Deep in the highland valleys of Peru's majestic Cordillera Blanca, thousands of metres above sea level, peasants are already in the fields or on the roads hours before the sun climbs above the snow-capped eastern ranges. They chivvy their sheep, llamas or cattle, dressed in crimson ponchos and wraps that shine bright in the morning mist. One thousand kilometres to the south, an Aymara Indian pushes his reed boat out onto the glassy surface of Lake Titicaca, chatting to his son, who paddles at the bow. At the same time, around 300 kilometres to the northeast, Ese'eja Indians in the tenebrous rainforests of the Tambopata are gathered around fires, recounting their dreams of the night before and gently coaxing the embers back to life, while fishermen on the Pacific coast some 600 kilometres west are bringing in their catch, freeing fish from the hectares of nets that pile up on the sand in languid loops. In Peru, you can greet the day in 100 different ways, in 100 different places, hundreds of kilometres apart. The choice is never easy, and sleeping in is never an option.
It might not be dawn as the guard lets me in to the ruins of the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, but I'm still the first one there at 7am. I masochistically decided to hike up to the ruins, which dominate the city of Cusco in southern Peru from their hilltop perch. The altitude gets to me at the best of times, and at 6 o'clock in the morning, I'm wheezing like an old nag. But the effort seems worthwhile. The site is deserted.
The walls of stones glow. Shadows recede as the sun edges higher into the sky, until finally it arcs into iridescent blue where the morning sun bites through the chill of the Andean morning.
Three rows of stone walls run in tiers one above another, facing south. The rows are positioned in a zig-zag pattern, representing jaguar's teeth, the ruins symbolising the head of this sacred and revered animal, with the city of Cusco itself laid out as the beast's body by the Incas more than 600 years ago. The limestone, diorite and andesite stones are huge, seemingly set down by giants. Single, leviathan blocks at the outer points of the zig-zags tower three times the height of a man. The largest weighs as much as 360 tonnes. The stones were fitted together without mortar, but with such precision you can't stick a knife blade between them.
The light plays tricks with the rocks' relief. Rows change form as the morning light strengthens and intensifies. A mythical snake, symbol of the third underworld level in the Inca's cosmology, emerges magically. Other symbols are only visible at certain times, appearing then disappearing at the whim of the light. Such was the Incas' grasp of the natural world, and their reverence for the sun.
The Spanish showed no such reverence towards Sacsayhuaman. After puppet king Manco Capac II rebelled against the Spanish and made his last stand at the site, the conquistadors tore nearly all of it down. Most of the blocks were put to use in their constructions in Cusco below.
The city one sees today is a unique hybrid of Inca and Spanish, American and European. Although the Spanish razed many of the constructions they found, they also put them to good use. In places, they left the earthquake-resistant Inca foundations and plonked their houses, palaces and churches on top. The result looks something like an architectural ice-cream cone. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Qorikancha, the Inca Temple of the Sun, which has to suffer the indignity of having the Dominicans' baroque effort squatting on half its site and its finest stonemasonry.
The Qorikancha was the centre of the Inca empire--Tawantinsuyo--which stretched from northern Chile to southern Colombia. It was the largest empire ever seen in the Americas, and yet it rose and fell within little more than two centuries.
When the conquistadors arrived after their long trek down from the north--where they had captured and then killed the Inca emperor Atahualpa--they were stunned by the city they encountered. …