Saksaywaman is a walled complex on the northern outskirts of the city of Cusco, Peru, the former capital of the Inca Empire. Like many Inca constructions, the complex is made of large polished dry stone walls, with boulders carefully cut to fit together tightly withoutmortar.
The site, at an altitude of 3,701 m, was added as part of the city of Cusco to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983.
Located on a steep hill that overlooks the city, it contains an impressive view of the valley to the southeast. Surface collections of pottery at Saksaywaman indicate that the earliest occupation of the hill top dates back at least a millennium.
Tupac Inca “remembered that his father Pachacuti had called city of Cusco the lion city. He said that the tail was where the two rivers unite which flow through it, that the body was the great square and the houses round it, and that the head was wanting.” The Inca decided the “best head would be to make a fortress on a high plateau to the north of the city.”
After the Battle of Cajamarca, Francisco Pizarro sent Martin Bueno and two other Spaniards to bring the gold and silver from the Temple of Coricancha. They found the Temple of the Sun “covered with plates of gold”, which they ordered removed in payment for Atahualpa’s ransom. Seven hundred plates were removed, joining two hundred cargas of gold transported back to Cajamarca. The royal mummies, draped in robes, and seated in gold embossed chairs, were left alone. However, while desecrating the temple, Pizarro’s three men also defiled the Virgins of the Sun.
After Francisco Pizarro finally entered Cusco, Pedro Pizarro stated, “on top of a hill they had a very strong fort surrounded with masonry walls of stones and having two very high round towers. And in the lower part of this wall there were stones so large and thick that it seemed impossible that human hands could have set them in place…they were so close together, and so well fitted, that the point of a pin could not have been inserted in one of the joints. The whole fortress was built up in terraces and flat spaces.” The numerous rooms were “filled with arms, lances, arrows, darts, clubs, bucklers and large oblong shields…there were many morions…there were also…certain stretchers in which the Lords travelled, as in litters.”
Because of its location high above Cusco and its immense terrace walls, this area of Saksaywaman is frequently referred to as a fortress. The importance of its military functions was highlighted in 1536 when Manco Inca lay siege to Cusco. Much of the fighting occurred in and around Saksaywaman as it was critical for maintaining control over the city. It is clear from descriptions of the siege, as well as from excavations at the site, that there were towers on its summit as well as a series of other buildings. For example Pedro Sancho, who visited the complex before the siege, mentions the labyrinth-like quality of the complex and the fact that it held a great number of storage rooms filled with a wide variety of items. He also notes that there were buildings with large windows that looked over the city. These structures, like so much of the site, have long since been destroyed.
The large plaza area, capable of holding thousands of people, is well designed for ceremonial activities and several of the large structures at the site may also have been used during rituals. A similar relationship to that between Cusco and Saksaywaman was replicated by the Incas in their distant colony of where Santiago, Chile now lies, with an Inca settlement that predated the city and the ritual site of Huaca de Chena. It is also clear from early accounts that the complex held a great number of storage rooms. Pedro Pizarro described storage rooms that were within the complex and which were filled with military equipment.
The best-known zone of Saksaywaman includes its great plaza and its adjacent three massive terrace walls. The stones used in the construction of these terraces are among the largest used in any building in prehispanic America and display a precision of fitting that is unmatched in the Americas. The stones are so closely spaced that a single piece of paper will not fit between many of the stones. This precision, combined with the rounded corners of the blocks, the variety of their interlocking shapes, and the way the walls lean inward, is thought to have helped the ruins survive devastating earthquakes in Cusco. The longest of three walls is about 400 meters. They are about 6 meters tall. The estimated volume of stone is over 6,000 cubic meters. Estimates for the weight of the largest Andesite block vary from 128 tonnes to almost 200 tonnes.
Following the siege of Cusco, the Spaniards began to use Saksaywaman as a source of stones for building Spanish Cusco and within a few years much of the complex was demolished. The site was destroyed block-by-block to build the new governmental and religious buildings of the city, as well as the houses of the wealthiest Spaniards. Today, only the stones that were too large to be easily moved remain at the site.
On 13 March 2008, archaeologists discovered additional ruins at the periphery of Saksaywaman. They are believed to have been built by the Killke culture, and while clearly ceremonial in nature, the exact function remains unknown. This culture built structures and occupied the site for hundreds of years before the Inca, between 900 and 1200 AD.
Touristic ticket for Saksaywaman
Admission is with Boleto Turístico (S/ 130) which you can buy at this very site, it includes also several other attractions. Visits are from 7am to 6pm. Night sightseeing is no longer permitted.
One way or the other, you will recognize that Sacsayhuaman is worth not only a look but a in-depth sightseeing of at least one hour and even much more.
How to get to Saksaywaman
By taxi or bus:
It is just 10-minute taxi ride from the town center and the rate is about S/10 (approx US$4).
You can also get taking the local “combi” with the name on the roof or sideways “Cristo Blanco” or “Señor del Huerto” (the fee is S/0.60). Ask directions to the bus station at your hotel´s frontdesk officer as it is not around the center.
It’s a steep hike, but is also very rewarding to get to the place after such effort.
It will take you about 50 minutes to reach this site passing by the Plaza Nazarenas and following Pumacurco street and up the steep ancient Inca trail.
At both entrances you will find guides who charge about S/30 for a 45-minute tour for up to four people.
Find directions here.