My knowledge of the Incan civilizations prior to our trip was next to non-existent. While I would generally encourage even a working knowledge of local history when travelling, I can’t say that I really did that much research other than trying to ensure that I wouldn’t insult locals or do something culturally insensitive. The one thing my poor preparation ensured was a near-constant stream gained knowledge and learned philosophies of an ancient people that I think had shit more figured out than a lot of us today.
A close second to growing my brain was the face-melting awe of standing before gigantic structures crafted by hand, whose sheer size and unimaginable workmanship is next to impossible to convey. It was precision masonry taken to an otherworldly level.
For sure Macchu Pichu is the crown jewel of Incan archeological achievements but within easy travel distance Cusco are sites equally worthy of a visit: Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Sacsayhuaman, Q’enko, and Tambomachay, to name a few. We were fed tidbits of local knowledge by our guide, Hugo, who reminded us at any opportunity and with great pride that he was a ‘strong highland man’. Hugo went through five years of university to get the degree that allows him to guide and make his living in the tourism industry. In Peru, apparently you can choose in what language and which sector of the tourism industry you want to specialize in. There was no mistaking him for someone who’d taken an 16 hour online course and now professed to be an expert in Llama bloodlines, to be sure. Hugo knows his shit, and he knows a hell of a lot more than what he’s given credit for, given that the most frequent question he encounters is regarding the weather and how long until a destination is reached. It was Hugo who enlightened me to the fact that Peru has over 4,000 species of potatoes. Despite this, he had never heard of a Poutine. Hugo taught me an abridged history of the Incas, and in return I taught him about Poutine.
What I loved most about the Incas were their beliefs regarding time, belongings, community, and respect for the earth and family. They played the long game. There was no currency, instead quantifying great wealth as having an abundance of knowledge. They developed collaborative communities who took pride in their work and belived the best use of their time on earth was to leave it better for the next generation. They payed taxes by giving back: building trail systems or contributing to the construction of things like Macchu Pichu. Casual. They recognized that the earth, ‘Pachamama’, provided for them and as such respected and honoured her. Everyone was considered family, and even today all traditional Quechuan people refer to each others as, ‘sister, brother, mother, father’, even if they’ve never met. Unfortunately what I found to be a charming cultural tradition contributed to the irradiation of the Incas when semantics led the Spaniards to believe it was a civilization of barbarians fraught with sister wives and incest.
One of my favourite things about Peru was the terraced agriculture: layers of rock, gravel, and soil built up on the side of mountains in layers to maximize sun exposure and control erosion and irrigation. The construction of the terraces resulted in the best possible outcome during droughts, warmed sensitive roots of plants, and protected valleys below from flooding; they remain as reminders of the accomplishments of traditional farming in the harsh landscapes of the Andes. During the period of the Incan empire some 500-700 years ago the Sacred Valley is thought to have been one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world. The not quite Paleo-friendly main crops were quinoa, corn, and potatoes, and they developed a method of preservation that I was a bit grossed out about in principle but ensured stores of food could be kept for years. The farmers in the communities would assign agriculture and animal husbandry duties, and in a move mirrored by modern day dreadlocked co-op communes, shared and traded goods, textiles, food, and services. The terraces remain for the most part undisturbed, a testament to the quality and pride of skilled labourers when phones aren’t being checked every three minutes for a Facebook update. The workers considered it an honour to contribute their skills and time towards something that would make the lives of their children better.
The Incan civilization expanded out from Cusco to an area that spanned parts of what is now Columbia, Ecuador, Boliva, Chile, and Argentina, but Cusco was the centre of the universe for them. It was the astrological mecca and home to palaces of the rulers. In the centre of the city you find the temple of Koricancha (temple of the sun), which was once literally a glittering palace of gold. In my super abridged and potentially inaccurate version of Incan history, the civilization was conquered by the Spanish in 1532, when 180 Spaniards decimated a population of about 20,000 Incas and proceeded to squelch Andean culture using Catholic iconography and by twisting Incan symbolism to convert everyone to Catholicism. Incan ruins were converted to Catholic churches, mostly by just building right on top of them. Earthquakes have led to the unveiling of many Incan ruins in Cusco; as recently as 1990 unveiling new sections of Koricancha. The result is an interesting collision of Andean and Western European architecture. Cusco is rad and there is really amazing food at every turn. I could have easily spent a few weeks there. The people are so polite, really proud of their history and super friendly. There are llamas everywhere; there are also some lambs that people are trying to pass of as llamas. Also, don’t let the presentation of a fully intact family pet turn you off; eat the Guinea Pig, it’s actually delicious.