Colourful Cusco is known as the Historic Capital of Peru and the centre of the Incan empire (all roads led to and from here). It was the imperial city of the Incas from the 13th century up until the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century and today is one of the most popular cities to visit on a Peruvian adventure.
As well as being known for its imperial past, Cusco is famous for its altitude. The city sits at a breathtaking – literally – 3,400m, which makes it a tough spot to start your trip as it can take a good few days to acclimatise. Because of this we chose Cusco as the final destination on our Machu Picchu Tour. Given how many Incan sites we had visited already on our holiday (this, this, this, this and of course this!) I wasn’t sure how my children would react to yet another tour and four more sites! Fortunately, however, they loved it; the great outdoors, the gory stories and legends, the amazing views and, of course, the alpacas!
The following four sites can all be accessed by foot from the centre of Cusco but the walk is not an easy one, particularly at this altitude. Given that we were travelling with 7- and 6-year olds, we chose to hire a car and driver, which worked out very well.
Our tour began at Tambomachay (loosely translated as “hidden place”), an Incan site which some believe was once a spa….. or a water temple… or defensive post. Like many Incan sites there is much speculation as to its original purpose, but no one really knows for sure! Here, water flows from a spring at the top of the hill down through a series of channels and aqueducts, from one level to the next. Incredibly the stream of water has always remained consistent and never run dry. Apparently Cusqueña beer (the local brand), gets their water from here. It’s a very peaceful spot and the kids played in the stream while we lay on the grass and listened to the sound of trickling water.
Puca Pucara (or Puka Pukara)
Just a few minutes away from Tambomachay sits Puca Pucara, a military outpost once used to defend Cusco and the Incan Empire. Also known as the Red Fortress, owing to the reddish colour of its rocks, this site occupies one of the most beautiful spots with simply incredible views. That’s the thing with Incan ruins, just when you think you’ve seen the “best” one, you visit another that is equally mind-blowing.
Interestingly, the walls here are built using irregular shaped rocks in what our guide described as something of a slapdash manner, lacking the uniformity of many of the other sites in the area. This has led some historians to theorise that Puca Pucara was built in something of a rush. In any case, we loved this site; the kids ran around and then lay on their backs spotting shapes in the clouds. It was truly magical.
Q’inqu (or Qenko or Quenco)
Q’ingqu – meaning ‘zigzag’ or ‘labyrinth’ in Quechua – sits some 6km northeast of Cusco and was the third stop on our tour. This is one of the largest holy places in the region where religious ceremonies, sacrifices and mummification took place. The temple is carved out of a huge rock and tunnels and passageways run throughout the site. It’s thought that this maze-like structure is where the site got its name from, that or the zigzag channels that are carved into the rock. Our guide explained that Incan priests used to pour llama blood (usually that of a black llama) into the channels as part of a ritual to determine how next year’s crop would perform. Our children were horrified! We neglected to tell them that child sacrifices most likely took place here as well.
Sacsayhuaman (or Saksayhuaman)
The last stop of the tour was also my favourite. Sacsayhuaman (which sounds rather like ‘sexy woman’, a joke that you hear every tour guide sharing at the site’s entrance) is a walled complex that sits high above Cusco. Sacsayhuaman was thought to have been a religious complex during Incan times although its elevated position also meant that it was well placed to defend the city.
Sacasayhuaman is renowned for being an example of incredible Incan engineering and although only the outer walls of the original city remain today – the Spaniards carried off much of the stonework for their own building projects – what is left is still amazing. Humungous limestone boulders form the walls or ramparts of the site – the largest boulder weighs about 70 tons! – and made us feel like we were Gulliver in Brobdingnag. These rocks were brought from a quarry called Sisicancha, 3km away, although no-one knows how they were transported (the Spaniards thought it must be the work of spirits). The walls are constructed without mortar or cement and yet the stones fit so beautifully together that it’s impossible to even slide a blade of grass between them. It’s almost as if the stones were made of Playdough.
You can walk to Sacasayhuaman from the centre of Cusco in about an hour, but given the altitude (at 3,701m it’s 1,300m higher than Machu Picchu!) and the steep climb, I recommend taking a car, particularly if you have kids.
The Incas would often incorporate flowers and animals into their stone formations. To keep our children engaged, our guide asked them to find the flower, the llama and the snake. It took some time!
After a steady climb to the top of the hill we were rewarded with what must be the best views of Cusco. Cameras at the ready…
I later discovered (but only after leaving Sacsayhuaman) that there are rock slides behind the main ruins. Our guide did not mention these during our visit, possibly for conservation reasons but most likely because she thought them too dangerous for our kids. I found lots of videos of these slides on YouTube, including the one below. Would you be brave enough?!
Above: Video by Tim sliding down the rocks at Sacsayhuaman.
As we were leaving Sacsayhuaman, my daughter spotted a pack of alpacas and bolted in their direction for one last chinwag.
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