really? What a nice way to keep the peace, and the money rolling in! There may well these days be an indigenous ‘middle class’ getting in on the act and rich with it, but from our wanderings outside of the tourist & wealthier parts of Cusco we saw one hell of a lot of urbanised indigenous people living in appalling conditions and ekeing out a day to day living at best. No sign of wealth redistribution there, even when the wealth is generated on the backs of their history & misery. These people still wake up to a skyline dominated by the symbols of their own domination, destruction and torture – the numerous Spanish built churches/monasteries etc, followed today by Coca-Cola capitalism. Will the downtrodden continue forever to be conned by such ‘cultural-fusion’ nonsense, seduced by a new mobile phone whilst they can’t drink the water and sewage runs down the middle of the street? Or could perhaps a movement re-emerge that is at one with ‘pachamama’ but drops the hierarchical Inca nonsense of previous times? Cusco is definitely a place to visit to consider these many contradictions!