On our first day in Cusco, we explored some of the many Inca sites in the area. Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire when Peru was invaded by a small band of Spaniards in 1526. The Incas ruled an empire that extended thousands of miles, encompassing parts of modern-day Argentina, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile. Cusco – or its proper Quechua name of Q’osqo – means navel. The city was the center of the world to the Andean peoples. The Incas ruled more than 10 million inhabitants from 1438 to 1533. The Spaniards were able to bring down this immense and well-organized empire because it was weakened by European diseases, civil war and indigenous groups that sided with the Spaniards over their Inca lords.
The first stop of our day was the Inca citadel of Saqsayhuaman, on a hillside above the city center. The Spanish mistook the gigantic zig-zag walls and the towers as a fortress, but archeologists believe it was an administrative and religious center. The Inca capital was built in the sacred shape of a puma, and Saqsayhuaman was part of the puma’s head. Our terrific guide, Salvador Yabar Cornejo, let us play like the Incas played – sliding down grooves in the rocks polished smooth by centuries of use.
We went on to visit Tambomachay, a holy spring, and Pukapukara, a rest stop and military checkpoint during Inca times. Both were places where the Inca emperor sometimes lodged, on the ancient roads leading into Cusco. After that, Salvador had a special treat for us. He took us back into the countryside, where we got to walk a segment of an ancient Inca trail – once part of an empire-wide network.
In the evening, students traveled to the small towns of Huacarpay and Lucre, about a half-hour’s drive outside of Cusco, where they were welcomed by host families. They spent two nights with the families, learning a little about life in small Andean towns.