Ancient Andes – science and mysticism

What do you see in this picture?


Anything peculiar?  Big forehead, large nose, chin sticking out… ?

The first time I saw it I was as shocked as probably you are right now. I remember I showed it to somebody after coming back to Germany and they told me: “Yea… but come on, do you really think Inca saw it also? .. “. I am sure they did. More than that – I am sure it was one of the reasons why they chose this, and not any other location, for the city..

Machu Picchu is not the only place like this, Inca ruins are full of natural or ‘built-in’ symbols. Unfortunately we usually miss them, because, sadly, for us stones are just stones and buildings are just buildings. Everything needs to have its logical, useful, down-to-earth purpose, there is no space for spirituality or mysticism.

In the times of Inca it was different. The earth was driven by the force of Pachamama, nature was full of spirits and deities, the world was enterity, and we, humans, were part of it. That’s why what we now see as stones and buildings had a hidden meaning.

It is sometimes hard to distinguish between science and mysticism on this level – I think that at that time one always fed the other. The gains of astronomy were used to construct ceremonial places and temples, and the spiritual view of the world powered the astronomical research..

Example 1 – Ollantaytambo

In Ollantaytambo there is a wall, made out of perfectly fitted large stones. When I saw it for the first time I was completely confused by the small protruding parts. I was wondering what were they useful for, but none of my idea was even close to the truth.

P1370119It turns out that the wall is the calendar for the most imporant ceremonial dates in the year. The protrusions are simply markers for the direction of the shadow that the sun throws at a special day. Pretty amazing, if you ask me. Just think about the astronomical knowledge one needs to construct the wall and carve stones in advance!

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Example 2 – Copacabana, Bolivia

In Copacabana, the Bolivian city at the Titicaca lake, there is a peculiar structure, up on the mountain. People call it now  Horca del Inca – meaning the Gallows of Inca. When the Spanish arrived they believed the structure was used to hang the people.. (every culture judges by their own measures..).


The Gallows of the Inca are in fact not gallows and probably also not Inca. Some say it is an ancient pre-inca ceremonial place, others that it is an ancient astronomical observatory (I think it possible that the two were connected). On the 21st of June, the day of the sun solstice, the rays of sun fall through the holes produced in the rocks, creating a light spot on the stone bar and the forehead of the person (priest?) standing below it..


 Example 3 – Qenqo, Cusco

A couple posts ago I wrote about ruins of Qenqo close to Cusco. In Qenqo there is a weird looking stone.. When Inca looked at it, do you think they saw a stone or the puma?

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from the book by Mallku Aribalo

Do you still doubt that Inca knew there was a face of a man above their sacred city of Machu Picchu?


The beauty of Machu Picchu

Forgotten for centuries, now does not need to be introduced to anybody. Seen by so many as a sacred city, a mystical place and architectural marvel, Machu Picchu sets you under its spell immedately.. No matter how many books you read or how many photos see – nothing can prepare you for its beauty.


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The mystic experience of Machu Picchu train..


The sign promises a lot. Inca Rail – a Mystic Experience. I took the train and I can tell – there is nothing mystic about it. It is a (maybe) 40km trip at a price so high that German ICE suddenly seems like a cheap option.

The problem is – however incredible it sounds – that there is no other option to get to Machu Picchu. Not everybody can/wants to go the crowded Inca trail (which btw is expensive as well). So unless you are ready to spend hours on the bus and then hours hiking on your own (there is an alternative route through the village of Santa Teresa), you are pretty much stack with the train. And what is better for bussiness than monopoly on something as desired as transport to Machu Picchu? Gringos will pay anything…


The second provider of the train connection – Peru Rail – does not claim to have the mystic touch. But the price for the tourist class is exactly the same. Peru Rail has also the famous Hiram Bingham service – a luxury trip for modest 400$ one way! Included in the (cheapest) tourist price is the the snack on board – which means that out of the 50$ you pay, the company will spend 50c to give you a cup of coke and a package of peanuts.

You wonder how Peruvians are able to pay the price? Well, they pay around 10x less than we, the foreigners, do. Seems fair, right? But (here comes the ‘but’) – they have to travel in separate lower-quality wagons and are not allowed to take certain trains! The connections at ‘peak hours’ – read ‘hours comfortable to reach and leave Machu Picchu’ – are reserved only for foreigners! Suddenly does not seem so fair any more… The only ‘fair’ thing about it is that both sides feels cheated on – foreigners because of the ridiculously high price, and Peruvians because of obvious discrimination with the train serivices. (I wrote about discrimination in Peru before, the Machu Picchu train is just another example of it..)

The sad thing is that even if the price for Peruvians is lower, it is still too high for most. 20 soles that a person has to pay for a train ticket, plus 60 soles for the entrance to the ruins is sometimes a weekly family budget! And the family trip with children? Forget it… Out of the farmers that live in the Urubamba valley maybe 1% entered Machu Picchu, and out of them most did it 10-20 years ago when it was for free..

One more interesting fact at the end. The Peru Rail, a very prosperous company, is -ironically – owned by Chile.



Urubamba, the Sacred Valley (2)

For me it is not Machu Picchu, but the ruins in the Urubamba valley that allow to see the true greatness of the Incas. It is here that one finds the administration  and military centers of the empire, astronomy observatories, defense towers, temples and even a scientific genetic laboratory! And all those places share what characterizes in general Inca’s architecture: beauty, harmony, peace, greatness and majesty.

Pisac is a truly surprising place. After looking at small Inca ruins close to Cusco the grandeur of Pisac comes as a surprise: from the feet of the citadel in the mountain saddle the ancient terraces go down almost to the bottom of the valley. The small buildings far away make you realize just how big the whole area is! Not to mention the breathtaking views over the valley.

Pisac tells also a lot about Inca society:

– It was a privilege to live high in the altitudes. The highest houses, so difficult to reach, were for the powerful. The houses in the lower parts of the slope were meant for the pheasants, one can also see that the stonework there is not that elaborated as in the higher parts.

– Inca appreciated and respected the beauty of the mountains. Nowadays we have an ugly custom of destroying the earth in order to adjust it to our expectations and convenience. Inca’s architecture seems to be a part of the mountain and belongs there as do the trees or rocks, made to fit the natural shape of the landscape.

– Being a scientist, especially an astronomer, was the most respected profession! The astronomy observatory in Pisac – Intihuatana – is constructed out of a special rock and such perfect work can be seen otherwise only in temples or royal palaces.


Moray is something I would call a genetic agricultural laboratory. Incas had a brilliant idea – they adjusted a naturally existing craters (the craters come from meteors but I doubt that Inca knew it at that time!) to simulate different climat condtitions for the crops. A general agricultur approach at that time was to transform the slope of the mountain into a series of terraces, called andenes. The system was so efficient that the food was produced in great qunatities! The archeologist say that unforutantely most of this ancient knowledge is lost – we now use less than 20% of what used to be a prospering agricultural area at that time!

But back to the laboratory idea… In Moray the circular andenes cover the whole inside of the crater, their radius getting smaller as they reach the bottom. Because of this special geometry the tempreture difference between two terraces can get as high as 1-2°C! In this way Inca could grow different sorts of patatoes or corn, make it resistent/adjusted to the certain climate comditions and then send it to various parts of their imperium. Isn’t it ingenious?!


Ollantaytambo ruins are impossible to miss. It is the first thing you see whan you reach this small village – the majestic buildings on the steep slope. I remember staring at them and thinking how could anybody construct a building in a place (seemingly) so unreachable?

The legend tells the place belonged to general Ollantay, an Inca general who rebelled againt the highest Lord Pachacutec, because of a disagreement over his affection for the Lord’s daughter.. The truth however is more boring – the town was a personal estate of Inca Pachacutec and provided lodging for Inca nobles.


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Urubamba, the Sacred Valley (1)

P1370074The valley of the river Urubamba was a sacred place. It was a fertile valley that gave food to the most cherished man of the empire, Inca himself, the Son of the Sun. Here the crops for the highest social class were cultivated and here was also the centre of the Inca administration.

Nowadays the valley still lives from agriculture, especially from the production of maiz. The Urubamba is a fast growing little town, busy mostly with commerce, crops and tourism. It is touristic but in a less obvious way than Cusco. Whereas Cusco is all set up for the luxury travellers, Urubamba seem to attract more the hippie-type from both Lima and abroad. It became THE place for those you cherish the alternative lifestyle – I have seen both gringos and rich Limeños, who moved here to enjoy the relaxed life and  an afternoon joint.

Urubamba region is also probably the basis to explore the Inca sites around – more quiet and more friendly than Cusco. We stayed in the local house of a friend in Yucay, a little village short ride away from Urubamba. Just a simple house but as I have already seen in Cajamarca – the simple houses in Peru are usually the most hospitable ones.


Local market in Urubamba



In the streets of Yucay


Waiting for a bus..


With Eusébio in his house in Yucay

Cusco, the capital of Incas

Centuries ago Cusco was a sacred place. Legends says it was founded by Manco Cápac and his sister, Mama Cora, who emerged from the waters of the lake Titicaca. The siblings were sent to the earth by Inti (the God of the Sun) to bring the people order and peace. They followed the road deep into the mountains until their golden staff sunk into the ground. This place was the Cusco valley. Some say that the Incas built they city in the shape of puma, the sacred animal. The belly of the puma was the main square of the city, the river its spine and the head was formed by the fortress Sacsayhuaman.

Nowadays, not much is left in Cusco from its old masters. The foundations of the Temple of the Sun, Inticancha (Inti – sun, cancha – enclosed), are still where they used to be. It must have been a breathtaking place, Spanish describe the walls and floors covered by the sheets of gold. Now the visitor can only imagine how it used to look like. The whole complex was destroyed and the conquistadors constructed a catholic church right on top of it. They also change the name to the one better reflecting their ambitions – Coricancha, the ‘golden enclosure’ (cori – gold).

However up in the hills around the Cusco valley one can still get the feeling of how this area used to look like.


Up from the Cusco valley

The area up from Cusco is full of the ancient shrines, carved stones and ruins.

Just a short hike up form Cusco are the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, famous for its monumental stonework. In fact, I was completely amazed by the massive walls and perfectly fitting giant rocks. It looks so advanced and so impressive that the usually admired Spanish churches seem to be just a poor imitation. The walls goes in the zigzag  for about 600m and most of the block still seem untouched by the flow of time. The largest of them weights more than 300 tones, brilliantly designed to fit its neighbours. The massive rocks give the place a look of the fortress, and actually Inca defended themselves here against the Spanish.  But as I learned during this trip, no Inca site is really detached from a spiritual meaning – in Sacsayhuaman the protective walls are arranged in the zigzag, referring to the deity of the lightning and many of the sacred objects seem to point out that the place used to be a spiritual site as well as a fortress.


Sacsayhuaman – fortress or a ceremonial site?

Up from Sacsayhuaman one can find several Inca sites more, all close to the main road that goes to Pisac and easily reachable by a local bus. The furtherest of the sites is Tambo Machay – set in a small lovely valley it shows the Inca’s admiration for water. The place probably used to be a ceremonial site dedicated to water, the set of canals and small streams work until now. P1360589


Look at this huge stone – is it not astonishing how Incas incorporated the natural parts of the landscape in their architecture?

Some minutes down lies Puca Pucara, often called a fortress but more probably an Inca recreation spot. Inca used to stop there with his court to take part in the water ceremonies at Tambo Machay.

But the most surprising sites of all, at least in my opinion, was Qenko, a sacred huaca. For the eyes of the European, who always looks a practical and scientific reason to explain the existence of the things, this place looks just like a bunch of weird shaped stones. That is probably where its name comes from – quenco means a labyrinth and for many it is still not more than a labyrinth. However, on the summer solstice, the 21st of June, the stone undergo a transformation, and shadows take a shape of puma and condor, the sacred Inca animals and the place reveals its cosmological meaning.

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Puma waking up in Qenko on the summer solstice (from the book by Mallku Aribalo)

The true colours of Cusco

I wrote so many negative things about Cusco in my last post, that you might get the impression there is nothing good about the city. Nothing more false than that! If you forget the tourist, leave the centre you find that next to the touristic spectacle the city lives its normal life.

The best moment to see Cusco is … in the rain. The streets get empty, the tourists disappear and for a moment you can feel how this place could have looked like before travellers invaded it.



The market is – as usual – full of the things and people that are the essence of Peru. Talkative ladies selling food, people chatting as they buy fresh cheese or a goat’s head – everything loud, vivid and colourful.

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Culture for sale – the circus of Cusco

I really pity the tourists whose only stop on their way through Peru is Machu Picchu and Cusco. They will get a completely distorted picture of this rich, vibrant country. Because Cusco, so praised and worshipped by many, turned out to be – sadly – a cultural bazaar where everything has a label “For sale” attached to it.

P1360689I walked along the ancient streets, passing the colonial churches and looking at the tourists happily buying another alpaca pullover or drinking another Starbuck’s coffee and I wondered – was I the only one that disliked Cusco? I have to admit – Cusco is beautiful. It has it all: the impressive colonial churches, old mansions, lovely narrow passages of San Blas. But, disappointingly, all this had nothing to do with the peruvian culture I’ve known for the last 6 months. None of the churches had their doors open, you always had to pay, and the lovely street of San Blas were full of trendy hostels and european-style cafes, where a tired tourist can get a muffin and a cup of cappuccino. 


To be honest, nowhere else in Peru have I felt so uncomfortable as in Cusco. Travelling  almost on a peruvian budget you start noticing things that an average US or European tourist does not pay attention to.

– The price of the hotel rises twice the moment the owner sees your blue eyes

– The Peruvians that you see travelling are Limenios that earn 5-10 times more than a school teacher in Cajamarca

– You cannot afford having a coffee in the center of Cusco. Actually, none of the Peruvians can, it costs as much as here in Germany or more.

– You cannot afford most of the restaurants.

– The main square of the city is usually its heart, where all the people sit around and chat. In Cusco the only Peruvians in the square are those that look for their chance to get some money out of gringos.

From above the clouds Inca Pachacutec looks down at this circus.


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Andahuaylas – the depths of Peru

Andahuaylas is out of the main tourist track. Nobody comes or stops here if they are not truly interested in knowing those deep and seemingly boring parts of the country. There is even not a proper road leading to this place. The connection to the main cities of Ayacucho and Abancay is via trocha, the nasty bumpy mountain road. To run the 240km separating Andahuaylas from Ayacucho a bus needs normally over 8h. In our case it was almost 11h!  The rain season has begun and the road already started to deteriorate. Crawling through the mountains, we were passing wet passages one after another, sometimes getting out of the bus to avoid it getting stuck in the mud. Packed into an old crowded vehicle, bouncing on the very last back seat, every minute feeling sicker and sicker (instead of the pills), I just wished this journey to end. I had even no will left to admire the views outside (unusual for me). And the views were beautiful – as all around these wild parts of the Andes.




Andahuaylas itself is a small town – there is basically nothing to do there apart from observing the always colourful and vivid central market. But the locals is proud of two things: Sondor – the ruins of the Chanka people and Laguna Pacucha – a large lake around 30min drive from the town.

Signs along the road advertises Laguna Pacucha as the “Most beautiful lake in Peru”, which is obviously not true. But it is still a nice and quiet spot and a perfect place to have a look at the ‘depths of Peru’, where people still live as they used to 50 years ago. We tried to talk to an old lady who was taking her cows down to the water. Turned out …. she didn’t speak Spanish! Her only language was Quechua, the language of her father, grandfather and grand grandfather. So she just laughed in our face, said something we didn’t understand (there is a chance it was offending – how would we know?) and left. P1360455

Hundreds of years ago this area was inhabited by the Chanka people, at that time the power of Andes. It was a strong and brave nation, famous for being bloody in the battles and scalping their captives.  And the only one that was close to beating the Incas, feared by them so much that the Inca ruler, Viracocha, flew from Cusco when he saw the approaching Chanka army. But in the battle that took place the Chanka were defeated and the Inca imperium started to grow.

The ruins of Sondor are just the rests of the houses and a celebration pyramid. There is not much more than stones left after this powerful nation. P1360403


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Tracing Incas near Ayacucho

We found this place by chance. In the tourist information there was a photo of a temple, perfect stone work, so different from the other ruins we’ve seen around Ayacucho. I got excited immediately: “Where is it?? How do we get there???” .  “It’s an Inca temple in the village called Vilcashuaman, but it is far away from here, four hours on a bumpy road..” – the lady did not sound very enthusiastic..

Next day early morning we were already sitting in the bus on our way to Vilcas, how the locals call it shortly.


The way was indeed long, almost four hours over the sand roads up in the mountains. But it was also amazingly beautiful. The rain season has already started, so the slopes of the mountains were green and the rivers and stream where running down the valleys. Now and then there was a tiny village, no more than several simple clay houses.


Vilcashuaman, the Sacred Hawk, would be just another boring village if not for the fact that it was built on an ancient Inca site. According to chronicles it used to be an Inca administration site, inhabited by some 40000 people, certainly more than live there now. After the place was conquered by the Spanish, the conquistadors built a catholic church directly on top of the temple. Just a step away are the moon temple and the Inca palace. Behind grow contemporary houses. Children play on the sacred walls as if there was nothing special about them. The temples became a part of the village.


It was the first Inca site I saw in Peru and I was completely taken by it. The astonishing stonework, hard rock parts fitting each other like puzzle pieces. Absolutely perfect. Flawless. How did they managed to do it, five centuries ago? Which technique did they use? We simply don’t now. Scientists until now come up with contradicting theories. What a shame that this impressive knowledge has been lost..

P1360033It was a lovely peaceful day – just me and the Inca ruins. Later in Cusco, where every single Inca stone is commercialized and for sale, I realized it was a perfect way for me to make the first acquaintance with this ancient nation.


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