Cusco is Peru’s most visited city due to its proximity to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. While most people just spend a few days here either side of their tour, there is a lot to gain from giving this city more of your time. One of the main reasons for staying longer in Cusco is so that you can devote a day to visiting the spectacular ruins of Sacsayhuaman, which sit on a hill overlooking the city and according to the Peruvian chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, was “the greatest architectural work that the Incas built”, quite the statement given the competition.
This incredible collection of ruins of an ancient Incan fortress is guaranteed to take your breath away – and not just because they sit at 12,000 feet above sea level. The giant monolithic walls are incomparable to anything you will have ever seen – Sacsayhuaman was built with huge stones measuring up to 5 meters high and 2.5 meters wide and weighing between 90 and 125 tons – and its history will both fascinate visitors and give them a better understanding of Machu Picchu’s own history.
Sacsayhuaman in Quechua translates to “the place where the hawk is satiated”, and indeed many can be seen hovering above the site. It was constructed during the reign of Pachacuti (1438-1471 CE) using more than 20,000 laborers from conquered tribes, and its imposing zig-zagging walls have led to the consensus it was used built as a fortress, although there are some who argue it could have been used as a ceremonial center.
The huge blocks used in its construction were shaped by the skilled Incan stonemasons using harder stones and bronze tools, often pounding them into shape without the need for cutting. As expert architects, the Incas sought inspiration from – and harmony with – the surrounding natural landscape, and Sacsayhuaman is no exception, its remarkable outline built to mimic the contours of the mountain range behind it. This is particularly evident when the sun creates deep triangular shadows between the zigzagging terraces in exactly the same way the peaks and valleys of the mountains behind do.
When the Spanish conquerors arrived in Peru, they largely destroyed the ruins and used it as a quarry, recycling many of the stones for use elsewhere in the colonial buildings of Cusco (this means today the towers that once stood here are no longer visible, but the bases of them still remain, as do the walls that defended the area). It was later covered with earth to prevent rebel Inca forces from using it, and forgotten.
The site was (re)discovered in 1934 and excavated, and in 1983, Sacsayhuaman and the city of Cusco were added together to the UNESCO World Heritage list. Today the fortress is the spectacular setting for the annual reenactment of the ancient Incan Inti Raymi festival.
We recommend visiting the ruins with one of our guides, that way the entrance ticket and transportation to the ruins is taken care of for you. If you want to venture out on your own, the Sacsayhuaman Ruins are easy to access from Cusco, but be prepared for a bit of a hike to get there.
From the city center, you will need to follow the road up. There are signs that will point you in the right direction, but as long as you are walking at an upwards incline you will be going in the right direction. The walk to the ruins takes some time and due to the altitude, you are likely to feel out of breath very quickly. Take your time and stop regularly to catch your breath and admire the views of Cusco spread out beneath you. If it gets too much for you, there are horses for rent that will carry you the rest of the way. Alternatively, there are colectivos (shared minivans) and taxis that will take you up to the ruins for a few dollars.
When you arrive you will need to buy an entry ticket for 130 soles ($46). This may seem pretty steep, but the ticket also grants you entry to three other ruin sites and is valid for ten days after purchase.
If you have finished looking at the ruins and want a bit more history before you head back down to the city, walk a few meters and have your photo taken with Cristo Blanco (White Christ). This is Cusco’s version of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer and it sits overlooking the city. The statue itself is impressive, but even better are the aerial views of the entirety of Cusco.
Visiting the fortress of Sacsayhuaman can easily become the highlight of your trip to Peru thanks to its fascinating history, monolithic walls and the spectacular views from Cusco from it. If you can, be sure to visit during Cusco’s Inti Raymi festival, one of the largest festivals in all of South America.
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