Although Cusco contains numerous colonial churches and palaces, plus two or three worthwhile museums, the city has two primary attractions: the Coricancha, which contained the Inca Temple of the Sun (now contained within the church of Santo Domingo), and Sacsayhuaman, the immense fortress and ceremonial center that the Incas constructed on a plateau overlooking the city.
As Cusco now receives more than 2 million visitors a year, both sites are often deluged with tourists. So on arrival at the Belmond Palacio Nazarenas hotel, I asked my guide how it might be possible to escape the hordes and experience the ruins in relative solitude, surrounded only by the ghosts of their former occupants. “You have to get up early,” he replied. “So how early is early?” I inquired, imagining a 4 a.m. wake-up call. “Sacsayhuaman opens at 7 a.m.” Frankly, this civilized hour seemed too good to be true.
The following morning we arrived at Sacsayhuaman on schedule. To my surprise, there was no one waiting at the ticket office, so having paid for admission and signed the visitors’ book, we wandered onto the huge grass-covered plaza, where the Inti Raymi winter solstice festival is still held every June, attended by tens of thousands of spectators. To my amazement, at 7:05 we were entirely alone.
The fortress stands at an elevation of 12,142 feet overlooking Cusco and was believed to be constructed in the 15th century. It was built of enormous irregular blocks of andesite, some of which weigh up to 200 tons. These were fitted together without mortar, and 600 years and numerous earthquakes later it is still impossible to slide a sheet of paper between the stones. After the Spanish conquest, Sacsayhuaman was used as a quarry, so today only the blocks that were too heavy to move remain undisturbed. These form three terrace walls, the most imposing of which is nearly 30 feet tall and approximately a quarter of a mile long.
Although the sun was already quite high in the sky, the light was still rich and golden as we strolled across the plaza to follow the line of the walls. A keen mountain wind gusted intermittently, buffeting a pair of circling vultures. Without distraction or interruption, my imagination could vault the intervening centuries and, not for the first time, I experienced an intense and familiar mixture of admiration and sadness: for the Incas’ extraordinary accomplishments and their culture’s brutal demise. An hour later, we headed to the exit. Just as we were about to get into our car, a bus pulled up in the parking lot and the day’s first tourists, aside from ourselves, clambered out.
Built at the beginning of the 12th century, the Coricancha is located close to the center of the Old Town of Cusco. At one time it was the focal point of the Inca empire. The most important part of the complex was the Temple of the Sun, dedicated to the sun god, Inti. Its interior and exterior walls were covered in sheets of beaten gold. There were, reportedly, 700 of these, each around five square feet and weighing over four pounds. A giant gold disc reflected sunlight into the rest of the temple and was so aligned that during the summer solstice it irradiated an area in which only the emperor was allowed to sit. When the Spanish conquistadores required a ransom in gold for the life of the emperor Atahualpa, most of it came from the Coricancha. Notoriously, the ransom was delivered and they killed their captive regardless.
As we left Sacsayhuaman, my guide said that the Coricancha opened at 8:30 and that perhaps we should postpone breakfast and head down there. Once again, we arrived to find ourselves first in the queue. In fact, we had to thump on the door to gain admittance. Most of the Coricancha was demolished by the conquistadores, who built the church of Santo Domingo on its foundations. However, some fine sections of Inca masonry survive, as well as an impressive curved retaining wall at the edge of the complex. Being the first people to visit the site that day, we enjoyed a kind of privileged access. But by the time we’d made our way back to the entrance, at least a dozen tour buses had off-loaded their occupants, and the magic, like early morning mist, had evaporated.