Date Traveled, August 2013
Saqsayhuaman is the Inca complex on top of a hill which overlooks the city of Cusco. It used to be a fortress in Inca times when Cusco was the capital of the empire but the complex was mostly dismantled by the Spaniards who used it as a source of stone for their buildings in Cusco. Today the most impressive remnants of Saqsayhuaman are its massive and imposing terrace walls, a fine legacy to the architectural skills of the Incas.
Saqsayhuaman, or sexy woman as it is often fondly referred to by tourists, was the first Inca site we visited. It is probably the most visited attraction for visitors to Cusco after the central plaza de armas. In fact the site is a half hour climb from the plaza if you are up for it. In our case, we had just flown directly into Cusco from sea level New York and were experiencing first hand the effects of high altitude air or the lack of it. We could feel it just walking around but we had to climb a hill to reach our place of stay, Loki Hostel, a feat that left our hearts pounding and gave us serious doubts about being able to do the Inca trail in two days! We got acclimatized by then but the altitude did not make it easier.
Massive surviving Inca walls
Cusco from the top of Saqsayhuaman
Reenactments of Inca festivals take place in this wide area at certain dates
More about the trail later, for now the four of us in our group who had made it to Cusco earliest knew climbing it was out of the question for us and decided to share a taxi to the site. Armed with our Buleto Turisticos or tourist passes that granted us access to many sites in and around Cusco, we negotiated a ride to Saqsayhuaman for 10 soles which we thought was fair. We had our first experience of driving through the mountainous roads of Peru which can be a little scary to put it mildly given the combination of poor and narrow roads, chaotic driving habits and flimsy to non existent barriers overlooking sheer drops. But the scenery more than makes up for the risks associated. It was the first of many enjoyable rides we would be taking around Cusco and the Sacred Valley and short though it was, we enjoyed it. We were dropped off at one of the entrances all the way at the top of hill and after getting our buleto turistico stamped, we started our long tour of the site. Saqsayhuaman is situated at a height of 3700m a bit higher than Cusco. We arrived early in the afternoon after a nice lunch at one of the restaurants near the plaza and the site was relatively empty but the crowds would pick up a lot later by evening which I am guessing is the most popular time to visit. It was a rainy cloudy day but luckily for us it did not rain the whole time we were there. The walls are massive and imposing, magnificent to watch. The stones that make up the surviving walls are huge and it must have been quite a feat bringing those all the way up there to construct the fortress. Indeed the only stones still there are the ones that were too big to be hauled away for the new city being built by the Spaniards. Overlooking the city and surrounding valley, the walls are truly an awesome sight to behold together with the rest of the views. Something not easily captured by the pictures. I actually wasn't expecting to be impressed after having seen the pictures but believe me when I tell you that they don't do enough justice to the experience.
The layout consists of two sets of surviving constructions, a set of terrace walls each one higher than the other overlooking the city in a gradually sloping mound on one end, and another slightly taller mound with a warren of tunnel passages behind. In between is a wide plaza where there are re enactments of Inca festivals like Inti Raymi for the sun. Unfortunately there weren't any while we were there but that also meant it was far less crowded. The walls stretch out for almost half a kilometer I believe.
A romantic moment
The view of back from the top level of the main walls
The walls stretch for about half a kilometer
The rocky plaza area at the back of the complex
We first made our way along the walls that overlook the city to the other end where there are entrances to let you go up to the top and explore the walls along the way. We took a leisurely tour of the site all the way to the top and very edge of the hill with unobstructed views of Cusco and the surrounding hills and valley. We could also see the San Cristobal, the statue of Christ overlooking Cusco a little further away from Saqsayhuaman. It is possible to visit that as well afterwards if you are interested. This section is definitely more impressive and makes for great pictures. However the area behind is probably more interesting. You have the best views of Saqsayhuaman's walls from the top of the mound behind. It is worth making the trip to the that section for that alone. But the area is full of passageways, tunnels and such that give a hint of what the fortress must have been like before it was dismantled.
There were two places of particular interest to me here, the rock slides are one of them, smoothed parts of the remaining rocks that resemble a slide and which you can slide down if you want. Just don't expect it to be as smooth as a real slide. By the time we got here, it was evening and there were a lot of local Peruvian families visiting. The slides were very popular with the kids who would push and drag themselves down the rock slides with glee. The other section which is interesting is the arena. Its this open expanse with a few chairs carved out in the rocks like thrones. Good for pictures and there are hardly any people who bother visiting this far back in the site, so you have the place to yourself.
We walked downhill back to Cusco
We spent a good two or more hours walking around Saqsayhuaman and it was well into the evening by the time we decided to leave. We decided to walk back to Cusco this time and took the path that led through the outer alleys of the city. I just wouldn't do that in the dark, but it was a great experience seeing the side of Cusco away from the areas catering to the many tourists and exploring the narrow streets and getting glimpses of homes and schools and life in general in Cusco. All in all a nice time. Don't miss Saqsayhuaman when you visit Cusco and don't miss the walk downhill if you cannot walk it up.