Machu Picchu averages about 2000 visitors a day. It’s considered one of the seven wonders of the world, but a Peruvian will never tell you Machu Picchu is the greatest city ever built, nor will they tell you it’s the greatest triumph their ancestors ever accomplished.
The greatest masterpiece of the Incas was Cusco. Cusco was once considered the center or “navel” of the world. Incan chroniclers documented that the city was once 100% veneered in gold. The boundaries of the city were constructed in the shape of a puma, with the head serving as the fortress. The heart of the city held the temple, Koricanche, the most sacred of Inca sites, where the gods were worshipped and the bodies of Incan kings were preserved. Courtyard buildings, shrines, and plazas filled the metropolis, reflecting supremacy of artisanship that only took 100 years to perfect.
These spaces have long been either emptied or laid flat, pillaged by Pizarro, afterwards emptied and burned by Franciscans, bricked over and stuffed with colonial rococo-style figurines imposing white supremacy. But not all is lost. Much is still preserved in the culture and language of the local people.
A four-day, three night tour to Machu Picchu lent the first hint at what remained of Quechua identity. My Machu Picchu tour was registered with a company called Lorenzo Expeditions. Our guide, Wilbur, was a middle-aged local from the Sacred Valley who claimed he had been hired by every tour company in the city. I could see why: he in many ways embodied the intelligence and identity standing since the days of Incan reign. He was as much a relic as the ancient walls.
The tour brought us to local villages, some tucked into the highland jungle. There was a varied pace of hiking and stopping, and in the latter stretches we would receive explanations of the significance of the spaces we passed. Wilbur brought us to coffee farms. He fanned out coca leaves in wild forest groves. He explained the critical connection between his people and their land and did not leave out details of injustice brought on by foreign misconceptions.
You want to understand our culture, he said? First learn our language. Then you will know the ways of our people.
Naturally none of our 10 trekking members knew the local speech, but Wilbur did his best to explain the trials and collective identity of the Sacred Valley descendants.
The Incan empire was not soft on its people, but it paid mind to general needs. While the imperial and ceremonial center was foiled in gold, the currency lay in exchange of services. Civilians of the empire were required to perform tasks and labor (primarily in agriculture, mining, construction, and artisanship) and in return were delivered provisions by the State. The remainder of goods were exchanged through a bartering system.
The real measure of wealth was not measured in money or gold, but in textiles. Only the Incan kings and nobles could wear them, their elaborate designs woven through the toil of mit’a (the strenuous work quota appointed to commoners).
After the Europeans came, currency took precedence over craft. Pizarro pillaged for gold, and Atahualpa, the Incan king in today’s Ecuador, filled two rooms with the mineral to buy his freedom. He satisfied the ransom but was executed anyway after betraying his brother.
Peruvians know Pizarro as the man who claimed all the gold in Peru, including Cusco. He also brought a lesson: wealth in currency allowed one to wield horrifying power worldwide.
Five hundred years later, this lesson still holds true.
Today the people of the Sacred Valley hold similar occupations as they once did, primarily in agriculture, with others in construction, weaving, and mining. While the work restrictions are nowhere near as imposing as they were during the days of Incan rule, the payoff is nowhere near fair.
Tourism is Cusco’s leading industry. It’s hard to find a good tour to Machu Picchu without paying at least $300. A backpacker’s hostel can earn $10 from each laundry service, and a restaurant in the city center charges over $50 for a family meal of fried rice.
Meanwhile, farmers in the fields earn hardly enough to sustain themselves. They return to wooden shacks with no electricity and no plumbing. Delicious mangoes and avocados bring in $3-4 for every package of 100.
The coca leaf industry is a whole other ordeal.
US and European governments point at Peru, the world’s largest producer of coca leaves, for the impact the cocaine industry has had on their societies.
Holding out a handful of inconspicuous leaves he picked from the forest trail, Wilbur said, “The greatest problem in our country is not drug addiction, but diabetes. Here we drink too much soda. Do we blame the United States for the production of Coca Cola?”
Coca leaves have been used since the days of the Incas. They were not—are not—used by Andean locals for the production of the cocaine (most of cocaine industry is concentrated in the jungle regions). Coca leaves have long been perceived as medicinal and sacred. The ancients knew that chewing the leaves led not only to health benefits, but facilitated a connection between humanity and the gods.
Countries demand that Peru limit its coca production. These governments promise they will reward those who farm coffee beans in place of coca plants. This, the governments insist, will lend new opportunities for farmers’ profit through increased demand for a globally-cherished export. But coffee beans can be picked only 2 times a year (coca plants every 3 months). And since Peru can not compete with countries like Costa Rica for production of coffee beans, the farmers see little payoff.
Still, though, the Quechuans are a hard-working people. They farm to survive, take what they need, and give the rest to the neighbors.
In the ancient days Wirocacha created the sun, moon, stars, time, and civilization. The apus, or lesser gods (the storms, the mountains and the rivers) served as the hands of the creator. Pachamama, the goddess Mother Earth, ensured fluid relations between all things.
At the height of the Incan Empire, the Incan Kings and the gods were worshipped in the temple of Koricanche in Cusco. It was said the 12 Incan Kings whose bodies rested in Koricanche were so well-preserved that they didn’t look dead. On notable occasions the royal mummies would rest on the shoulders of Cusco civilians and be paraded around the city so the strength of their spirits could bring stability to the empire.
When the Franciscans came, the bodies were burned. The vases used in place of the bodies were taken for an archaeological display by a Yale professor.
Today, the main spectacles in Cusco’s Plaza del Armas are its grand churches. Nearly everyone identifies as Catholic. Religious education is a required discipline in public schools, and the Catholic authorities hold great influence over the government.
When Wilbur, who never outwardly identified his spiritual orientation, tried to enroll his first child in public school, the very first question from the registrar was “Are you Catholic?” The second question was “Are you married?”
In spite of this, the locals still believe in the apus and in the great one, Wirocacha. And the Andes themselves: for the Quechua people it has always been, and still is, nature first.
Apart from the gods, the Quechua people maintain faith in their ancestors. Quechua funerals entail a large cross atop the coffin. Since this tradition’s inception, it appeased local Catholic officials who thought this a demonstration of obedience towards the Church. But truly it was a subversion towards syncretism. The cross atop the coffins do not commemorate Christ, but the living spirits of their loved ones.
Spiritual practice carried from the Incan empire is most prevalent in the fields. When planting new crops (beans, potatoes, carrots), farmers first pray to Pachamama with coca leaves. They thank her for providing nourishment and, once they eat their first meal, offer the first plate to Her.
Quechua once united the Incan Empire. In the 18th century the language of Quechua was banned from use by religious authorities, who once used the language to infiltrate local spirit beliefs with their own.
The use of Quechua was only allowed use again after Peru gained its independence in the 19th century. But by then the language had been lost to feelings of local inferiority. Younger generations perceived Quechua speech as belonging to the static, rural class. The way of the future was Spanish.
Now Quechua is seeing a minor resurgence. It is spoken proudly in the rural highlands and sometimes in the cities. This is an improvement from when Wilbur was a child, when native Quechua speakers like himself struggled to integrate into public schools.
Now more families teach children the ancient tongue, and, amidst the inundation of foreign influence from the tourism industry, traditional forms of expression remain the primary way of preserving local identity.
The Nature of “Discovery” and Conquest
Wilbur and I walked along the railroad that led to Aguas Calientes, the tourist city that led to Machu Picchu. We both had taken off our jackets despite the altitude. The flaps of his open collared shirt tossed with the wind which passed over the neighboring river. We paced up the metal and rock.
Wilbur and I spoke of conquest. While I condemned the nature of conquest in the Americas, I brought up the reality that conquest has existed everywhere, including among the Incas, since the dawn of human existence.
Conquest is different from destruction, he explained. Surely the Incas conquered many people, leading them to be the greatest empire in South America. But conquest does not require obliteration or oppression. Wilbur said that in both Quechua and Spanish, the word “conquest” could be used to describe the trapping of a lover.
During Incan conquests, the armies brought gifts to weaker communities, lent respect to local rulers, and, despite insisting on adoption of the Quechua tongue and the Incan ways, allowed freedom of local beliefs and languages within micro-circles.
European Colonists did not engage in conquest; they dealt in destruction. They did not aim to adopt peoples, as the Incas did, but obliterate “inferior” identities from existence.
They did not completely succeed.
Looping the Cord
Machu Picchu is a masterpiece, but it’s only a hint of what stood at the Incan center. In Quechua, the name “Machu Picchu” means “this whole mountain,” signifying treasure in the greater picture.
Back in Cusco, the center of the world might be defaced and buried by Franciscan churches and foreign feet, but the most precious remains aren’t at the top of the mountain; they are at the core of the human being: how Quechua people today embrace left chest to left chest, heart to heart.