Two months ago, I traveled around Peru with twelve teenagers. We visited churches and underground crypts filled with artistic displays of human bones. We got altitude sickness and chewed a lot of coca leaves. We were tourists who had to stop and take pictures in front of every beautiful plant or succulent we saw. My fellow teacher, another Emily, and I tried to get kids to put down their phones and appreciate ancient rope art and oversized nose rings. We played with guinea pigs that would soon be someone’s dinner. We cooked with locals, learned to salsa dance, and decorated our own pottery. I brought twelve teenagers to Peru and they all came back alive. We survived and this is my story.
Today’s episode is the first in a two-part series about Columbus Day. Or, rather, a series straight-up slapping Columbus Day in the face. In an effort to stop celebrating a guy who instigated one of the largest genocides in world history, I’m going to spend two episodes celebrating the history and culture of some of the indigenous groups that were crushing it before Europeans showed up. Take that Chris!
Today, I want to start with something that happened in my life. Earlier this summer I traveled to Peru and I had a crisis of faith. Since college, I have been obsessed with the Aztecs. I wrote my graduate thesis on Montezuma. I forced my students to listen to me rant about how incredibly underrated and misunderstood the Aztecs were and how they were my favorite civilization, with the Mongols a close second. And then, I met the Inca.
Oh my god, y’all, the Inca were incredible. What have I been doing with my life?! Just when you think you have your civilization ranking list set and ready to be laminated, in walks the Inca ready to blow my mind with astronomy and boulders. So I want to dedicate today’s episode to the new love of my life: the Inca. Who were they? Why were they incredible? And where did they go?
This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s go back in time…
Act 1: The Inca
There’s a running joke among world history teachers, thanks to Crash Course World History on YouTube, that the Mongols were the exception to all of the “rules” of civilization. But that’s not true. The Inca were truly the exception. They achieved an amazing amount without most of the trappings of other contemporary civilizations and they did it in a way that kind of makes me wish I lived in Andes Mountains in the 1300s.
First, a quick note that calling them the Inca is wrong. The Inca was the title of the ruler of the civilization known as Tawantinsuyu. The word Inca came from “Inti” which meant “the sun” in Quechua. So the Inca was “the son of the sun.” But the Spanish didn’t care about any of this and just called everyone the Inca. It would be as if someone studying the United States just called our whole civilization “Presidents.” Cool, thanks guys.
The Inca have been in Peru since the 1100s but it wasn’t until around 1400 that they started expanding and building their empire. During this century, the Inca controlled more land than the Roman Empire at its height and they ruled 15 million people. This is incredible no matter where you are in the world, but it’s especially impressive considering that they did this in South America.
First, the Incan empire was situated in the Andes Mountains. We aren’t sure where that name came from but “Ande” means sunrise in Quechua – the language of the Inca. It also could come from the Spanish word “andenes” which means terraces. This could be because the Inca were masters at terrace farming. This is one of those things that’s really boring in a textbook, or a podcast probably, but is amazing if you can see it in person. The Inca were able to grow crops along steep mountainsides by carving into them to build flat terraces that stepped down the mountain. This provided natural irrigation as rainwater or water from the glaciers on the mountaintops traveled down the terraces. But more importantly it gave the Inca way more arable land to use.
These terraces go so much higher up a mountain than you would expect. They grew crops at 14,000 feet! The Inca tested out various crops and slowly acclimated them to higher elevations. So they would plant corn at the lowest point and then every 10 years they would transplant some of it up another 1,000 feet. By slowly adjusting the crops, they ended up with an insane amount of diversity. For example in Peru today, they have 4,300 different varieties of potatoes. Just imagine the potato chip possibilities… They also have tons of different types of quinoa and corn. Some of the corn we ate when we were there had kernels bigger than my thumb.
The Incan diet was way healthier than anything else at its time or today. In the year 1400, in Europe life expectancy was 40. The Inca’s life expectancy at the same time was 70 years.
So the Inca were able to build a massive empire in what should have been very difficult terrain. They also were able to connect their empire thanks to serious political control. The Inca Empire was divided into provinces all the way down to local communities, or ayllu. But we can’t say they plagiarized the Persians because they didn’t know the Persians existed – they came up with it on their own!
Also, the Inca are exceptional because they achieved all of this without a written language. If you remember all the way back to episode one of the first season, written records were supposed to be a requirement of civilizations according to Ethel Wood. But the Inca disprove this. They had no written language but instead they used a system called khipu to keep track of things. We don’t fully understand how it worked, but they would tie knots in long strings of rope. Each knot, its size, and its color all signified something. Some scholars think, for example, that red ropes were records of soldiers killed in battle, while yellow rope might mean corn production in a certain region. A student just recently told me that a graduate student figured out that the first knot in a series established the social class of the person who was being “discussed” in that string – I hope that student got an A.
The Inca also had developed an abacus-like calculator that could do all four basic math functions and they also understood the concept of zero. They knew that the world was round by observing that rainbows and other elements of the skies were curved instead of straight. I had never thought about this until our tour guide said it – but yeah, like how did anyone ever think the world was flat? Like, explain rainbows to me, flat earthers.
The Inca had an accurate calendar based on the cycles of the moon. They had developed a perfect compass that points North at 180 degrees. This was another way they knew that the world was round, because 180 times 2 (for the northern half and the southern half) makes 360, or a perfect circle. And if you’re thinking, like a crazy person, that maybe this is just a fluke, they nicknamed their Mother Earth figure Pacha Mama “Round World.” So yeah. The world is round and the Inca knew it. Columbus wasn’t proving anything.
At Machu Picchu there is an enormous sundial with each side pointing perfectly north, south, east, and west. Trust me, I checked it against my iPhone compass. But the craziest thing about this sundial is that in the middle it has a stone peg sticking up, but it is leaning at a 13 degree angle. Why? Machu Picchu is 13 degrees south of the equator. So when the sun hits the dial at its highest point, there would be no shadow – so they could tell times of day, too. What?! That is insane. I love the Inca so much!
The Inca are also known for their incredible architecture. When the first Dominican monk visited Cusco, he reported back three things that struck him. First, there was no poverty. When he asked the people where their beggars were they didn’t understand the question because they didn’t have any money. Everyone had all of the basics they needed. He also noticed how huge the city was. Including the surrounding villages, he counted over 200,000 inhabitants, which made it the same size at Paris at the time. But the final thing he observed was how uniform the architecture was. He was partially astounded out of racism – in his writings there is sheer disbelief that the native people had schools and universities to study architecture and were so well governed that they could create such massive building projects.
And these building projects were impressive. Inca architecture is known for two main characteristics. First, they use massive stones and stack them together like puzzle pieces without any mortar. They carve each rock so perfectly that they fit together without needing anything in between to keep them in place. In the most important buildings, the fit is so perfect that you rarely see anything growing in between the stones, even 600 years later.
If you travel around the former empire, you can tell how important a building was based on the stones. The least important buildings, like residences, used stones of various shapes and sizes and sometimes have gaps between them. But as you get closer to the buildings for the gods, the stonework is incredible. If you visit temples like the one at Machu Picchu you will see perfectly straight lines and joints that are so close together a knife couldn’t pass through it.
The second component of Inca architecture is the trapezoid. All of their buildings lean slightly inward, like a cropped pyramid. Side note: their walls all lean 13 degrees – just like the sun dial. Whoa. This made their buildings earthquake proof, which was important considering Peru is in the Ring of Fire. For example, at Qorikancha, the temple of the sun in Cusco, the Spanish covered the Inca walls with their own structure for a cathedral. In the 1950s Peru had a massive earthquake and many parts of the Spanish church collapsed but the much older Inca walls stayed standing. Take that, European architecture!
This was one of the ways the Inca were able to control their massive empire: building projects organized by the government. Roads up through the mountains connected all of the communities. All of these roads were paved with stone because the elites had to walk everywhere since they didn’t have horses or other beasts of burden. Llamas and alpacas are fine for carrying up to 40 pounds but if you overload them, they just lay down. They’re like, “Nope! Carry it yourself!” which I think makes them smarter than horses.
The Inca roads are incredibly well built – you can still hike the original Inca trail to Machu Picchu. The distance between the capital of Cusco and Lima, for example, is over 600 miles. Today, it takes a bus 24 hours to travel that distance through the mountains. But Inca runners could cover that same distance on foot in just a day and a half. Living in the mountains, they are incredible natural athletes. When my husband and I were in Peru ten years ago, we decided to walk the steps up the mountain to Machu Picchu. It was a terrible idea. As we stopped and sat on the stone steps, gasping for breath, 70-year-old Peruvian men with massive backpacks would practically run by us, laughing at us as they passed. It was embarrassing.
So how were these roads built? The Inca did not collect taxes. They didn’t even have a currency – the economy was based on bartering. Instead, the Inca required every person to work for the state. Just three times in your life you were expected to serve as labor for 90 days. Each person served the gods, by helping build temples; they served the king, by helping build or work in palaces; and they served the community by building roads and other communal infrastructure. Once you had performed your three 90-day periods of labor, you were good. You had contributed to your community and your empire.
So, just to be clear. The Inca developed a massive empire that controlled more land than the Romans, governed 15 million people, with advanced science and technology. And they did all of this without the wheel, without beasts of burden, without writing, without currency, without taxes, and without slaves. Y’all. The Inca were the best.
There was social hierarchy but it was much more simplified. Basically, you were either the elite or you were not. The elite received an education and they worked as architects, builders, designers – all important jobs in a civilization so focused on infrastructure projects. If you’re father was an architect, then so were you, and these people were highly trained, as we’ll see when we talk about Machu Picchu.
Interestingly, the Inca made sure to keep the elite “elite” by limiting each family to only 2 children. They did this by using natural contraceptives found in the mountains. If a family had a third child, it would be aborted – it was kind of like an ancient version of China’s “One Child Policy”. The exception was twins, which were seen as a blessing of the gods. Even the king was only allowed to have two children. Even though he could have as many concubines as he wanted, they were not allowed to bear children – this is going to get the empire into trouble later because one of the last Inca kings had a son with another woman. Uh oh.
Something else great, children born with Down Syndrome were worshipped by the Inca. They believed them to be incredibly special and connected more with the gods than people on earth and so they were treated very well in the empire. Go Inca!
Everyone else who wasn’t part of the elite class was usually a farmer. They were allowed to have as many children as they wanted since the government needed them to work the fields and build their palaces and temples. The temples were especially important since all of life in Peru centered around religion. And this labor was necessary considering how difficult it was to build many of these structures in the middle of the Andes Mountains.
For example, Ollantaytambo was a temple structure that was being built when the Spanish arrived. The stone quarry was on the other side of a massive mountain and so they used enormous human effort to build it. Remember: no wheels, no horses, no oxen, no slavery. The Inca built ramps zigzagging down the side of the mountain so that they could slowly roll these enormous boulders down. Keep in mind that the largest boulder found at Ollantaytambo weighed 150 tons. That’s one stone weighing 300,000 pounds – transported completely by human effort.
So, very carefully, they rolled the boulders down the ramps to the bottom of the mountain. But then they had to cross the massive Urubamba River. They would wait until the dry season when a few small islands appeared in the middle of the river. Using huge logs, they built a temporary dam between their river bank and the islands in the middle, diverting the river into the other half. After rolling the stones onto the islands, they removed the logs and blocked off the other half to finish crossing the river. That’s exhausting.
But they’re only halfway there! They still have to get the boulders up the mountain where they will build the temple! Along the side of the mountain where they wanted to build, they created a long ramp. Using the pulp of a local cactus, they greased the floor of the ramp, tied ropes to the boulder, and using sheer human force of will, they pushed each boulder slowly up to the top. Even though they were as careful as possible, many people died building temples like this and you can see why having a massive labor force was more important to the Inca than traditional taxes.
This was all to build Ollantaytambo. But the most famous of these infrastructure projects was built by laborers high in the mountains of the Cloud Forest on the edge of the Amazon.
Act 2: Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is one of the seven modern wonders of the world and rightly so. It is easily the most incredible place I’ve ever been in my life. Even just taking in the natural beauty of the ruins, surrounded by green misty mountains, it is a dream. But it is even more impressive when you know the history and meaning of the place to the Inca.
To understand Machu Picchu you have to know a little bit about the Incan religion.
First and foremost is the importance of nature – and if you visit the Sacred Valley in Peru, you’ll understand very easily why this was the case. It’s so beautiful. Massive green mountains with snow on the top, blue sunny skies, fertile valleys, and the wide Urubamba River winding through it all.
Since their survival depended on agriculture, the most important natural feature was the sun. You might have thought a few minutes ago: why did the laborers work so hard to build the temple at Ollantaytambo, for example? Why didn’t they just build it on the mountain where the quarry was? Great question, listener! I’ll tell you why: on a mountain just across from Ollantaytambo, there were two unique features in the cliff. Completely natural, one feature in the rock resembled a huge face with a beard – believed to be a god. And another resembled the profile of an Inca person with a crown. Just trust me when I say that they both really do look like someone carved these faces into the cliff – it’s easy to see why the Inca would have been interested in this place.
But wait! It gets better: On the day of the winter solstice in June (remember: seasons are flipped in the southern hemisphere), the sun shines over the mountains and directly onto the face of the god. The Inca saw this and were like, “Um, yes please!” So the structure built at Ollantaytambo was perfectly situated to observe this phenomenon, and they built a temple of the sun where the sun’s rays would shine through specific windows on these holiest days.
Back to their religion, the Inca believed in three worlds. The world we all live in was the world of strength and it was represented by the puma. There was an underworld that was a world of purification and wisdom, represented by the snake. This is not Hell, even though the Spanish will do their best to make it fit their Catholic worldview. It was believed that when people died, they would go to the underworld to receive wisdom and be purified. After that process, they would travel to the sky, the world of freedom, represented by the condor.
Looking at a map of the ancient Sacred Valley, you would see three important points. Cusco, which translates as the “navel of the world” in Quechua, was the Incan capital and the center of political power in the empire. Cusco was built so that from the skies the outline looked like a puma. From Cusco, you would travel west along the Urubamba River. This river snakes its way through the Sacred Valley until it reaches Machu Picchu. From the skies, Machu Picchu forms the outline of a condor (Machu Picchu actually means “old bird” in Quechua) and it was the most important temple to the gods. So, from the earthly center of power – the Cusco puma – you traveled along the snake-like river to be purified until you ascended up Machu Picchu – the world of the condor and freedom. In this way, all three worlds are connected.
Astronomy was incredibly important to the Inca because it was how they told time and determined when to plant and harvest crops. But the stars were also seen as a reflection of their world in the world of the condor. They observed the Southern Cross – a cluster of four bright stars that are only visible in the southern hemisphere (it’s their hemisphere’s version of the North Star) – and built their entire empire to resemble it, divided into four sections that mirrored the Southern Cross.
More broadly, the Inca believed that the Milky Way was the godly reflection of their Sacred Valley, and the two worlds were connected by rain. And Machu Picchu was the most important site that connected the Inca with the gods in the sky.
So what is Machu Picchu besides that place that every backpacking friend you have takes a picture in front of?
Machu Picchu was built as a religious site to honor the gods, especially the god of the sun. The entire complex was for religious purposes and the only people who lived at Machu Picchu were the priests, and the laborers who were serving their mit’a, or labor tax, by working at the complex.
A quick note: Machu Picchu actually refers to the mountain to the south of the religious complex. But, again, we’ve oversimplified and called the whole thing Machu Picchu. The complex is very well protected as it is surrounded on three sides by mountains. To the south, like I said, is the actual mountain of Machu Picchu; to the east is Putucusi; and to the north is Huayna Picchu (or Young Mountain), which also has terraces and ruins of a guard post at the top that you can hike up if you are especially brave. Huayna Picchu is the one you see in all the pictures shooting up into the sky behind the ruins.
Fun fact: the mountain to the east, Putucusi, is the one you basically stare at as you wander around Machu Picchu. The Inca carved the shape of that mountain out of a massive rock and at one part of the complex you can stand in a clearing and the stone mountain perfectly covers up the real mountain. This was wear the Inca king would receive food when he visited for festivals – the food of the gods and the king was cui, or guinea pig. And what does the outline of the mountain across from Machu Picchu look like? You guessed it: a guinea pig. Did I eat a guinea pig while I was there? You bet I did. If it’s good enough for the Inca king then it’s good enough for me.
So, the purpose of Machu Picchu was to celebrate the winter solstice on June 21st. This was the shortest day of the year and it marks the New Year in the Inca calendar. On this day, the sun shines perfectly through the Sun Gate high atop Machu Picchu (if you hike the Inca trail that’s where you enter the complex) and into the Temple of the Sun. The sun illuminated the temple which would have been covered with gold, as well as the mummies of the former Inca kings that were brought here on this day to receive the light of the gods. They were mummified crouching in a fetal position with their mouths wide open so that on this day, the light would fill their body like they were being born and taking their first breath. So the Inca also win the coveted award of “Coolest Mummies”.
As you can imagine, Inca kings were treated pretty well during their rule. In Europe, the monarchy all shares one castle or palace that multiple generations rule from – like Versailles – but in Peru, each Inca king built his own palace. That’s because the old palace was still in use – the entire household staff and family members of the former Inca king still lived in and served his mummy as if he were still alive. During the Inca’s reign, he never wore clothes more than once – at the end of each day they were burned. This tradition did not stop just because he was dead. His staff would still change his mummy’s clothes every day and leave him food to sustain him in the afterlife. Basically, dead Inca live a better live than I do alive.
With all this talk about death you may be wondering, did they commit human sacrifice? Or is that just something that I’m constantly thinking about everyone else in the world? The answer to both questions is yes. But, as far as human sacrifice goes, the Inca went about it in a pretty interesting way. First, they only sacrificed members of the elite class. For one, it was seen as an honor to get to go to the gods and live amongst them in the afterlife. But it also became a useful tool for elite men to gain power and influence. By offering one of his daughters for sacrifice he might get a better job from the king – how nice for him.
As far as we can tell, the Inca only sacrificed virgin girls because they were seen as the most pure humans on earth. And if it’s possible, they killed them in a relatively humane way. High on top of a mountain – like at Machu Picchu – they were given a combination of coca and chicha – an alcohol made from fermented maize – to put them into an altered state that dulled the pain. Mummies suggest that they died peacefully, normally from the cold, because they are found in relaxed seated positions, but sometimes if the death was taking too long they would be hit on the back of the head to end their suffering. Again, I’m not saying human sacrifice is OK. But if I had to be a victim of human sacrifice, I want it to be in the Inca empire. Just for the record.
So Machu Picchu was this incredible religious complex that is today a wonder of the world. But, ironically, most people even in Peru didn’t know it existed until 100 years ago. And the explorer who discovered it did so by mistake – he was looking for something else. So I guess you could say he “pulled a Columbus.”
Hiram Bingham was a Yale professor who had taken previous trips to South America looking for lost cities. He’s also cited as a possible inspiration for Indiana Jones, so let’s just picture him as a young Harrison Ford from here on out. Sound good? So Hiram Bingham was searching Peru for a place called Vilcabamba. It was the last capital and refuge of the Inca who were resisting the Spanish – but we’ll get to that in a second. In 1911, he was traveling through the Sacred Valley when he met a group of villagers who assumed he was looking for the ruins that only they knew about. They had been completely covered by rainforest but the villagers took him up to see what would become known as Machu Picchu. He believed this was the “lost city” he had been searching for, he wrote a book about it, and now the road up the mountain is called the Hiram Bingham Highway. Cool!
Interestingly, we actually shouldn’t think of Machu Picchu as ruins because that implies that it was once complete and then collapsed. It was actually a work in progress that was abandoned – it would be as if the Romans had just never gotten around to building the other half of the wall of the Colosseum. Everyone working on the project in the 1500s had to stop to focus on a more immediate concern…
Act 3: The Fall of the Inca
So hopefully by now I’ve established that the Inca were incredible. I’ve been converted from a lifelong Mongols and Aztecs fan to Team Inca! All the way! So how did this civilization fall?
We know the basic answer already (if you don’t – then go back and check out Season 1) – guns, germs, steel and native allies. Not everyone was as happy to be a part of the Inca Empire as I would have been, so when Pizarro came through, he picked up help from natives along the way.
But, the Inca were also in the middle of a civil war. Remember in Act 1 when I mentioned that one of the last emperors had multiple sons – two by the queen and one by another woman? Uh oh. When their father and his oldest son – the assumed heir – died, probably of smallpox as the disease traveled ahead of the conquistadors, the two younger sons both claimed the throne. The legitimate son Huascar had the benefit of being part of the royal line. But his half-brother, Atahualpa, had spent more time with his father as he expanded north into Ecuador and so he was much more respected by the military and they supported his bid for power. And since their father and the oldest brother both died suddenly, he hadn’t had a chance to nominate a new heir in the case of his eldest son’s death. Cue: HBO-style war for the Inca throne.
Through a series of battles, Atahualpa and his soldiers won the war and assumed control of the throne. But on the same day that a message from his generals arrived declaring complete victory, a small group of white men descended into the town around his royal complex. Well, that was short-lived.
The conquistadores were not an especially esteemed group of men. Francisco Pizarro was illiterate and when he approached the king of Spain about an expedition into South America, he wouldn’t provide him any of his men because they were currently fighting a war with England. For context – the same year that Pizarro arrived in Peru – 1531 – Henry VII married Anne Boleyn, who would later give him a daughter named Elizabeth and get her head chopped off because of it.
But the king did let Pizarro take whatever men he wanted from his jails. So Pizarro amassed a band of criminals to go to South America in search of the city of gold, or El Dorado. And, if you think about, they found it. The Inca didn’t see metals like silver and gold as useful for trading, just for decoration. Gold represented the sun and silver the moon. In Cusco, at one of their 355 temples (yes – 355 temples in one city), they built a Garden of the Sun that had full-size trees, fields of corn, and llamas – all made out of gold. Jackpot.
The Inca had a very, very sophisticated metallurgy, but for their purposes, metals were most important as a means of display, for their color. And so they had all these techniques for creating these very thin alloys that could be used to coat stuff. They were able to work with types of metals that the Europeans didn’t understand. Yet they didn’t have steel tools. And the reason was that metal wasn’t valued in that way. They valued it for its flexibility, for its plasticity rather than its hardness.
Atahualpa and his men were not sure at first whether the conquistadors were gods. But they determined that they weren’t because they had been observed sleeping, drinking, and having relations with women. I mean, if this was ancient Greece that was like Mythology 101 – sleep, drink wine, make demigods with human women. But it was not very godly behavior, according to the Inca.
Atahualpa decided to invite the men to meet with him in his resort town of Cajamarca. With 6,000 unarmed men he received, first, the monk traveling with Pizarro. Reportedly, the monk offered Atahualpa a Bible and asked him if he would accept God and the King of Spain. Remember: the Inca had no writing so he would have had no idea what a book was. Supposedly, Atahualpa took the book, looked through it, and, finding nothing seemingly useful about it, he threw it on the ground. At that point, the monk called back to the conquistadores informing him that he would offer them all indulgences for the sins they were about to commit. (You can see why Martin Luther thought that part of Christianity was a little problematic.) The conquistadores unleashed gunfire and descended onto Atahualpa’s men, killing 2,000 people in just minutes.
Atahualpa was captured and Pizarro ruled through him as a puppet. He offered, and paid, his own ransom of the equivalent of $200 million in gold and silver but Pizarro eventually killed him anyway, after taking the money of course. Golden treasures of the Inca were taken by the Spanish and melted into bars to be shipped back to Spain.
Interestingly, there was a lot of debate about what to do with Atahualpa. Some of the Spanish men argued that he should be tried by the King of Spain, since he was also a sovereign ruler. In the end, the Spanish were paranoid that he was secretly getting messages out and ordering attacks on the Spanish. Atahualpa actually agreed to be baptized and he was given the Christian name Francisco. This didn’t stop him from being killed, it just meant he got to be killed as a Christian – he was strangled instead of being burned at the stake. How nice of them.
Even though Pizarro kept a new Inca king in power to try to give themselves an air of legitimacy, rebellions broke out across the empire against the Spanish, especially from Atahualpa’s loyal generals. This is a testament to the power of the Inca because their military continued to fight the Spanish for decades. The puppet king, Manco Inca, was eventually able to escape Cuzco where he joined the resistance. They laid siege to Cuzco for months and wiped out many of the Spanish divisions but they ultimately failed.
He retreated further back into the Sacred Valley, setting up shop at Ollantaytambo – the religious structure I mentioned before. Ironically, the two faces in the cliffside now resembled the opposing sides in the war – a white man with a beard (seen as a god by the Inca before the Spanish arrived) and an Inca king. If you visit Ollantaytambo, you will see enormous boulders sitting in the middle of a clearing. These aren’t part of ruins: that’s just where the boulder was left when Manco Inca arrived and the laborers stopped what they were doing to fight the Spanish.
They eventually had to retreat further into the jungle to a place called Vilcabamba. They set up the Neo-Inca State where Manco Inca and his family held power for decades. The last Inca, who was eventually killed by the Spanish was his son, named Tupac Amaru. The rapper, Tupac, was given this name by his mother on purpose. She was a revolutionary and a Black Panther and wanted her son to be named after another rebel from history.
Pizarro arrived in Peru in 1531 but the military conquest wasn’t complete until 1572. Think about it: the military conquest of the Aztecs took three years. The conquest of the Inca took 40. Again, I contend: the Inca were the best.
Even after the military conquest, the natives continued to resist Spanish conquest, although more subversively. Even today if you visit Peru you’ll see evidence of the native culture surviving through hundreds of years of Spanish control. One thing I noticed was that everyone we met in Peru who talked about its history referred to the Spanish colonial period with words like “occupation” or “invasion.” Especially in Cuzco, they are all still very connected to their pre-Columbian culture – much more so than in other places I’ve visited across Latin America.
We visited a kitchen that had a Christian cross over the door. But on the opposite wall, there were the skulls of their ancestors, a llama fetus, and a condor wing – all elements of the Inca religion. In museums and monasteries, we saw paintings of the Virgin Mary wearing traditional Inca clothing. This is called syncretism and it’s one of my favorite things to look for when I travel. Syncretism means taking different religious beliefs or elements of different cultures and mixing them together.
Peru, and South America in general, is an incredible mix of different cultures. Between indigenous people, Spanish settlers, and African slaves, they have a heritage that is unique and full of history. For example, in the late 1800s, when China and Japan were being forced open by the West (remember all the opium?), a lot of Asians came to South America, just like they traveled to California to work on the railroads. So when you walk around Peru, even in the rainforest towns, you’ll find Chinese food restaurants serving “chifa” – a mix of Chinese and Peruvian food.
In Cusco, almost everyone still speaks Quechua, the language of the Inca. And the natural world is still incredibly important to the people of Peru. It’s easy to see why. Driving on our bus through the Sacred Valley, I was able to turn away from my teenagers sleeping or staring at their phones, look out the window, and easily transport myself back to the time of the Inca. The Urubamba River is massive and clear, surrounded by green mountains that shoot up into the Clouds.
But things are changing. Just in the ten years between my first and second trips to Peru, the small town around Machu Picchu – called Aguas Calientes – was unrecognizable. Literally. I asked our tour guide if there was another town near Machu Picchu because it was so entirely different from the tiny village that I remembered.
My point is that you should go to Peru. And you should go to Peru soon. Visit Machu Picchu, but also visit other sites like Ollantaytambo. Chew coca leaves and drink Pisco Sours – it’s their cocktail made of pisco, lime juice, and egg whites. Trust me, it’s great. Find locals and have them teach you how to cook – we helped make a traditional meal where everything (meat, potatoes, everything) was cooked on hot river rocks buried in the dirt. Above the underground oven was a cross and flowers and one of the locals said a blessing to the ancient gods before we dug our food out of the ground. It was awesome.
And, most importantly of all, enjoy the pan flutes. So many pan flutes.