Day 5 — Sacsaywaman

Tuesday — April 7

Today was our day to transfer to Ollantaytambo in El Valle Sagrado (the Sacred Valley), but we didn’t want to leave Cusco without seeing Sacsaywaman (aka Sacsayhuaman). So we pushed our departure from 8:00a to 7:30a to make time for a site considered to be one of the holiest in the Inca Empire. Our early morning visit was perfect, not just because of the cool weather, blue skies, and soft sunshine, but also because we were the only ones at the site for most of our time there.

When Inca Pachacuteq rebuilt the city of Cusco, he did so in the shape of a puma — symbol of strength. Astronomers were consulted to determine the best sites for sanctuaries to ensure that they would align with the stars. The main square — what is Plaza de Armas today — was placed where the heart of the puma would be. The hill that corresponded to where the puma’s head would be became the walled complex of Sacsaywaman.

Cusco was originally built in the shape of a crouching puma.

Sacsaywaman is usually translated as “Speckled Falcon” (some say “Royal Eagle), but the translation that fits the theory of the city being in the shape of a puma is: “Speckled Head” (from Sacsa Uma). The Spanish considered Sacsaywaman to be a fortress and described it as such, mostly because of the great battle they fought here in 1536. Had Manco Inca been able to hold onto the site during the rebellion, the story of the Inca Empire might have turned out differently.

While the site may have served a defensive purpose, most archaeologists agree that it was much more than a fortress. Sacsaywaman has also been described as being an administrative center, a sanctuary, a temple, an observatory, a storehouse for goods, as well as a place for important ceremonies that brought people from the four corners of the kingdom together.

The original site contained many structures, such as pyramids, towers, troop barracks, tambos (storage buildings). None of those structures have survived, because the Spanish used Sacsaywaman as a quarry for their own building projects. In fact, the looting of the stone blocks continued until the 1930s. Bit by bit, all of the smaller blocks were taken until all that remained were the massive slabs that were too heavy to move.

No wonder they were unable to loot these blocks; they’re massive.
(photo by Vidal)

Hence the three-tiered, zig-zag outer wall that has survived to this day. (The biggest stone block is 28 feet (8½ m) high, and is estimated to weigh 361 tons.) Some claim that the zig-zag wall represented the teeth of the puma, while others claim that it was a depiction of a lightning bolt designed to honor an important Inca deity. That the walls have survived devastating earthquakes is a tribute to Inca construction ingenuity. Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia: “… The structure is built in such a way that a single piece of paper will not fit between many of the stones. This precision, combined with the rounded corners of the limestone blocks, the variety of their interlocking shapes, and the way the walls lean inward, is thought to have helped the ruins survive devastating earthquakes in Cusco. ...”

Do the walls represent the teeth of a puma or a lightning bolt?

Photo op at Sacsaywaman.
(photo by Vidal)

I have to admit we didn't do justice to Sacsaywaman with our short visit this morning; but I'm glad we made the time to stop at this most impressive site on our way out of the city.

Next Up: Day 5 — Chinchero (Part 1)

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