"It's pronounced Sexy Woman," said our guide, referring to
, an impressive
on a hill overlooking
, Peru. It was erected over five centuries ago by the Incas. Smiling, I wandered amongst towering walls made of huge rocks, some weighing more than 100 tonnes. I tried to imagine the religious ceremonies and bloody battles these silent stones had seen.
This fortress is a remnant of the once-mighty Inca Empire, which at its peak in the late 1400s stretched from southern
, about 4,000 km. My goal was to visit a handful of the impressive monuments that dot this stretch.
We descended to
, once the capital of the
Empire. Breathless (elevation is 3,326 m/10,910 ft), I marvelled at the artistry and engineering skills of the Incas as I strolled through
, a temple built for the Sun God Inti. The temple walls and floors were once covered in sheets of gold and the courtyard was filled with gold statues. When Spanish conquistadors led by
arrived in 1553, they were dumbfounded to find such superior metallurgy, elegant architecture and wealth. The Spaniards gutted Cuzco and built the ornate
Santo Domingo Cathedral
and convent. The main square, lined with restaurants, shops, and old buildings with attractive balconies, was bustling. Indigenous women wore colourful shawls and bowler hats.
We drove into the
and, with the snow-capped
glistening in the sun to the east, followed a dirt road to Moray, about 75 km from Cuzco. A series of sinuous terraces are laid out in concentric circles and arcs on a hillside such that they mimic different climatic zones. We watched an archaeological excavation, where a scientist explained that with a temperature difference between the top and bottom of about 15 C°,
was probably an agricultural laboratory used to help develop food for the empire. The Incas, who ate little meat, grew more than 20 varieties of corn and 240 varieties of potatoes.
Our next stop, the nearby
, is renowned as the oldest and most unusual salt mine in the world. It consists of about 2,000 small pools that glisten like a surreal white honeycomb along the valley bottom. Water from a saline-rich stream is directed into the pools where the water evaporates leaving salt, which is shovelled into bags. I was amazed at the simplicity of the operation, which is still "mined" as it was in the Inca days. I dipped my finger into the source stream, barely two feet across and licked the salty fluid. The flow of water is controlled by a man who meanders about, raising and lowering piles of rocks placed like dams in the network of channels.
As we travelled through mountainous country toward Machu Pichu, I was impressed by the administrative skills of the Incas. They constructed an extensive road network including two main roads that ran the length of the empire, one in the highlands and one along the seacoast. All of the travel was by foot, nevertheless, they achieved excellent communication by using a series of trained runners, who carried quipus, bundled knotted, coloured strings that recorded messages.
I stifled a scream as the bus careened around a hairpin turn. I clung on desperately as we dodged down coming buses on our ascent up an absurdly steep mountain to
. But the scare was quickly forgotten as I walked through what Condé Nast magazine considers the world's number one tourist attraction. Stone buildings, temples and terraces, overwhelming in their elegance and size, lay before me arrayed high on the side of a frighteningly precipitous mountainside. This architectural masterpiece is in perfect balance with its surroundings and is also aligned with the sun's orbit. The structures are built of chiselled boulders that fit perfectly without using cement and are extraordinarily stable, an important feature in an earthquake-prone area. Abandoned by the Incas when the Spanish invaded, Machu Pichu was not re-discovered until 1911.
With my back resting against an enormous sun-warmed boulder and the splendour of Machu Pichu laid out before me, I wondered at just how ephemeral life is. The mighty Inca Empire was built in under a century. But it crumbled as the conquistadors' lust for riches led to treachery and cruelty. In a mere decade, they destroyed
one of the most advanced societies in the world.
Now only these amazing, silent stones remain.
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's Parliament Past & Present. He is an environmental consultant.
Peru, officially the Republic of Peru, is a country in western South America. It is bordered in the north by Ecuador and Colombia, in the east by Brazil, in the southeast by Bolivia, in the south by Chile, and in the west by the Pacific Ocean.
Peruvian territory was home to ancient cultures spanning from the Norte Chico civilization, one of the oldest in the world, to the Inca Empire, the largest state in Pre-Columbian America. The Spanish Empire conquered the region in the 16th century and established a Viceroyalty with its capital in Lima, which included most of its South American colonies. After achieving independence in 1821, Peru has undergone periods of political unrest and fiscal crisis as well as periods of stability and economic upswing. Economic cycles have mostly been based on the extraction of raw materials like guano and rubber.
The climate of the coast ranges from warm-semiarid (north of 5°S, and thus very close to the equator) to a climate which is a bit like the Mediterranean climate with an important difference - the winter, although cloudy, cool and very humid, does not have sufficient rainfall to be considered a Köppen C climate.
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