With the time we spent in Cusco before our Inca Trail hike acclimating to the altitude, plus our time after the hike recovering and exploring, we were in Cusco for about 8 days. I’ve written about the downtown Cusco scene, and covered our Sacred Valley Tour as well. Before moving on to Lima, I’d like to share some advice and experiences on other archaeological sites in the area.
Although we paid for the guided tour of the Sacred Valley, we didn’t really want to sign up for some of the half-day tours that hit the other sites on our 10-day Boleto Turístico del Cusco. After all, three of the stops were museums that were in walking distance to our hotel.
There were four sites that we wanted to visit that were a few miles out of town: Puka Pukara, Tambomachay, Q’engo and Saqsayhuaman. The tours offered ran from $65-$125, so we decided to see if we could do better on our own. Sure enough, we asked one of the cab drivers who hung out right in front of our hotel, and he offered to drive us to all four sites, sit and wait for us as long as we wanted, for just $20 cash. US dollars, not soles. In several countries on this trip, we found that you could often get good deals by offering to pay in US dollars instead of the local currency.
Off we went, with our first stop at the farthest from downtown, Tambomachay. This was an interesting place to visit, and a good example of why there’s no need to pay for a guide. Depending on who you ask, the name means “guest house”, “cave”, “to get drunk”, or even “spindle with thread”. The Spanish called it the Inca Baths, and some say it was a military outpost, a protected source of water, a sacred bath, or a spa for Incan royalty.
So in short, nobody knows. If you pay a guide, you will get only their best guess, or the story they think tourists most want to hear.
It is a pretty bizarre place. There’s a series of aqueducts, canals, and waterfalls running through terraced rock. It clearly took a lot of effort and a lot on man hours to build the site, and no one is entirely sure where all the water comes from. The most intriguing spot is where a small water fall is channeled into two paths, which fall a few feet later. According to the pamphlet, it is engineered so that even today, the amount of water flowing through the two falls is exactly equal.
A short distance from this site on the other side of the road was our second destination, Puka Pukara. While it sounds like the name of a really gross college drinking game, this ruin was clearly military in nature. Even a tourist can tell it is laid out like a fort, and it has a commanding view of the valley and the approaches.
It won’t take you much time to visit Puka Pukara, but it is well worth the stop for the view if nothing else. The road next to the site is also a popular spot for vendors to setup with souvenirs if you feel the need to do a little shopping.
Back in the cab, it was just a few minutes’ ride to probably the spookiest site we visited in Cusco – Q’engo.
Q’engo is considered a huaca, a holy place. There are some man-made structures there, but much of it is natural rock formations, which somehow make it a little creepier. You see, there is strong evidence that this huaca was used for sacrifices and mummification rituals. There are certainly slabs that resemble altars.
Last stop of the day was the largest and most impressive of the four, Saqsayhuaman, which overlooks Cusco.
Saqsayhuaman actually pre-dates the Incas, as the first walls were built by the Killke culture around 900AD. As you can tell from the picture above, a structure on this hill provided a place to watch the whole city, and much of it was used as a fort and an armory. There was indeed much fighting in and around Saqsayhuaman in its history. However, the Incas also expanded the grounds to include a large plaza that can hold thousands of people for ceremonies. In fact, Inti Raymi (the winter solstice celebration) is still held here.
Saqsayhuaman is famous for the large stone walls and structures that are placed together without the use of mortar and fitted almost perfectly. Some weigh as much as two hundred tons, and are set so tightly to their neighbors that you cannot fit a sheet of paper between them.
Looking across the Grand Plaza
As impressive as Saqsayhuaman is today, we are only seeing a fraction of its glory. Unfortunately, when the Spaniards took over area, they started tearing down parts of the site to use the stones for convenient building material for government buildings, churches, and the homes of the wealthy. In the words of Garcilaso de la Vega (a 16th Century soldier/poet), “to save themselves the expense, effort and delay with which the Indians worked the stone, they pulled down all the smooth masonry in the walls. There is indeed not a house in the city that has not been made of this stone, or at least the houses built by the Spaniards.” Sadly, this is why it is mostly the larger stones they could not easily move that remain.
All in all we had a great time that day touring the ruins, and we saved a bundle by making it a self-guided tour. It was also a good way to get our legs and lungs back in shape after the Inca Trail hike, as all four places were above the 12,000 foot mark. Makes for pretty good exercise, walking up and down the rocks.
We were one more day in Cusco, visiting the three museums, the Artesanal Market, and more great meals, but we were ready to head to the next stop on our journey – the big city of Lima, Perú.
Speaking of the Artesanal Market, I’ll leave you with a three-and-a-half minute walkthrough video: