Epic Dispatches

A journey through God’s country.

Sites unseen: Inca heartland

2024-04-11 | Inca, Cusco, Machu Picchu, Viracocha, Peru

I am told there are specific moments in a man's life when he faces his own mortality. One of them is the first time he must ask one of his children to do something for him that he cannot do for himself. That moment came for me on the Inca Trail about 200 yards shy of the summit of Warmi Wañusqa Pass, which is just shy of 14,000 feet.

The year was 2000. I was hiking to Machu Picchu, the famous Lost City of the Inca, with Sarah and Ben, teenagers at the time. By day two of the trek, thin Andes air and steep climbing had combined to add roughly 500 pounds to my backpack. I could not tote the thing one step further. That was the moment when Ben, who had already summited Warmi Wañusqa, came bounding back down and said, “Hey Dad, need some help?” Did I ever.

In spite of the paternal instinct to hide weakness from one’s offspring, I gratefully let Ben slide the pack off my dropping shoulders. He carried it to the top with no special effort, while I staggered behind, gulping air to keep from passing out. To ease my embarrassment, I reminded myself that we had raised Ben and Sarah in the Andes and therefore their lungs and legs were attuned to altitude. Indeed, Ben could nearly keep pace with the Peruvian porters who carried the food and camping gear for our party of 16 trekkers in bulging burlap bags strapped to their backs all day long, at a trot.

Warmi Wañusqa (which means “Dead Woman” in Quechua, and I can think of no place more appropriately named) is the highest point on the Inca Trail. From there it descends steadily to Machu Picchu over stone steps--about three billion, I think, though I admit I lost count--hewed out by the ancient Incas themselves.

If you have ever contemplated putting the Inca Trail on your Bucket List, let me strongly encourage you to do so. The experience is, well, breathtaking, and the sense of satisfaction upon arriving under your own steam at a magnificent destination famous the world over endures for years afterward. But take heed, along the way you may come face to face with your own mortality.

The Inca emperor Pachacuti finished construction of Machu Picchu sometime around 1450 and built the Trail linking it to Cusco so that he could spend winter months and religious holidays in the secluded citadel. Along the route, he created tambos (guest houses) spaced at intervals of one day’s hike. Local farmers kept the tambos stocked with blankets and provisions so that, unlike modern trekkers, the Inca and his entourage of nobles and soldiers were never burdened with backpacks. Pretty smart, eh?
These guys were very smart. The Incas studied the stars in order to accurately track the seasons and expertly managed soil and water resources in order to maximize crop yields. Along the Inca Trail you will find stone baths fed by springs whose temperature and flow remain constant year-round, and evidently have remained constant since the time of Pachacuti. Remnants of Cusco’s city water system still survive, too, its pipes, tanks and valves engineered entirely from stone.

Cusco itself was engineered from stone. When you get a close look at its major public buildings--the temples of Korichancha, the Inca palaces and the imposing hilltop fortress of Sacsayhuaman--you realize that the Inca were not just smart, they were flat-out geniuses.

They built to last. The granite and limestone walls of these structures fit together so tightly a razor blade cannot slide between the joints. They have remained immovable through literally centuries of earthquakes. Did I mention that the Incas did not use mortar?

Archaeologists are at a loss to explain just how these stones were milled to such precision. One thing is for sure, they did not come off an assembly line. No two are alike, many have multiple corners and edges and fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Some of the stones in the Sacsayhuaman fortress are the size of small houses and weigh tens of tons. Modern engineers are still trying to figure out how the fort’s builders transported these monsters 22 miles over hill and dale from the site where they quarried them. Did I mention that the Incas did not use wheels?
A hike on the Inca Trail will show you why Pachacuti and his entourage did not bother with wheeled conveyance. Two legs can handle the steep terrain better than a wagon, and if you need four legs to tote cargo, nothing suits the Andes better than the sure-footed llama.

Parts of the Inca Trail pass through the Sacred Valley. This narrow, 100-mile stretch of flat, fertile farmland flanking the Urubamba River is at the center of the Inca heartland. Ancient stone villages and ceremonial sites are scattered throughout the valley and on the steep slopes surrounding it. The most imposing of these is the massive Ollanta Tambo fortress that straddles a choke point in the valley and guards the final stretch of the road to Machu Picchu.
The last morning on the Trail, we arose in pre-dawn darkness to hike the few remaining miles to the Gate of the Sun, a spot several hundred feet above Machu Picchu where we waited for the sun to rise. This is a tradition among trekkers and was probably how the Incas themselves arranged their arrival. It happened to be Ben’s 15th birthday, so 150 fellow trekkers sang to him. When we finished, an Aussie accented voice said, “Hey mates, t’day is Second of July, right? Well then, it’s my birthday, too!” So, we sang a second round.

Then the sun rose, and as it did, its first rays conspicuously lit up the Intihuatana. This ritual stone carved out of a knoll in the middle of the citadel attracts subterranean rays of cosmic energy that flow to it from the cardinal points of the earth. At least, that is what a couple of starry-eyed young women from New York City had told us a few nights earlier at a cybercafé in Cusco. They said they had come to Peru to get in touch with the cosmos and had hired a tour guide who would take them to Machu Picchu and connect them directly to this cosmic energy source.

Be aware, in the unregulated tourist industry of Cusco you can find all manner of tour guides who, for a price, will tell you whatever you want to hear about the mysteries of Lost City. Fortunately, our guide was not one of them. When we descended from the Gate of the Sun to Intihuatana, he rendered a less, well, Aquarian, explanation of its importance.

“Maybe somebody has told you about rays of cosmic energy that flow to this place,” he said, adding something that sounded like “patent nonsense”, but I can’t remember the precise phrase in Spanish.

“See that small hole drilled into the west side of the stone?” he continued. “Astronomers have discovered that the shadow of the stone’s opposite corner falls precisely on that spot on the day of the winter solstice. Once they established that date, the Incas could compose an accurate calendar, year after year, with no margin of error.” Ah ha!

Did I mention that the Incas were smart guys? Oh yeah, I did. I will let you make up your own mind about the folks who theorize about rays of cosmic energy.

The Inca Trail runs smack through the middle of the Inca Heartland. That fact is reason enough to put it on your Bucket List because the Heartland lay at the very center of the vast Inca Empire.

At its zenith, the Inca Empire was the largest ever established in pre-Columbian America. It encompassed most of the present-day countries of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, and stretched into northern Chile and Argentina. The empire’s population was twice that of Spain at the time. The Inca trade language, Quechua, became South America’s most common tongue and is still spoken by millions.
One of the more extraordinary feature of the Inca Empire had to do with longevity, which was fairly short as empires go. It took less than a century for the original Inca clan to break out of its ancestral homeland in the central Andes, conquer rival tribes and city states, forge them into a brilliant civilization, and then lose the entire enterprise to a handful of Spanish conquistadores.

Perhaps you have read how, in the year 1532, Francisco Pizarro and 177 soldiers of fortune captured the emperor Atahualpa, neutralized his entire army and assumed control of the empire. Many different versions exist about how that actually happened. The Incas left no historical record because they did not use writing. Spoken Quechua worked just fine for them. The Spaniards wrote stuff down, but it was such one-sided propaganda that it’s hard to distinguish truth from fake news.

One of the more credible accounts I have heard came from a Peruvian friend who heard it from his grandfather. The story had been passed down to him through many generations of Inca ancestors. It goes like this.

As he lay dying, the Inca Huayna Kapac, called his two sons, Atahualpa and Huáscar, to his bedside and told them of an alarming omen. Days before, Huayna Kapac had watched a flock of small birds attack a powerful hawk and kill it. “Just as those small birds killed the great hawk, so a weaker enemy is going to destroy us,” he prophesied. “God is about to punish us for our sin.”

“What sin is that?” his sons asked.

“We have forgotten the True God,” Huayna Kapac said. “We’ve made for ourselves idols, which he abhors, and have fallen away from his laws. God has sent these men to kill you, rape your daughters and destroy our throne.”

Neither Huáscar nor Atahualpa heeded their father's warning. After his death, they declared war on one another, which depleted their armies and divided patriotic loyalties. The conflict ended just as Pizarro arrived in the Andes.

Evidently, Atahualpa understood something about the true God of which his father had spoken, because he issued orders not to attack Pizzaro’s men. He thought they might be messengers sent from the Great Creator God, the one the Incas called Viracocha. One of the strangers even wore long robes like those described in the legends about Viracocha. This would have been the Dominican friar, Vicente de Valverde. Valverde’s attire is probably what persuaded Atahualpa to grant the priest an audience.

At Pizarro’s insistence, this interview took place in the village of Cajamarca. Pizarro had hidden his soldiers in buildings surrounding the town plaza. They poised there with weapons at ready as Atahualpa and his entourage arrived, unarmed. Atahualpa felt it sacrilegious to bring weapons to a meeting with a representative of Viracocha.

Carrying a cross and a Bible, Valverde approached the Inca. Through a Quechua interpreter, he told Atahualpa that it was God’s will that he should submit to Emperor Charles I of Spain and join his empire to the great brotherhood of Christian nations. A skeptical Atahualpa asked Valverde how he knew this was God’s will. Valverde said that it was all contained in the Bible he held in his hand.

Atahualpa, who had never seen a book before in his life, asked the Quechua interpreter how the Bible worked. The man said, “God speaks to him in the book.” Atahualpa took the Bible from Valverde and held it to his ear. Hearing nothing, he tossed the book on the ground in disgust.

“If your God is in there, he must be very small,” he said to Valverde. “My God can hold the universe in his hand!”

The Inca's contempt for the sacred Book convinced Valverde that he was a hardened infidel who would never willingly convert to Christianity. The priest turned away and Pizarro signaled his men to commence the attack.

“Wow!” I said to my Peruvian friend when he finished his story. “That sounds a lot like the historical accounts I have come across. Have you read those books?” I named off a few titles.

“No,” he said. “But I would like to.”

“Do you suppose your grandfather ever read them?”

He blinked. “My grandfather couldn’t read.”

I blinked back, realizing that we had just struck upon a principal that serious journalists follow when reporting news. If two or more sources independently agree on the facts of an event, you can be confident that their information is close to the truth. Close enough, at any rate, to go to press with the story.

The stories my Peruvian friend heard from his grandfather also validated a phenomenon that missionaries call “redemptive bridges.” Gospel workers the world over have come across surprising links between the Scriptures and ancient beliefs of indigenous peoples. Mission researcher Hannah Sevedge Ahn, defines such links as “a practice or belief native to a given culture that distinctly parallels or illustrates the gospel."

In our years of missionary work, Barbara and I have witnessed the impact of redemptive bridges upon descendants of Inca culture. Let me give a couple examples.

First of all, unlike we post-moderns of European descent, Andean peoples display an acute sense of the Holy. They seem to understand right off the bat that God is pure and righteous, and we are not.

Our Inca Trail guide explained, for instance, that when the Inca and his entourage reached the final tambo on the way to Machu Picchu, instead staying just overnight, they spent several days there in order to purify themselves. They repeatedly bathed in the tambo’s spring-fed stone pools, carefully washed all their clothes, and spent hours each day in self-examination to expose bad behavior that might offend Viracocha. These rituals, they believed, rendered them worthy to enter the sacred environs of Machu Picchu.

This custom holds an uncanny resemblance to the procedures that God commanded Levitical priests to perform before entering Temple service (see Numbers, chapter eight). It also parallels a spiritual discipline that native Bolivian Christians observe nowadays. The first Sunday of every third month, they arise before dawn to ascend to a deserted mountaintop. There they spend the day in fasting and prayer, with their Bibles open before them, asking God to reveal His will. They call this exercise “Repentance.”

Another redemptive bridge is what our mentor, Dr. Homer Firestone, called the Viracocha Complex. He defined the Complex as an expectation, ingrained in Andes culture, that one day messengers of the True God will show up. The Incas knew something about the Creator God because of what they observed in creation (see Romans, chapter one). But they also knew that what they knew was woefully incomplete. Someday, however, Viracocha would come and fill in the blanks, and then they would know all they needed to know in order to know the True God Himself.

The Viracocha Complex explains why, even today, Andean peoples expect accurate information about God to come to them from outside their own environment. I could cite dozens of examples of how the Complex acts as a bridge for the gospel, but I would rather you hear it straight for the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

My long-time friend and fellow preacher, Florencio Colque, a descendant of the Incas and one of the first in his village to follow Jesus, said this once in a sermon to a Quechua congregation:

We learned from our grandfathers to walk a certain road. They told us, "You must worship this well, this rock, this mountain peak." When we asked them why this was, they said, "Because this is the teaching we have received from our grandfathers."

Then humble men came to us with the gospel. They spoke to us so that we could understand and believe. Now we have come out of the darkness, we have entered the light. Now we worship God in spirit and in truth.

When I was a boy, I called my sheep. "Baaa! Baaa!" I called and they listened. When they were certain it was me calling, they followed because they recognized my voice. In the same way we recognize Jesus's voice from all the others, and follow Him.

I know what you’re thinking. “Okay, I get it, but this is nothing new. I’ve heard the same things about Jesus and the gospel all my life.” Exactly. The gospel is the gospel, and every person the world over can understand the story of redemption if they hear it in language they understand. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, and every person the world over will acknowledge him as the True God and their best friend, once they recognize his voice.

This truth is precisely what motivated Homer Firestone and Florencio Colque to take the gospel to the descendants of the Inca. It is what motivates countless other missionaries and itinerant preachers the world over to do what they do. For my part, I consider it the most urgent work being done on earth today.

Because sooner or later, the moment will come when all of us must face our own mortality.

For more on Florencio, Homer and the impact of the gospel on Andean peoples, see my book Song of the Andes (London: SPCK, 2002). Available on Amazon.com or by email at davidm@latrompeta.org.