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Published on December 5th, 2015 | by Nick Dall

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Understanding the mighty walls of Sacsayhuaman

Visitors to Cusco who are struck by how overwhelmingly Spanish the city now appears need only look up towards the incredible fort of Sacsayhuaman which looms over the city; an ever-present reminder that this was once the heart of the Inca empire. Sacsayhuaman’s three megalithic walls are the most astounding example we have of the Incas’ prowess as stone-masons and they are truly a sight to behold.

Cusco pumaThe head of the puma

To understand Sacsayhuaman’s importance we have to go back to the time times of Inca Manco Capac, the founder of the city of Cusco and one of the greatest Inca rulers. He laid the city out in the shape of a puma whose body was formed by the Tulumayo and Huatanay Rivers. His tail was the V where these two rivers converge and his heart was the Huacapata (Holy Square) containing the Coricancha. His head was – and still is – the fortress of Sacsayhuaman.

What’s in a name?

There are more spellings of Sacsayhuaman than there are recipes for Pisco Sour. Sacsayhuaman is the most common, Saksaywaman is the easiest to remember and Saksaq Waman is probably the closest to the original. Unsurprisingly there are is also considerable debate about what the name actually means, “with different groups holding that it means either ‘satiated falcon’, ‘speckled head’ or ‘city of stone’.” The choice is yours, but personally I’d say it’s hard to argue with the last option: there is a lot of stone up there!

Sacsayhuaman before the Spanish

The latest research suggests that the Incas were not the first people to build on the site: sections were built by the Killke as early as 1100, although most of what remains was built by the Incas from the 1440s onwards. Scholars are divided on what Sacsayhuaman was used for, but the variety of buildings and eminently defensible location mean it was probably both a religious complex and a defensive fortress.

Julia Manzerova

Photo credit: Julia Manzerova

At its peak, Sacsayhuaman was a vast complex. The inner precinct was a maze of narrow streets dominated by three large towers which were probably used for storage and as barracks. At the back of this section was a temple dedicated to the sun which some consider to have been the most sacred place in the Inca Empire. The inner fortress could have housed as many as ten thousand people under siege.

There are also several important sites outside the main fortress. The Qocha Chincanas, is thought to have been an Inca cemetery while the sacred spring of Calispucyo was integral to the initiation ceremonies of Inca boys. The Rodadero (“sliding place”), is a huaca or shrine centred around a peculiar rock formation which has had steps, benches and an Inca throne carved into it. The Rodadero was of great spiritual and ceremonial importance to the Inca people but it also served as a ‘recreational sliding area’ which can still by enjoyed by the young at heart… As this video proves:

Pizarro and beyond

In 1533 the city of Cusco was captured by Francisco Pizarro who installed Manco Inca Yupanqui as a puppet leader. In 1536 Manco Inca escaped Cusco. He quickly raised a mighty army of 200,000 Inca warriors and laid siege to Cuzco, with Sacsayhuaman serving as the army HQ.

Sometime in May 1536, probably on about the 14th, a small group of Spanish cavalry escaped the city limits and stormed Sacsayhuaman. In the battle that ensued Juan Pizarro – Francisco’s younger brother – was hit on the head by a stone and he died from his injuries a few days later. In spite of this setback the Spanish were eventually able to reclaim Sacsayhuaman and – after 10 months of vicious fighting – the city of Cusco for their empire. For more detail check out the Wikipedia entry on The Siege of Cusco.

Frank Main

Photo credit: Frank Main

The Spanish soon dismantled many of the buildings at Sacsayhuaman and used the perfectly shaped stones as building materials for their churches, palaces and residences in Cusco. Today only a fifth of the complex remains, but it is still an extremely impressive sight: one can only imagine how incredible it once was.

Stone masonry

The Spanish may have used many of the stones at Sacsayhuaman for their own buildings, but the megaliths that make up the three main walls were simply too large to move. How, then, did the Incas manage to construct these walls?

Mark Rowland

Photo credit: Mark Rowland

The short answer is that nobody knows for sure. The Incas had not invented the wheel or the lever and they did not have access to draft animals, so moving these vast rocks – some of which weigh hundreds of tons – to the site was an incredible achievement. Add this to the fact that some of the rocks are laid so close together that you cannot slide even a piece of paper between them and you have one of the most astonishing feats of human engineering the world has ever known.

There is loads of conjecture about how they were able to achieve this (aliens, mirrors, stone-softening materials…), but this measured explanation resonates with me: Unravelling the mystery behind the megalithic stone walls of Saksaywaman.

For a very thorough introduction to Sacsayhuaman watch this video put together by Russian scientists. The narration is a bit stilted and annoying, but much of the content is great. If you don’t have time to watch all 39 minutes, there’s a very good section on stone processing at 23:24:

Sacsayhuaman today

These days Sacsayhuaman is a must-see for all visitors to Cusco. Most people drive to the site but if you’re feeling energetic (and are coping OK with the altitude) it’s a steep 30 minute walk from the Plaza de Armas. However you choose to enjoy Sacsayhuaman, the insights of your SA Expeditions guide will make it one of the highlights of your Peruvian adventure.

Sacsayhuaman is home to several festivals every year, the most important being Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun which takes place on 24 June (the Winter Solstice). For a taste of what to expect watch this great video of last year’s celebrations:

Credit to Guillen Perez for the title image of this blog post.

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About the Author

Nick is a nomadic freelance writer with a particular passion for Latin America. He has lived in Argentina and Bolivia and traveled just about everywhere else. He gets excited about wine, language, literature, trout and cheese.



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    This was how travel began with Collin. It started as a pursuit of sport that evolved into a pursuit of experience and learning. It was soccer that brought him to Brazil for the World Cup in 2014, where he stayed in the Amazon for four months, which he wrote a book about. Since, he’s lived in Ecuador and explored across Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina. He now turns his passions for travel into developing trips for his clients as a Destination Expert for SA Expeditions where his unique energy and experiences greatly strengthens our mission to share South America with the world.

    Cheers to Collin! The #saexpeditionsuniverse looks forward to continuing our journey of enlightenment through travel with you. See more

    4 months ago

    All you need to know about Argentina’s Cueva de las Manos

    The enigmatic Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) in Argentine Patagonia is one of the finest examples of ancient rock art on the planet.

    4 months ago

    Timeline Photos

    “The Chincha chiefdom emerged in the Southern Valleys. The Chincha were mariners and traders and skilled weavers. Their most characteristic pottery form was the bowl. With their beautiful See more

    4 months ago

    Best of Brazil street food

    Is a trip to Brazil in your future? Here are some traditional Brazilian foods you shouldn’t miss!

    Almost more so than any other country, the food scene in Brazil is a culinary melting pot merging influences from all over the world. Ingredients and traditions from as far afield as Africa, Japan See more

    4 months ago

    Old and New: 16 Photos of Santiago, Chile

    The metropolitan city of Santiago is Chiles largest and has been its capital since it was founded in 1541. Santiago’s cityscape is shaped by its 19th century neoclassical architecture, Mapocho River

    Santiago is a great starting point to explore the colorful ocean city of Valparaiso, dry arid Atacama Desert, world famous Chilean wine regions, wild and rugged Patagonia and the mysterious Easter Island.

    #Chile #Southamerica See more

    Home to modern skyscrapers and historic colonial architecture, Santiago offers visitors the chance to step between past and present just by crossing the street.

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