7 Inca Sites to Visit in Cusco

The megalithic fortress of Sacsayhuaman, which looks down onto the red-tiled roofs of Cusco from high above the city, is the closest and most impressive of several historical sites scattered around the Cusco hills.

However, there are four other major Inca sites in the area. Not much more than a stone’s throw beyond Sacsayhuaman lies the great Huaca of Qenko and the less-visited Salapunku, thought by some to be a moon temple.

A few kilometers further on, at what almost certainly formed the outer limits of the Inca’s home estate, you come to the small, fortified hunting lodge of Puca Pucara and the stunning imperial baths of Tambo Machay.

These places are an energetic day’s walk from Cusco, but you’ll probably want to devote a whole day to Sacsayhuaman and leave the others until you do more adjusted to the rarefied air.

Instead of starting from the top and working your way downhill, you can take one of the regular buses from Cusco to Pisac and Urubamba. One company, Empresa Clorinda, leave from C Puputi 208, one block below Recoleta and two blocks up from Avenida de la Cultura at the junction with Ejercicios, just beyond the Estadio Universitario. Other regular buses of a similar basic standard depart from Tullumayo 207.

Just ask to be dropped off at the highest of the sites, Tambo Machay, from where it’s a relatively easy two-hour walk back into the center of Cusco, or at Qenko, which is closer to Sacsayhuaman and the city. Alternatively, you can take a horseback tour (for a couple of hours) incorporating most of these sites, but they usually start and finish at Sacsayhuaman or Qenko.

Sacsayhuaman

Although it looks relatively close to central Cusco, it’s quite a steep forty-minute, two-kilometer climb up to the ruins of Sacsayhuaman from the Plaza de Armas.

The most straightforward route is up Calle Suecia, then right along the narrow cobbled street of Wayna Pata to Pumacurcu, which heads steeply up to a small café-bar with a balcony that commands superb views over the city. It’s only another ten minutes from the café, following the signposted steps up to the ruins.

By now, you’re beyond the built-up sectors of Cusco and walking in the countryside. There’s a well-worn path and crude stairway that takes you right up to the heart of the fortress.

SACSAYHUAMAN (daily 7 am–5.30 pm; entry by Cusco Tourist Ticket) forms the head of Cusco’s ethereal puma, whose fierce-looking teeth point away from the city.

The name Sacsayhuaman is of disputed origin, with different groups holding that it means either “satiated falcon,” “speckled head,” or “city of stone.” Protected by such a steep approach from the town, the fortress only needed defensive walls on one side.

Nevertheless, this “wall” is one of South America’s archaeological treasures, formed by three massive, parallel stone ramparts zigzagging together for some 600m across the plateau just over the other side of the mountain top from Cusco city and the valley below.

These zigzag walls, incorporating the most monumental and megalithic stones used in ancient Peru, form the boundary of what was initially designed as a “spiritual distillation” of the old city below, with many sectors named after areas of imperial Cusco. Little of the inner structures remain, yet these enormous ramparts stand 20m high, relatively undamaged by past battles, earthquakes, and the passage of time.

The strength of the mortarless stonework – one block weighs more than 300 tons – is matched by the brilliance of its design. The zigzags, casting shadows in the afternoon sun, look like jagged cat’s teeth and seem to have been cleverly designed to expose the flanks of any attacking force.

Recently, however, many sacred and ritual objects excavated here have caused archaeologists to consider Sacsayhuaman as more of a ceremonial center than a fortress, the distinctive, jagged form of these outer walls possibly symbolizing the important deity of lightning.

Initially, the inner “fort” was covered in buildings, a maze of tiny streets dominated by three prominent towers. The tower of Muyuq Marca, whose foundations can still be seen, was round, over 30m tall, and with three concentric circles of a wall, the outer one roughly 24m in diameter. An imperial residence, it had lavish inner chambers and a constant supply of freshwater, carried up through underground channels.

The other two towers – Salla Marca and Paucarmarca – had rectangular bases about 20m long and were essentially warriors’ barracks. All three were painted in vivid colors, had thatched roofs, and were interconnected by underground passages. In its entirety, the inner fortress could have housed as many as ten thousand people under siege.

At the rear of this sector, looking directly down into Cusco and the valley, was a temple dedicated to the sun, reckoned by some to be the most significant shrine in the entire Inca empire and the most sacred sector Sacsayhuaman. There is some excavation of these sites, but it’s still complicated to make out anything but the circular tower base.

In front of the main defensive walls, a flat expanse of grassy ground – the esplanade – divides the fortress from a large outcrop of volcanic diorite. Intricately carved in places, and scarred with deep glacial striations, this rock, called the Rodadero (“sliding place”), was the site of an Inca throne. Initially, there was a stone parapet surrounding this important Huaca, and it’s thought that the emperor would have sat here to oversee ceremonial gatherings at fiesta times when there would be processions, wrestling matches, and running competitions.

On the far side of this colossal outcrop are larger recreational sliding areas, smoothed by the many centuries of Inca – and now tourists’ – backsides. You can see another sizeable circular space called Qocha Chincanas, possibly an Inca graveyard. On its far side is the sacred spring of Calispucyo, where ceremonies initiate boys into manhood. Excavations here have uncovered crystals and shells (some of the latter from Ecuador), a sign usually associated with water veneration.

Some history

Emperor Pachacuteq began work on Sacsayhuaman in the 1440s, although it took nearly a century of creative work to finish. The chronicler Cieza de León, writing in the 1550s, estimated that some twenty thousand men had been involved in Sacsayhuaman’s construction: four thousand cutting blocks from quarries; six thousand dragging them on rollers to the site; and another ten thousand working on finishing and fitting the blocks into position. According to legend, some three thousand lives did lose while carrying just one colossal stone.

Various types of rock were used, including enormous diorite blocks nearby for the outer walls, Yucay limestone from more than 15km away for the foundations, and dark andesite.

Some of it from over 30km away Rumicolca, for the inner buildings and towers, first, boulders did split by boring holes with stone or cane rods and wet sand. Next, wooden wedges were inserted into these holes and saturated to crack the rocks into more manageable sizes; finally, what shifted the blocks into place with levers. It must have been an enormous task with only natural fiber ropes, stone hammers, and bronze chisels.

During the fateful battle of 1536, Juan Pizarro, Francisco’s son, was killed as he charged the main gate in a surprise assault. And a leading Inca nobleman, armed with a Spanish sword and shield, caused havoc by repulsing every enemy who tried to scale Muyuq Marca, the last tower left in Inca hands.

Having sworn to fight to the death, he leaped from the top when defeat seemed inevitable rather than accept humiliation and dishonor. After the battle, the inspiration for the Cusco coat of arms, since 1540, has been ordered by 08 condors.

The conquistadors wasted little time dismantling most of the inner structures of the fortress, using the stones to build Spanish Cusco.

Today the most dramatic event at Sacsayhuaman is colorful – if overly commercial – the Inti Raymi festival in June. However, throughout the year, you may stumble across various sun ceremonies performed here by mystics from the region.

Qenko

An easy twenty-minute walk from Sacsayhuaman, the large limestone outcrop of QENKO (daily 7 am–5.30 pm; entry by Cusco Tourist Ticket) was another important Inca Huaca. Head towards the Cusco–Pisac road along a track from the warden’s hut on the northeastern edge of Sacsayhuaman. Qenko is just over the other side of the main road; the route is straightforward but poorly signposted.

This incredible stone, carved with a complex pattern of steps, seats, geometric reliefs, and puma designs, illustrates the critical role of the Rock Cult in the realm of Inca cosmological beliefs (the surrounding foothills do dot with carved rocks and elaborate stone terraces).

The name of this Huaca derives from the Quechua word Qenqo, meaning “labyrinth” or “zigzag,” and refers to the patterns laboriously carved into the upper, western edge of the stone.

At an annual festival, priests would pour sacrificial llama blood into a bowl at the serpent-like top of the main zigzag channel; if it flowed out through the left-hand bifurcation, this was a bad omen for the fertility of the year to come. On the other hand, if it continued the entire length of the channel and poured onto the rocks below, this was a good omen.

The stone may also be associated with the solstice and equinox ceremonies, fertility rites, and even marriage rituals (a twin seat close to the top of Qenko looks like a lovers’ kissing bench).

On top of the stone, two prominent round nodules do carve onto a plinth. These appear to be mini versions of Intihuatana (“hitching posts” of the sun), found at many Incas sacred sites – local guides claim that on the summer solstice, at around 8 am, the nodules’ shadow looks like a puma’s face and a condor with wings outstretched at the same time.

Along with the serpent-like divinatory channels, this would complete the three main layers of the Inca cosmos: sky (condor), earth (puma), and the underworld (snake).

Beneath Qenko are several tunnels and caves, replete with impressive carved niches and steps, which may have been placed for spiritual contemplation and communication with the forces of life and earth. It’s been suggested that some Inca Niches may have been where the mummies of lesser nobles were kept.

At the top end of the Huaca, behind the channeled section, the Incas constructed an impressive, if relatively small, a semicircular amphitheater with nineteen vaulted niches (probable seats for priests or nobles) facing in towards the unique limestone.

At the heart of the amphitheater rises a natural standing stone, which looks like a frog (representative of the life-giving and cleansing power of rain) from some angles and like a puma from others, both creatures of great importance pre-Conquest Peru.

Salapunku

A twenty-minute stroll uphill and through the trees above Qenko, to the right of the small hill, along the path (keeping the houses to your right), then emerging onto the fields and turning right, leads to SALAPUNCO. Yet another sacred

Huaca, though off the beaten track – also known as the Temple of the Moon and locally called Laqo – this large rock outcrop contains some small caves where the rock has been painstakingly carved.

At the time of writing, an archaeological dig is taking place here. You can see worn relief work with puma and snake motifs on the external rock faces, while in the caves, what probably used some altar-like platforms and niches to house mummies.

The largest of the caves is thought to have been a venue for ceremonies celebrating the full moon, as it sometimes is now when an eerie silver light filter into the usually dark interior.

Close to Salapunku, there’s another site called Cusilluchayoc, with more rock carvings. It’s possible to walk down from here to Plaza de Armas via interconnecting trails that initially go through some new barrios above the main Cusco–Pisac road, then down to San Blas.

Chakan and Quispe Huara

An essential but little-visited Inca site, CHACAN lies about 5km from Sacsayhuaman on the opposite side of the fortress from Qenko and the road to Tambo Machay. It can be safely, though not quickly, reached in the dry season (May-Sept) by following the rather indistinct footpaths directly north from the Rodadero at Sacsayhuaman.

When you hit the gully coming from the west, follow this up to the site; if you’ve been walking for ninety minutes or more and haven’t found it, you’ve already passed it. Chakan itself was a revered spring.

You can see a fair amount of terracing, some carved rocks, and a few buildings in the immediate vicinity; like Tambo Machay, it demonstrates the importance of water as an ever-changing, life-giving force in Inca religion.

A pleasant but more difficult walk leads down the Tica-Tica stream (keep to the right-hand side of the creek and stay well above it) until you come to Quispe Huara (“crystal loincloth”), where a two- to three-meter-high pyramid shape has been cut into the rock. Close by are some Inca stone walls, probably once part of a ritual bathing location. It would be best if you had a local map to find your way with any certainty.

Puca Pucara

Although a relatively small ruin, PUCA PUCARA (daily 7 am–5.30 pm; entry by Cusco Tourist Ticket), meaning “Red Fort,” is around 11km from the city, impressively situated overlooking the Cusco Valley, right beside the main Cusco– Pisac road, and well worth the trip.

This area does dot with cut rocks between a one- and two-hour cross-country walk uphill from Sacsayhuaman and Qenko (longer if you keep to the sinuous main road). The zone was well populated in Inca days, and many of those people may have been working to obtain stones for building.

Puca Pucara is more likely to have been a hunting lodge for the emperor than simply a defensive position. Thought to have been built by Emperor Pachacutec, it commands views towards glaciers to the south of the Cusco Valley.

What quickly defended it on three sides; it could have contained only a relatively small garrison and may have been a guard post between Cusco and the Sacred Valley, which lies to the northeast.

It could also have had a sacred function, as it has excellent views towards the Apu of Ausangate and does ideally placed to keep tabs on the flow of people and produce from the Sacred Valley to Cusco. Puca Pucara is an excellent example of how the Incas combined recreation, spirituality, social control, and military defense.

Tambo Machay

TAMBO MACHAY (daily 7 am–5.30 pm; entry by Cusco Tourist Ticket). Less than fifteen minutes walk along a signposted track that leads off the main road just north of Puca Pucara is one of the more impressive Inca baths or Temple of the Waters.

A place for ritual as well as physical cleaning and purification, situated at a spring near the Inca’s hunting lodge, its major construction lies in a sheltered gully where some superb Inca masonry again emphasizes their fascination and adoration of water.

The ruins consist of three-tiered platforms. The top one holds four trapezoidal niches that may have been used as seats. On the next level, underground water emerges directly from a hole at the base of the stonework and cascades down to the bottom platform, creating a cold shower just high enough for an Inca to stand under.

The spring water splits into two channels on this platform, pouring the last meter down to ground level. A site for ritual bathing, the quality of the stonework suggests that what restricted its use to the higher nobility, who perhaps used the baths only on ceremonial occasions.

About 1km further up the gully, you’ll come to a small cave with a pool large enough for bathing, even in the dry season. While it shows no sign of Inca stonework, the hills on either side of the stream do dot with stone terraces and caves, one or two of which still have remnants of walls at their entrance.

In Inca, Machay means “cave,” suggesting that these were an essential local feature, perhaps as water sources for Tambo Machay and Puca Pucara.

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