Peru Travel Blog

Sacsayhuaman Fortress in Peru: Complete Guide (Updated 2021)

Written by: Kevin Groh

Sacsayhuaman Fortress titled under blue sky and cloudy days

Where are the Sacsayhuamán Ruins??

The beautiful Sacsayhuaman archaeological site is located approximately 2 kilometers, or 1.25 miles, from the Cusco Town Square at an altitude of 3,701 meters, or 12, 140 feet above sea level. Compare this to the altitude of Cuzco at 3,399 meters or 11,150 feet above sea level. It is a very large archaeological site at over 3,000 hectares on a hill that is surrounded by mountains. Sacsayhuaman is the highest point in Cusco and is home to many llamas, falcons, and hawks.

What does Sacsayhuaman Mean?

Before diving into what to do and see at Sacsayhuaman we need to dive into the importance of the location and its meaning.

Sacsayhuaman is a Quechua word that is broken down into two pieces: Saqsay meaning satisfied and Huaman meaning hawk. Combined this creates the meaning “a place where the hawk is satisfied.” The ruins were likely named this due to the large presence of hawks that make the place home.  

There is also a longstanding Inca legend that tells the story of a hawk that was fed by an Inca after the hawk landed on his shoulders in the location.

There is another theory about the naming of the structure including how Cusco City was planned. Another translation of Sacsayhuaman is Puma. It is said that Cusco was planned in the shape of a puma when viewed from above. The puma was a sacred animal to the Inca people. This means that the Sacsayhuaman ruins are located at the head of the puma. This would be fitting as it is said that the head of the human watches over the rest of the body, Cuzco.

Overhead view of Cuzco from Sacsayhuaman

What is Sacsayhuaman?

 

Sacsayhuaman is arguably the most impressive Inca Ruin that remains standing today. It was originally built by the people that inhabited Cusco before the Inca, the Killke culture. Construction by the Killke culture was started in 1100 CE. Once the Inca culture inhabited the area the Inca expanded on the construction of Sacsayhuaman. 

There were 3 rulers that were important during the Inca expansion of the ruin site. Those rulers were Pachacutec (the ninth Inca). The construction then continued with his son Tupac Inca Yupanqui and finished by Huayna Capac around the 15th century.

The Sacsayhuamán complex is a marvel of engineering with some of the largest blocks ever found in Incan construction pieced together so tightly that mortar was not necessary. The remaining site is what is left today from a much larger fortress that once was. There are three large sections of the remaining walls, with a large square and rectangular stones that are perfectly stacked on top of each other. Each of the stones is different in size and shape making each stone placed with a custom fit. 

No one truly knows the original purpose behind Sacsayhuaman, however, some of the theories maintain that it served as an Inca fortress or a ceremonial center. 

Contributing to the belief that it was an Inca sanctuary for celebration, there is an area of terracing cut into the side of Rodadero Hill, which is thought to have been a religious shrine dedicated to Pachamama (mother earth). 

There is some evidence showing that this archeological site was also used as a storage depot, where the Inca kept arms, armor, foodstuffs, valuable textiles, ceramics, metal tools, and precious metals. 

Sacsayhuaman was built on a platform of rock high above the capital. It is said to have taken over 50 years and 20,000 men to build it. It was built with the “mita” which was a form of required community service to the empire which required two years of service. Service starts when a male reached 18 years old. 

The Inca were world-class stonemasons that beat the work of stonemasons even today. They shaped the massive rocks and moved them with a system of ropes, logs, and levers. By using smaller stones and sand to finish the stonework, they completed the look that is seen today. 

The first structure of Sacsayhuaman was made using mud and clay. It wasn’t until later that the Inca leaders replaced the original clay bricks with the massive stones that are still standing today. Many of the rocks left standing today can rise over 4 meters tall and weigh over 100 tons. 

As we stated previously the fortress has three different terraces. The walls can rise up to  18 meters and span over 540 meters. Each wall has up to 40 segments which allowed the Inca defense to catch attackers in a crossfire. 

It is well known that Sacsayhuaman was used as a fortress during the Spanish invasion of Peru. The Spanish, led by Francisco Pizarro, conquered Cusco after killing Inca Atahualpa. After capturing Cuzco, Pizarro sent his army to attack Sacsayhuaman using his horses to get close and ladders to climb the walls. The Spanish were successful in this attack and took over the fortress.

After the Inca were defeated, Sacsayhuaman was dismantled by the Spanish, in order to destroy anything that was attributed to the Inca Empire. The remainder of the structure was covered in dirt and mud, in order to ensure that the construct would no longer be visible. 

When were the Sacsayhuaman Ruins Discovered?

The Sacsayhuaman ruins were discussed in 1934 during excavations. Now it is an important complex for the yearly Inti Raymi celebration which is the celebration of the Sun which takes place every June 24 for the Winter Solstice.  In modern times, local people celebrate the ceremony with colorful costumes, festive music, and local food.

How to get to Sacsayhuaman?

Sacsayhuaman is located 10 minutes from the Plaza de Armas of Cusco by car or 45 minutes if you walk from the town square. Another way that you can get entrance to the Sacsayhuaman grounds is if you do a Cusco City Tour as the entrance to the site is included in the tour ticket. 

In order to reach Sacsayhuaman ruins by foot from the plaza,  walk up Suecia street, take Huaynapata street, then follow Resbalosa street. Turn right after San Cristobal Church and follow the highway. Finally, you will take the old Inca road to Sacsayhuaman. From here it is a very steep walk and will take between 30-40 minutes to reach the ruins. Once you reach the top you will be at the ruins.

What can you see in Sacsayhuaman?

Entrance Hours: The entrance times to Sacsayhuaman run Monday-Sunday from 7:00 am to 6:00 pm. 

Sacsayhuaman Cost: Entrance is included in the Tourist Ticket priced around S/. 70 to S/. 130. You must buy a tourist ticket in order to get into many of the Cusco tourist attractions. 

The architecture in Sacsayhuaman has many sacred buildings such as residential buildings, towers, shrines, warehouses, roads, and aqueducts.

The main wall of Sacsayhuaman is built in a zigzag with massive stone blocks up to 5 meters high and 2.5 meters wide (between 90 and 125 tons of weight).

The south side is contained by a smoothly polished wall which runs approximately 400 meters long. The east and west are surrounded by other walls and platforms.

 There are a few important constructions that were erected making up the architecture of Sacsayhuaman as follows.

Traveler standing in front of the Sacsayhuaman stones

The Towers

The towers are located on the walls in a zigzag. Each of the three towers is named Muyucmarca, Paucamarca, and Sallaqmarca. The Spanish mostly destroyed the towers during their invasion, however, they were later recovered by Dr. Luis E. Valcárcel.

Muyucmarca

In Quechua, “Muyuq” means round and “Marca” means population. This tower is also known as ‘La Torre de Cahuide’. It is a huge building that the Inca General Titu Cusi Huallpa, also known as Cahuide,  jumped from the highest part to avoid becoming a prisoner of the  Spanish during the Incan Resistance of 1536.

Paucamarca

Paucamarca in Quecha breaks down into “Pauca” meaning lively, beautiful, cheerful, garden, and “Marca” means population. The remains of the Paucamarca tower is located east of the Sacsayhuaman archaeological complex. According to historians the purpose of this tower was to store water. The tower is currently covered by dirt and is said to have a square shape. It is believed that the Inca dedicated this tower to the stars.

Sallaqmarca

In Quechua “Sallaq” means rough, rocky and “Marca” means population. The remains of the Sallaqmarca Tower is located in the center of Sacsayhuaman. It is connected to the other two towers by underground tunnels or The Chincanas. Since the majority of the tower was destroyed during the Spanish Invasion, only the foundation of the tower remains.

The Sacsayhuaman Walls or Group of Enclosures

Located at the top of the hills, the Group of Enclosures, which are also the bastions, are beautiful platform rooms made of limestone that overlook Cusco and the town square. There are long and narrow rooms on the hill that are a short distance from the turrets at Sacsayhuaman pointed in the direction of the Plaza de Armas in Cusco. The enclosures are connected by trapezoidal doors.

Because the stones are so large,  the Spanish attributed the creation of the Group of Enclosures building to demons. The largest stone is estimated to weigh approximately 128 tons.

Llamas eating grass in front of Sacsayhuaman

The Throne of the Inca (K’usilluc Jink’ian)

The Throne of the Inca was named K’usilluc Jink’ian by the Inca culture. This is translated from Quechua to English as  “where the monkey climbs”, and is a succession of seats carved into the rock on the easter side of the complex. They were polished with such symmetrical perfection that the image of a throne was created.

The Doors:

The Doors are located in the center of the bastions, or the Sacsayhuaman Walls, are trapezoid-shaped and they served as the entry to the area of the towers. Each door is separately named: T’iopunku, Ajawanapunku, and Wiracochapunku.

Chincanas or Tunnels

The ‘chincanas’ are tunnels or underground caves located in Sacsayhuaman. There are two tunnels, the smallest tunnel measures approximately 15 meters while the larger one is located north of the Sacsayhuaman complex. The smaller tunnel is the more popular one for travelers visiting the complex to visit as the larger tunnel is much harder to access and currently closed. 

It is believed that the larger tunnel leads to Coricancha also known as the Temple of the Sun. Folk legend has it that a group of explorers entered the larger tunnel and disappeared for months until one of them showed up in the Temple of Santo Domingo, or Qorikancha. It is said that he was holding in his hand a corn cob made of solid gold.

The tunnels formed as a result of rock erosion caused by groundwater running in the caves.

The Temple

The Temple was one of the most important places for the Incas as it was the center of celebration ceremonies, rituals, and sacrifices at Sacsayhuaman. Thousands of people gathered here to see some of the most beautiful and significant rituals of the entire empire. It is at The Temple that the battle of Sacsayhuaman took place where many died defending the Inca Empire.

Slide or Suchuna:

The Slide was created by diorite from a volcano. Over time, erosion caused the Suchuna to form into the arched shape of a slide.

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