The soul is immortal. This is what the ancient Incas believed. When a person’s body dies, it’s not the end of their life but a new beginning, a transition from one realm of existence to another in a sort of spiritual journey. The Incas believed the dead could hear them, so they took good care of their dead and brought offerings to the tombs, things the dead had loved or valued in life.
Although the Spanish conquered Cusco long ago, today’s Andeans still hold onto many of the Incan customs, including how they deal with their dead. At Cusco’s Almudena Cemetery, built in 1845, Christian precepts and symbols intertwine with ancient Incan practices. Here, as in Christian cemeteries around the world, crosses stand sentry and statues of angels hover over neoclassical marble mausoleums. But Andeans have a unique way of honoring their dead. First of all, they don’t bury bodies under the ground, but inter them above ground in mausoleums. That’s not so unique.
Here’s the unique part. Like their Inca ancestors, Andeans believe the dead still eat and drink as they did in life, so each coffin in a mausoleum has a glass-enclosed compartment in front of it where loved ones of the deceased leave gifts, such as bottles of beer, religious icons, flowers, dolls, photos, miniature cars, food and other meaningful articles. The cemetery is filled with rows and rows of these windows, each one special, each hinting at the proclivities of the deceased interred there. Their souls are not forgotten. Loved ones visit often to pay tribute to the departed and to show their devotion with new offerings.
This was only one of many things I was beginning to understand about how the ancient Incan culture still influences the people of the Andean region. On our last day in Peru, we traveled to four important sacred sites in the southern Peruvian highlands 1500 feet above Cusco. The drive gave me time to reflect on the things I’d learned about the Incas. I felt humbled, even saddened, by the history of these amazing people.
As our bus wound from the valley up a narrow road, I studied the unfinished mud brick houses that clung to the steep hillside. Their terracotta roofs sagged. By the roadside, stray dogs fed on garbage from torn plastic garbage bags. Masses of tangled electrical wires with dangling ends hinted at a culture that struggled to be part of a modern world.
At the top of the hill, we emerged from the gravity of urban struggle into an ethereal land, a place where Incas had stood proud over their glorious empire and whose spirits still preside over many Andeans. This is where the Inca sun god Inti sent his children to build an empire in these mountains. This was the belly button of the Inca universe.
The Incas believed that natural elements, such as fire and water, were gods. Water was a key factor in Incan worship, and Pariacaca, the Inca water god, was one of their most idolized deities. The Incas were instrumental in creating elaborate water systems to control the flow of water.
Tambomachay, “temple of water”, is an Inca archaeological site nestled in the embrace of a hillside above Cusco. It’s a fascinating complex, powerful in the simplicity of its design and the way it integrates into its natural surroundings. Spring water flows for miles through underground aqueducts deep in the mountains and emerges into the site’s terraced stone canals and fountains. No one knows the water source or how the Incas accomplished this engineering feat, but centuries later, the water still flows.
Little is known about the purpose of this beautiful site. Popularly known as “bath of the Inca” (El Bano del Inca), it may have been a spa resort for elite Incas or a military outpost. More likely, however, it was a place of worship, built to pay tribute to water as a life force. Telltale trapezoidal niches carved into the stone of one of the remaining walls probably served as altars to hold sacred huacas offered to Pariacaca.
The focal point of Tambomachay is two aqueducts that funnel water into a sacred pool where Incas once worshipped the water. It’s still used by shamans today. Our guide Adriel, who is a shaman, comes to this place at night to worship when the moon is full.
The area around these fountains is roped off, because tourists have disrespected the site by playing in the water. Adriel encouraged those of us who wanted to cleanse ourselves in this sacred water to step over the rope and put our hands in the stream. Only two of us did. The water was icy, but felt wonderful. I said a silent prayer as the water ran over my forearms.
A park official approached. We rushed back to the other side of the rope, but she saw us and scolded Adriel. He explained that we wanted to touch the water for spiritual purposes. She calmed down.
Our visit to this magical place was way too brief. I wanted to stay longer, as I was beginning to feel a connection, but we had another sacred site to visit, one with a dark history.
The Quechua word Q’enqo means labyrinth, a fitting name for the network of caves where Incas performed ritual sacrifices. When the Spanish came to conquer the Incas, the Incas led the invaders into this labyrinth of caves to be lost forever in its confusing passages. But the Spanish conquistadors kept coming and eventually defeated the Inca. They looted and destroyed much of Q’enqo. What remains are the ruins of semicircular stone terraces thought to have formed an amphitheater for sacred gatherings.
Beyond the amphitheater, one can see the entrance to a cave in which animal (mainly llamas) and sometimes human sacrifices were performed. Inside the narrow passage, the “chamber of the dead” was carved from one gigantic rock. I laid my arms across the carved stone platform on which sacrificial rituals took place. It was cold, even on this hot day.
From this site on Socorro hill, you have a beautiful view of Cusco in the valley below, particularly as you exit the cave on the far end and make your way to the tour bus parking area. As I approached our bus, I spotted a man dressed as an Inca warrior. Although this kind of thing is fun for some tourists, it made me sad, even embarrassed. It didn’t feel authentic, but merely a show for tourists rather than a way to educate us or celebrate the Inca culture.
On our way to the final sacred site, we stopped briefly by the roadside to view the remains of a fortress set at the foot of a hill in a nearby field. Pukapukara means “red fortress” in Quechua, so named because of the red color of the surrounding soil. Located on the road that is the gateway to P’isaq in the Sacred Valley, Pukapukara is thought to have been a military outpost with residential quarters and a food storeroom.
A Peruvian vendor here took advantage of the tourist stop and offered handcrafted items for sale at very reasonable prices. I bought a pretty hand-painted wood game box for just a few dollars.
Qurikancha (Temple of the Sun) in Cusco was the most important religious site of the Incas, but there were many sites dedicated to sun worship in the Inca Empire. Probably the most impressive of these is Sacsayhuaman, located on the northern slope above Cusco. If you’re wondering how to pronounce this Quechua name, it sounds something like “sexy woman.”
Sacsayhuaman was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Although it’s often referred to as a fortress, Cusco residents know from their ancestors that this place was the Royal House of the Sun, the former capital of the Inca Empire and a place to worship the sun god Inti. The original city of Cusco was designed in the shape of a Puma, a sacred animal, and Sacsayhuaman was the head of the puma. If you view the site from the air, you’ll see that it’s shaped like a puma’s head. Anthropologists believe the Incas built Sacsayhuaman around 1200 AD on top of existing Killke structures originated in 1100. The plaza, which is now covered with grass, would have been large enough to hold thousands of people.
The site is an architectural and engineering marvel. Enormous boulders form three massive terrace walls that zig-zag along one side of the complex. These walls are made of huge blocks of Andesite stone cut to fit together without any mortar. The precision with which they were dry-fitted together in interlocking shapes is impressive. As in many Inca structures, the walls are angled inward in a technique that was believed to make the structure more stable. Perhaps this is why Inca sites have survived numerous earthquakes over the centuries.
Sacsayhuaman’s position above Cusco indicates it may have been a fortress as well as a place of worship. The Spanish conquistadors knew that controlling this site was critical to controlling the region. They laid siege to Sacsayhuaman, slaughtered the Incas and conquered Cusco. As a final punishment to the surviving Incas, the Spaniards desecrated Sacsayhuaman and took tons of stone from it to construct government and religious buildings in Cusco. Fortunately, many of the stones were so enormous, some weighing over 100 tons, they were impossible to move, so much of the site remains intact.
Peruvians still use Sacsayhuaman for various festivals, such as Inti Raymi, an annual celebration of the winter solstice and New Year, and Warachikuy, a rite of passage for youths of the nobility. The large field is also used for athletic activities.
Thousands of Incas were slaughtered in this field, their bodies left unburied to be eaten by condors. People who have visited the Gettysburg Civil War battle site say they can sense the ghosts of those who died there. They say the feeling isn’t friendly, but threatening.
Unlike Gettysburg, the feeling I had in Sacsayhuaman was like a warm embrace. When Adriel asked me what I thought of the place, I said it was powerful. I could feel a connection to the souls of those who had lived and died there centuries ago. I mentioned that I have Native American heritage on both sides of my family. To what degree, I don’t know. I have no tribal affiliation and don’t even know to what tribe or tribes I belong. But still, it’s in my blood. Adriel simply said, “Welcome home.” Tears welled in my eyes. It did feel like home. I had found a piece of the puzzle called home.