Cuenca Houses of Worship in Ruins and in Splendor

Like every other place in the conquered Inca empire, Cuenca shows the the effects of the Spanish: the Inca buildings were torn down and the materials used to build the Europeans’ civic buildings and churches. However, in Cuenca, the foundation stones of the Inca buildings are well-preserved enough that we can get a good sense of the size and function of the complex.

The foundation stones of the grand Inca building that used to be here

The foundation stones of the grand Inca building that used to be here

It was a palace, comprised of soldiers’ barracks, quarters for virgins dedicated to the sun god, a temple, farming terraces, and other structures necessary to support a center of Inca activity. The ruins were excavated by a team led by Max Uhle, the German archaeologist, from 1919 to 1923. The ruins nowadays include a reconstruction of gardens, down the hill from the main structures, an aviary, and, naturally, a snack stand.

Replanted gardens

Replanted gardens

Reconstructed section

Reconstructed section

As with every other major Inca structure, the ruins of Pumapungo (“gate of the puma”) are situated precisely on the compass rose, aligned with mountains and other natural formations of spiritual significance. From atop the hill, looking out over the river curving around the base of the ruins, it’s easy to see why this might be a strategic as well as inspirational spot to set up a major hub in your expanding empire.

These were the first Inca ruins I saw--the first of several

These were the first Inca ruins I saw–the first of several

The ruins are behind the Banco Central and the Museo Pumpapungo, so after touring the ruins and feeling the first hint of rain on my jacket, I went inside the museum. I bypassed the display on money and went to the side room display on the Incas. It was an odd mix of meticulously made costumes and empty display cases, and I only got a muddled sense of the people who lived and died here 600 years ago.

Photos weren't allowed in the museum, so I just snuck a couple, like this one, showing the Incas worshiping.

Photos weren’t allowed in the museum, so I just snuck a couple, like this one, showing the Incas worshiping

Upstairs, a much better display awaited me–an entire floor devoted to the different ethnic groups of Ecuador, from the jungle-dwelling people in the Oriente, to the various highlands groups in the Andes, to the people living along the coast. Musical instruments, masks used for celebrations, clothing worn to indicate status, and everyday work tools were the most frequently displayed items.

Masks for all occasions

Masks for all occasions

Finally, one small, dark room at the end of the hall showed the famous shrunken heads of the Shuar people of the Amazon jungle. (Head shrinking was outlawed a few decades ago, so now they can only shrink the heads of animals, like sloths.) This is the only exhibit in the museum to include English translations alongside the Spanish placards, and the display includes a lot of information on the Shuar people in general, before getting to the head-shrinking. A few shrunken heads were on display, and they were eerie and grotesque, as you might expect.

But my favorite part of the exhibit was the careful way the text explained why the Shuar did this–to make sure the soul of the deceased, contained in the head, could not return–and that it wasn’t always done to enemies, but sometimes to Shuar people who had killed. Killing was so taboo that the killer was himself put to death and his head shrunk so his tainted spirit couldn’t return and inhabit another person. That’s a very different thing from the bloodthirsty savage we likely all imagined, right?

The final placard of the exhibit made this plea: “The ‘Shuar’ are a people who merit respect, and even if many of their customs have changed for diverse reasons, they maintain themselves as a group proud of their past and of their present, a true example of the diverse ethnic communities of Ecuador. Because being ‘civilized’ does not imply casting aside the historic and cultural baggage from which our being originates.” That’s a major statement for a group to make in Ecuador, where indigenous groups were until very recently legally discriminated against, and are still struggling against the racism of city-dwelling Ecuadorians. I was impressed to see the statement made here.

Llama city grazing, naturally

Llama city grazing, naturally

I was in Cuenca during the last two days of Carnaval, and the city was a ghost town, which meant I spent a lot of my time taking photos of street art and wandering empty streets, dodging small children with foam cans. It also meant that all the churches were closed, so I didn’t really get to go inside any, but here are a few shots of the exteriors.

eh

I’m not sure which this one was

Sacred Heart on a church door

Sacred Heart on a church door

i dunno

San Sebastian

The New Cathedral was a boring brown brick building, but the doors and the domes were great. Apparently, the interior has a lot going for it. I’ll have to check it out during a non-holiday sometime.

Splendid doors of the New Cathedral

Splendid doors of the New Cathedral

Domes of the New Cathedral

Domes of the New Cathedral

The Old Cathedral

The Old Cathedral

I don't remember what church this was, just that I was struck by the sunset making it glow

La Merced

Quito Grab Bag

Every major city is similar to every other major city in a lot of ways–crowds, vitality, cultural activities, traffic–and every one has its own qualities, as well. Quito, the capital of Ecuador, wedges itself between two ridges of the Andes mountains, and as a result it’s a narrow city, so all the important stops are easily found along the small strip running north to south. This includes the cathedrals, the government buildings, and also the more mundane civic places, like the parks and shopping centers. It never feels squeezed, but it does feel compact, so the largeness of the parks comes as a welcome surprise.

Parque de la Carolina

Parque de la Carolina

I spent several afternoons lying on my stomach on the green grass of the Parque de la Carolina or one of the others in the area, watching families play soccer or volleyball, people from all walks of life sharing a game of cards, vendors hawking real silver necklace, real silver for you.

Cards for all

Cards for all

Volleyball is big here

Volleyball is big here

Egg whites and sugar, a popular dessert

Egg whites and sugar, a popular dessert

A library in the middle of the park--brilliant!

A library in the middle of the park–brilliant!

Quito also has several large malls, which are hugely popular. I was a little surprised to find myself wandering the halls of giant malls, since that’s something I try to avoid at home, never mind when I’m traveling, but sometimes it’s a Sunday afternoon and you’ve just arrived at your host family’s house and you haven’t had lunch and dinner isn’t for many hours, and you gotta go to a mall for an overpriced sandwich.

At the market in the north end of town

Not the mall–this is the market in the north end of town

You can buy just about anything at the market. There were also brains for sale.

You can buy just about anything at the market. There were also brains for sale.

In Ecuador, by law, no one can sell alcohol three days leading up to an election, as well as the day of the election itself, since you’re supposed to be focusing on your civic duty of voting and not getting wasted. Of course, my last weekend in Quito was an election weekend! Still, there were lots of people out when I went to La Ronda, a revitalized street that’s now popular with artists and musicians. I had a proper Quito hot chocolate–with queso fresco that you can chew on separately or crumble into your drink–and listened to a guitarist serenade us, and afterward, walked down the street watching dancers advertise an upcoming traditional performance.

Art of Diego Mooz

Art of Diego Mooz

La Ronda at night

La Ronda at night

One of the last things I did before I left town was to visit the national museum, which has an astonishing collection of pre-Inca artifacts, as well as a lot of Inca gold. There’s also a floor of Catholic art after the conquest, but that is not nearly as interesting as the pre-Inca floor. The artifacts are taken from all over Ecuador, so they’re from a lot of different ethnic groups, and the variety is amazing.

Some of the pre-Inca artifacts

Some of the pre-Inca artifacts

Anhtropomorphized pots, skinny arms hugging their bellies, the left cheek bulging from chewing coca leaves. Erotic art, showing the Kama Sutra was not alone in ancient peoples knowing a lot of ways to get it on. Llamas, condors, snakes, pumas–the important animals of the region. A mother suckling her baby. A man proudly holding his giant erection (a good luck figure). A half-cat, half-snake creature in the same skewed dimension sof a Picasso painting. A vase in the shape of a foot. I only had an hour and a half in there, but I could have easily spent twice that long looking at the weird and wonderful art.

Inca sunburst

Inca sunburst

The Magic of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu. Such a well-known name, such a well-known image; just saying it to myself as I booked my tickets was like a mantra or an incantation, conjuring up one specific picture, and a vague idea of a lost civilization. It’s a spell any of us can cast, so firmly is the Inca ruin established in the popular mind. And I can say, without irony or embarrassment, that Machu Picchu is a magical place to be.

That's the picture we can all conjure up

That’s the picture we can all conjure up

I made it!

I made it!

Forget the hassle of deciding which convoluted route to take from Cusco to the ruins (bus-train-bus, bus-walk-bus, bus-walk-walk, train-bus, etc.), forget the 5am alarm, forget the massive line and hordes of fellow tourists. Standing on the ledge overlooking the ruins, surrounded by craggy mountains floating in the gray morning mist, I was transported.

Machu Picchu in the morning mist

Machu Picchu in the morning mist

This was otherworldly, in the simple sense that it was unlike the world I know. It was grander, and despite the crowds, quieter, as if the mountains absorbed any unnecessary sounds and left only my rasping as I breathed heavily after my climb in the high altitude. Even the rasping reminded me that I was breathing, that I was alive in a place long ago left to ghosts and sacred spirits.

The Temple of the Sun

The Temple of the Sun

Because at least part of this place was sacred to the Incas who built here. Archaeologists have several theories about what, exactly, the buildings on Machu Picchu were for. Machu Picchu itself simply means “old mountain” and was not the Quechua name for the small town–that has been lost to history along with the function of the town. The most widely accepted theory is that it was a royal retreat for Emperor Pachacuti, and that the many religious structures and the orientation of the town itself can be explained by the fact that royalty resided here. The town is built on a precise axis in relation to several sacred mountains, and on solstices, the sun slices right through the center of the Sun Temple. Perhaps one section of town housed virgins dedicated to the gods. Perhaps one strategically placed rock was used as a solar calendar.

The Condor Temple (if you squint, you can see the beak on the ground, and two raised wings in the rocks above)

The Condor Temple (if you squint, you can see the beak on the ground, and two raised wings in the rocks above)

machu picchu

Much of the mountaintop is covered in the narrow terraces that make up the farmland of the Incas. One theory suggests that in addition to growing the usual crops, the Incas experimented with different types of plants here, as the steep terraces caused micro-climates that could imitate different climates throughout the empire. On the large, flat area in the middle of the buildings, llamas graze, keeping the lawn neat as they did 500 years ago.

Hard at work

Hard at work

I watched a bird build a nest

I watched a bird build a nest

machu picchu

My guided tour of the complex was uninspired, and most of what I heard I had already read in guidebooks: The Spanish never found Machu Picchu, which is one of the main reasons it is so celebrated, because they didn’t have a chance to strip it of all its valuables and rip apart the ingeniously constructed buildings, as they did everywhere else in the former Inca Empire.

Terrace upon terrace

Terrace upon terrace

Trapezoidal windows

Trapezoidal windows

Locals always knew of it, but it wasn’t until 1911 that the rest of the world learned about it. Hiram Bingham, in his search for the lost capital city of the Incas, was led to this spot by a local Quechua boy. He hired a team to clear away the vegetation that had overgrown the ruins, and in the meantime, he managed to clear away several important artifacts, which he took to his employer, Yale University. (Peru finally got all the artifacts back in 2012.)

Llamas have right of way

Llamas have right of way

Part of the reconstruction

Part of the reconstruction

At least 30% of what we see today is a reconstruction based on archaeological evidence. Unfinished stairs and roughly hewn rocks indicate that the complex was likely abandoned in the face of the Spanish and/or a smallpox epidemic before it was finished.

machu picchu

After my tour, I found a quiet spot on the eastern side of the complex, and I watched the rainclouds drift away and the noonday sun take over. I lay back on a large, uncarved rock and took a nap. I awoke to a guard sitting nearby, overlooking tourists on the terrace below and singing a traditional tune in a reedy voice. He smiled at me and apparently didn’t mind that I’d just lightly snored on one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. After all, as magical as these ruins in the mountains are, they were once inhabited by humans.

machu picchu

That, for me, is what appeals to me the most about places like Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu: they are perfectly in tune with the magnificent nature surrounding them, but they were put there by the hard work and imagination of humans. They’re proof that we can have monuments to human ingenuity that celebrate, rather than diminish, the natural world. We can have both. That’s the magic.

My final view

My final view

Many, many thanks to Meredith Mann, Ted and Dana Calhoon, and Rog and Anne Findley, who generously donated to the Stowaway Fund and made my trip to Machu Picchu possible. I am extremely grateful.