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The Mysteries of Sacsayhuaman: Caves, Tunnels, Stairs, and Thrones

Sacsayhuaman is one of the great archaeological secrets of Peru – and of the world for that matter. The megalithic stones that form its zig-zagging walls beg the question of how, why, and by whom such a spectacular citadel was built. But for the curious visitor, the northeastern edge of the complex offers an experience that is just as unique and mysterious as the famous walls. In 2017, I had the opportunity to visit and explore Sacsayhuaman’s network of caves, tunnels, stairs, and thrones.

On that cold, rainy afternoon, I spent several hours hiking around the backside of Sacsayhuaman. To reach this lesser known part of the complex, one only needs to traverse the wide, grassy plaza, then climb the long, stone stairway to the top of the mound.

(Above and below) Looking north from Sacsayhuaman's megalithic walls.

The curved outcrop is called the "suchuna" or "sliders."

The first site to greet visitors is the “suchuna” or sliders. These strange geological features are smooth and polished in the shapes of, you got it, slides. Scores of local school children had already recognized this fact, and were busy capitalizing upon the opportunity when I visited. According to some sources, the “suchuna” rock is made of limestone (like much of Sacsayhuaman), while others insist it is volcanic. I wasn’t sure. Nor did I know what to make of the outcrop’s many striations, which appear glacial (although I doubt they are). What is the mineralogical composition of this outcrop, and how did it form?

(Above) The "suchuna" sliders.

Moving on, I discovered a large circular arena that may have been the location for ceremonies. Multiple throne-like structures pepper the area, some of which have been created through placement of stones, while others have been carved into outcrops. What was the purpose of this structure?

Nearby, I found a feature that I recognized from my research. Carved into a large boulder are what appear to be upside-down steps. The precision of these cuts is extraordinary. But how does one explain their inverted orientation? Several nearby boulders – many of which are the size of a house – appear to have been violently overturned. Various edges and rails have been carved into them, but at all angles and without any apparent regularity. Why was this done? Are the carvings purely symbolic, and the seemingly random arrangement actually purposeful and intended? Or is this disjointed appearance the result of some massive cataclysm that overturned the earth, depositing these features in their current, haphazard manner?

(Above) The mysterious upside-down steps.

(Below) The precision edges carved into the (overturned?) boulders.

Leaving the upside-down stairs, I explored Sacsayhuaman’s caves. These contain various trapezoid and rectangular niches, possibly for holding mummies or offerings. They are also cut precisely and, apparently, in a random fashion. If you visit, be sure to take a flashlight!

(Above) About to enter one of the tunnels (before realizing I'd forgotten my flashlight).

My outing ended with a stroll around the arena, where I glimpsed several “throne-like” structures. Once more, I could not help but think that many of the stones seemed out of place. Evidently, Peruvian authorities have moved some of them in an attempt to improve the experience for visitors like myself. If true, this complicates the efforts of archaeologists who study the ruins.

(Above) The throne-like structures that pepper the outcrops around Sacsayhuaman.

(Below) Looking north towards Sacsayhuaman's distinctive "zig-zagging" walls.

When I left Sacsayhuaman, I had more questions than answers. Today, as I write these words, I have even more questions. This site, like so many in Peru, contains riddles that have yet to be solved by archaeologists. Whoever built Sacsayhuaman did so with great intention, reverence, and engineering brilliance. It is a must-see for lovers of history and mystery, and I hope to return someday with more answers than questions.

Originally published 01/20/2018 here. ©Beyond the Range All rights reserved. Feel free to republish so long as credit is given.

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