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?

cajamarca and around

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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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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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)

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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Mochica, Chimu and the conquistadors

Hundreds of years ago, the area around the river Moche, that now looks like a desert, was a flourishing valley. From the name of this river, the people that lived there 600 years ago are called Mochica.

Cultura Mochica was at its peak around 500-600 AD. At that time, when a great part of Europe was just a bunch of wooden huts, the Mochica constructed sacred pyramids, covered by colorful paintings and sculptures. Spiders, dragons, warriors and magic animals were looking at the people asthey were coming to the huaca to praise their god Ai-Apaec . In the heart of the pyramid, on the highest platform, the priest performed human sacrifices to assure the bright future of the community.

The ruins of the Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna are still there, in the valley close to the city of Trujillo. Apart from the huacas, Mochicas left after themselves amazing collection of textiles and ceramics, that captures every detail of their lives.

Several hundred years after the Mochica, around 1100 AD, on northern cost of Trujillo appeared another empire: the Chimu. Chimu built their cities elaborately planned, brightly painted and decorated. Their capital Chan Chan had as many as 30000 habitants and was one of the largest pre-Columbian cities in South America and the largest city in the world made of of clay. The legend says, the city itself was founded by a deity called Chan Chan, a dragon who made the sun and the moon, and whose manifestation is the rainbow.

The Chimu met their end with the beginning of the Inca empire, when the Inca army cut the water supply to the city of Chan Chan. Sixty years later, when the Spaniards were crossing the coast, they found only a deserted ghost city full of dust and legend…

Spanish founded in the area their own city – Trujillo. Now it is the third largest city of Peru, after Lima and Arequipa, still famous for its colonial architecture.

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The Smiling God of Chavín de Huantar

Before going for the next mountain trip I decided to take some rest and see a famous archeologic site next to Huaraz – Chavín the Huantar. The Chavín Cult is probably the oldest civilization in Perú and parts of it are still a mystery. The most characteristic of the Chavín culture are monoliths and stone curvings, showing a whole range of forest animals – birds of prey, lizards, snakes, and mythical creatures, half human half animal. A remarkable amount of the animals are the ones of the jungle, meaning that the people of the selva, sierra and costa regions of Perú were in contact already over 2000 years ago! It is almost sure that the Chavín religion involved human transformations, induced by halucinogenic drugs (like a San Pedro cacti – a traditional shamanic plant in Perú). On many carvings one can actually see the motive of the human transforming into a jaguar, emphesizing the complex relationship between a shaman and jaguar, so typical for many American cultures.

Chavín the Huantar itself, dating almost 2500 years back, is one of the oldest sites in the Americas and used to be a central pilgrimage place and a great oracle. The buldings inside are a labirinth of passages, corridors and small rooms. In the center of the Old Temple awaits the Smiling God of Chavín, the Lanzón. It’s a humanoid figure, with its eyes gazing upwards and a smiling feline mouth. What did it really represents? That is still unknown and probably will remain a mystery forever…

Walking around the temple, I kept thinking how extraordinary and fascinating place must have been. What did those people really cherish? Who did they give their praises to? Why was it so appealing to the population to spread thousands of kilometers around without wars, guns or violence? The art, the carvings are still strange, exotic, dramatic.. The Lanzón with its secret smile is curiously absorbing, awaking some unknown feelings. The power and inspiration, surely so much stronger 2000 years ago, are still present.

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Pre-Columbian Lima

Chasing the traces of the ancient civilizations in and around Lima, I visited a couple of archeological sites and museums.

In the center of the modern district of Lima, Miraflores, rises the Huaca Pucllana, an ancient religious and administration center. Although surrounded by tall contemporary buildings, it still impresses with its size, especially considering that a large part of the place used to extend far beyond the area it covers now. 

The largest religious center around Lima was Pachacamac, a huge archeological site around 1h by bus away from the city (getting there by public transport is an adventure in itself!). The archeologists identified here 17 pyramids, the main being the Temple of the Sun build by the Inca. Sadly, if you are not and archeologist, you can hardly distinguish the buildings from the sandy background. The Pachacamac, translated as an Earth-Maker (Pacha means Earth or World), was the God of the Earthquakes, feared by the whole population in the area.

The ceramics found the museums in Lima are truely fascinating! The depict all the details of the ancient life in Peru: the plants, the animals, the everyday work of the people. And I mean ALL the details – in case you ever wondered how prudish were the pre-Columbian civilizations about their sex-life, take a look at one of the pictures below…

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