The Center of the Universe Revisited


As I posted while abroad, we visited Machu Picchu with a Peruvian Archaeologist named Victor Yanez.  Although I spoke breifly about our pilgrimage to the site, I do not think I did it justice.  So after much contemplation and a perusal of our photographs here is my updated account.

Machu Picchy means “old Mountain” in the Quechua language.  The site is situated on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley in Peru, which is 80 kilometers (50 mi) northwest of Cusco.


In an earlier post on the Andean Cross, I talked about the 3 levels of the universe: the sky, earth, and underworld.  The city of Cusco was laid out in the shape of a puma, representing the earth.  This pattern continues with Machu Picchu, which is laid out in the shape of a condor, representing the heavens. In one areas there was a formation of rocks, some natural and other worked, places as to create a condor.  We could walk into a cave at its center, into the condor and through to the other side.

The sacred geography is recreated in the built environment throughout the site.  In many places rocks have been carved in exact replica of the Andean Mountains behind them.

The heavens are integrated into the site through the use of astronomy.  In several areas, on the summer solstice light will shine through the windows to illuminate sacred stones.  There were also 2 viewing pools, basins with water that reflected light.

Although known locally, Machu Picchu was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham.  Since the site was never known to the Spanish during their conquest, it is highly significant as a relatively intact cultural site.

There are several theories about how Machu Picchu was used during prehistory, but that will have to wait for another day…

*Photos courtesy of Patrick Lebo, aka Pachagordo…


Oh the Wakas I’ve Seen!

Hola Peru Fans!

Today I would like to ponder Peruvian wakas. As I mentioned last time, a waka is a holy place. According to Andean cosmology, wakas are arranged along imaginary lines that radiate out from the temple of the sun in Cusco. Remember to the Inca, Cusco was the center of the universe. These holy places were envisioned as connected to it.



Ollantaytambo was one of the first wakas we visited in the Cusco region. It is 60 km northwest from the city. Ollantaytambo was the the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti who conquered the region. He built the town and ceremonial center within it. The site was used both for religious purposes and as a fortress.


Today, Sacsayhuaman is a 20,000 ha archaeological park on the northern outskirts of Cusco that includes severl wakas: Sacsayhuman itself, Tambomachay, Puca Pucara, and Q’uenqo. Sacsayhuaman included a Sun Temple which suggests that the complex was the focus of ritual activities. The large plaza area, capable of holding thousands of people, is well designed for ceremonial activities and several of the large structures at the site may also have been used during rituals. Today, Peruvians celebrate Inti Raymi, the annual Inca festival of the winter solstice and new year. It is held near Sacsayhuamán on 24 June.


Tambomachay is a temple dedicated to water. Water was a sacred element not only to the Inca, but to many indigenous cultures throughout the Americas. The site consistes of a series of aquaducts, channels, and several waterfalls taht run through the rocks.

Puca Pucara

Puca Pucara was used as a resting place by Incan travelers. Puca Pucara means “Red Fort” in Quechua, and comes from the red color of the rocks at dusk. Puca Pucara is an example of military architecture that also functioned as an administrative center. The fort is made of large walls, terraces, and staircases.


Q’uenqo means “labrynth” in QuechuaThe use and meaning of this site still remain an mystery to historians and archeologists.  The ceremonial site is shaped like a semicircular amphitheater about 4 m high, there is an all but destroyed rock carving of an upstanding puma at it’s center. In the walls that border the main court are 19 niches carved in stone that reasearchers believe served as seating.


Qorikancha means golden temple in Quechua. It is located within the city of Cusco and was an important temple within the Inca Empire, dedicated primarily to Inti, the Sun God. It has been said that the walls and floors were once covered in sheets of solid gold, and its adjacent courtyard was filled with golden statues. Spanish reports tell of its opulence that was “fabulous beyond belief.”  When the Spanish required the Inca to raise a ransom in gold for the life of the leader Atahualpa, most of the gold was collected from here. The Spanish colonists built the Church of Santo Domingo on the site, demolishing the temple and using its foundations for the cathedral. Today, visitors can see both the church itself and what is left of the foundations of the temple.

And of course, there is Machu Picchu. But I will save that for another day…

*Photos courtesy of Pam Baldwin – Photographer at large 🙂

Peruvian Prehistory

Most people are familiar with the Ancient Inca, and as an archaeologist I had some basic knowledge that there were other cultures that predated the Inca.  However, on our trip we gained a much wider knowledge of Peruvian prehistory.

Many cultures characterized the pre-history of the Andean region before the Inca culture.  The oldest radiocarbon dates for the Andean region go as far back as 18,000 years ago.  The Inca were only the last 300 years before Spanish colonization.  Here is the cliff notes version of what we learned:


  • The oldest pre-Inca culture in the northern Andean highlands of Peru from 900 BC to 200 BC.
  • The most well-known archaeological site of the Chavín era is Chavín de Huántar, located in the Andean highlands north of Lima.
  • It is believed to have been built around 900 BC and was the religious and political center of the Chavín people.


  • (600 BC – 200 EC) established on the peninsula of Paracas, influencing the area which is now known as the department of Ica.
  • Characterized by their big, underground necropolis where bodies were preserved as mummies wrapped in luxurious cloths and mantles, forming conical bales that were conserved under excellent conditions by the characteristics of the sands of the area, and cranial trepanations.


The Candelabra is a well-known prehistoric geoglyph found on the northern face of the Paracas Peninsula at Pisco Bay in Peru.  We visited this geoglyph on our first day in Peru.  While no one knows exactly who created it, pottery found nearby has been radio carbon dated to 200 BCE, the time of the Paracas culture.  The design is cut two feet into the soil, with stones possibly from a later date placed around it. The figure is 595 feet tall, large enough to be seen 12 miles at sea.  It is approximately 595 feet long, and is visible for several miles out to sea. The geoglyph consists of 2-foot-deep (0.61 m) trenches carved into the hillside and stones used to mark its edges.  Local tradition holds that it represents a lightning rod or staff of the god Viracocha, who was worshipped throughout South America.


  • In Quechua the word Nazca means the land of suffering
  • (300 BC – 1,000 EC): their main cultural center was established on the valley of Nazca in the department of Ica; they dominated the valleys of Chincha, Pisco, Ica and Nazca.
  • Their economic activity was based on agriculture, trade and fishing. In agriculture they achieved a high development, skilled manufacturers of hydraulic works, underground aqueducts, artificial watering systems, reservoirs that are still well-preserved and in daily use.


This culture is probably best know for the Nazca lines, a series of ancient geoglyps located in the Nazca Desert, south of Lima.  We visited Nazca and had the opportunity to fly over the lines on the second day of our trip.  Our guide, Luis, thinks it was a Waka, or holy place, that ancient people made pilgrimages to in order to release their suffering.  He believed that people walked the lines as part of their pilgrimage. 


  • (300 – 1200 EC.) settled down in the north coast, between the valleys of Lambayeque and Huarmey
  • the Moche were not politically organized as a monolithic empire or state. Rather, they were likely a group of autonomous polities that shared a common elite culture.
  • The nation was of theocratic organization, in its decadence was absorbed by the Chimú nation.


  •  (700 – 1100 EC.) also known as “Lambayeque Culture”, settled down in the north coast, Poma was its cultural center (Batán Grande), located in Lambayeque.
  • The nation was organized religiously, and its trace in the history gets lost associated to a great drought that lasted more than 30 years.


  • The Wari Empire was a political formation that emerged around AD 600 in the central highlands of Peru and lasted for about 500 years, to 1100 AD.
  • It operated about the same time as the Tiwanaku culture ( western Bolivia) and at one time was thought to have been derived from it.
  • Our guide at the regional museum in Ica described this culture as militant and war-like.


  • This nation has Naylamp as mythological origin, legendary character that arrived by the sea in a great fleet of rafts and warriors’ retinue from a foreign country to San José’s beaches (Lambayeque) and from there they were able to subordinate the Mochica nation that was in decadence, of whom they adopted their language.
  • This culture was contemporary to the Inca culture, and they reached as territorial domain the whole north coast, from Tumbes to the fortress of Paramonga in Lima.
  • They had their apogee in the XIV century, they rejected the Inca domain permanently, with bloody battles, and they were conquered partially, until their total domain by the Spanish conquerors in the XVI century.


  • The Inca kingdom was divided in four big “suyos” (counties or sectors)
  • The four “suyos” converged in the Koricancha, the most important sacred temple of the Incas in the city of Cusco, to where all the roads arrived.
  • Their cultural and religious center was the city of Cusco (the navel of the world) where the “Zapa Inca” resided with his real court.
    • Cusco – from the Quechua work Qosqo – origin, navel, belly button,
    • it was the center of the Inca kingdom        
    • Inca was not the name the people called themselves but the title of the king.


We spent the most time, 9 days, in Cusco.  It was a beautiful city, full of history and culture.  It was my favorite city that we visited during our time in Peru.  I will describe some of our experiences there in a later post.

Hasta Luego!

*Photos Courtesy of: Pam Baldwin

The Andean Cross

Today I was contemplating the Andean Cross.  In the Quechua language  this cross is called Chakana. It’s name comes from the Quechua word “Chakay” meaning to cross or bridge.

Incan life and society was based upon prinicples of belief and behavior that is symbolized by the Chakana.  The chakana still holds meaning to modern day Andean culture.  Art and jewlery made by Incan descendants often depict the Chakana.  In fact, I purchased a lovely silver Chakana pendant while I was in Cusco.

The Chakana is a 3-stepped cross symbolizing the 3 tiers of Inca life:

  • Hanan Pacha: the upper world of the stars, celestial beings and gods (It’s animal totem is the condor)
  • Kay Pacha: the middle world of Mother Earth and human life (represented by the puma)
  • Uqhu Pacha: the lower world of the underworld and death ( represented by the serpent)

The circle in the center denotes Cusco, the navel of the Inca Empire.  Cusco, from the Quechua word “Qosqo” means origin, navel, belly button.  The entire Incan universe is thought to have radiated out from this central point of the Inca kingdom.  This is where the “Sapa Inca” or ruler resided with his court.

The 4 cross arms depict the 4 cardinal directions (north, south, east, & west) and the 4 classical elements (earth, air, water, & fire).  They also represent the 4 rules Andean people live by: work, love, knowledge, and sharing.

Some depicitons of the Chakana have a triangle around the hole in its center.  The 2 bottom points at the base of the triangle represent duality, such as man:woman, good:evil, and dark:light.  The peak of the triangle represents balance.

The whole symbol also represents the 12 months of the celestial year.  Many buildings, temples, and religious sanctuaries have chakana iconography.

People of Andean culture, both past and present has a rich view of the universe and their place within it.

Hasta Luego!

Home Sweet Home

It was a wonderous, adventurous 17 days. We left for Lima on May 16th full of excitement for what was in store for us and we returned home yesterday with just as much excitement. We experienced the southern Pacific coast of Peru – first in Lima, then Ica and Nazca.  We spent the most time in the Andean Mountain city of Cusco – learning Spanish, working with children, living with local families, and exploring the rich cultural and historical sites of the city. Then we flew east out of the cool, dry mountains into the hot, humid lowland Amazon jungle region.

Our trip was exciting, fun, and awe-inspiring, but we were ready to come home and see our families, to sleep in our own beds, to wash our clothes.  I think when I finally opened my suitcase, flies buzzed out of it! =)

Our journey home started on Friday.  We boarded a boat at the Jungle Lodge at 7 am to take the 2 hour ride back into civilization.  We then caught a flight from Puerto Maldonado, through Cusco, to Lima.  We overnighted in Lima Friday night.  Well, rather I should say, we spent 11 hours in Lima and it happened to be night-time.  Enough time for a long, hot shower.  I think I used an entire bar of soap.  A nice dinner, a caramel macchiato, and a nap followed. We awoke around 3 am Saturday morning and climbed aboard the bus to the airport.  We flew from Lima to Miami, and then Miami to Raleigh, NC.  Then just a short 2 hour ride home by bus.  We arrived in New Bern at 10 pm last night.  We were dirty, tired, and glad to be home.

It was a trip of a lifetime.  I would do it all again in a New York minute.  The final travel counnt by my estimation is: 8 flights, 7 boat rides, 2 trains, 18 bus trips, and at least as many taxi rides around Cusco city.   Our families were waiting when we returned.  They were a sight for our travel weary eyes.

Now that I am back, and slept an bit, and even did a few loads of jungle-grubby laundry.  I am ready to slip back into my normal routine – at least until next year!  But the story doesn’t end here.  Stay tuned for more posts in the near future.  Once I re-acclimate to my normal routine, I will be able to process everything we did while there.  I will be better able to reflect on the trip and maybe do Machu Picchu and Tambopata Ecological Reserve more justice in my recounting these experiences.  And of course there are many pictures to come!!

So, No esta adios, pero solamente hasta luego.  Vamous hablar pronto!  Buena suerte!

Bienvenidos a la Selva

Welcome to the jungle!

On Sunday, our last day in Cusco we explored the historic center of the city.  The day started quietly, with a coffee at Starbuck’s in Plaza de Armas and some skype time with my hubby.  Afterwards, several of the Craven CC crew met for lunch.  We needed sustenance to carry us through our craft market shopping spree.  We spent the afternoon wandering through the wares and ended the day at the Museo de Textiles.

Monday morning started a whole new adventure.  We left Cusco and flew into Puerto Maldonado.  From there we took a 2 hour boat ride down the Madre de Dios river to our jungle lodge.  EcoAmazonia Lodge in the Tambopata Ecological Reserve was lovely and rustic.  I do have to say, though, the shock of going from the cold dry weather of the Andean Mountains in Cusco to the hot humid jungle was shocking.  We spent the next 5 days living in thatch roofed huts with minimal niceties.  We only had electricity from 5:30pm to 10 pm in the evenings and no hot water at all.

While we were there we took several hikes through the Amazon Rainforest and paddled down the river and across a few lakes.  The flora and fauna were amazing.  I will tell you all about in next time, sleepy now!

Hasta Luego Amigos!

Chair of Social Science, Humanities,
& Foreign Languages

Liberal Arts & University Transfer
Craven Community College

800 College Court
New Bern, NC 28562
Phone: 252.638.7328
Fax: 252.638.3231

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