One of the pleasures of living and working in Cusco is my daily commute walking past several beautiful Inca walls. The walls I like best (called Cyclopean) are enormous "pillowy" limestone and granite stones that seem to flow the entire length of a city block. They're made from large, smooth polygonal stones with rounded edges that are joined perfectly into irregular jigsaw patterns (see photo). Jose Maria Arguedas, the Quechua novelist, poet and anthropologist, wrote about the walls in Rios Profundos (Deep Rivers), referring to them as "undulating and unpredictable." Ernesto, the book's (autobiographical) protagonist observes, "The wall was stationary, but all its lines were seething and its surface was as changeable as that of the flooding summer rivers which have similar crests near the center, where the current flows the swiftest and is the most terrifying." The analogy to a river is a supreme compliment considering all the manual work involved in cutting, shaping, transporting and positioning these stones.
The Incas had no metals stronger than copper or bronze with which to cut the stones. They often drove wooden wedges into rock fissures, then poured water into the resulting cracks and waited for it to freeze, expand and split the rock. Most of the time they used slightly harder "hammer stones" to shape the stones and then used smaller stones to sand them. Many of these stones and boulders were transported over several miles from the quarry sites to their eventual location. At the ancient fortress of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, boulders were transported from a quarry almost 4 miles away, across the swift Urubamba river and up a ramp to the fortress site. Bear in mind that the Inca's only beast of burden, the llama, could carry a maximum of 75 pounds and many boulders weigh over a ton, so this was all done using ramps, log-rollers, ropes and the labor of many men. The most amazing feat is the positioning and fitting of the stones within the wall. The strength and skill required to suspend a one-ton boulder directly above where it is to be placed, while shaping and sanding the joints to accommodate their placement, is mindboggling.
When the Spaniards conquered Cusco, they repurposed many of the stones for churches and administrative buildings. Walking through the streets of Cusco, another repurposing of Inca walls is evident; they are often used as public urinals. Whenever we walk the kids to their afternoon volunteer job, we walk past Ladrillos alley and the smell of urine is overpowering. We refer to the walls here as "stinka." Around the city, it's not uncommon to see a man stopping to relieve himself against a wall in broad daylight.
After the conquest, the Spaniards themselves constructed walls, but the difference in quality and strength is evident. Over 4,000 miles into his 1952 South American motorcycle odyssey, Ernesto "Che" Guevara got this response when asking which walls were Inca and which were Spanish: "We, as a joke, call this one the Inca wall and that one the wall of the Incapables, those were the Spanish." The difference is clear to my daughter, who when she sees a wall made by the Spanish, calls it a "finka" (fake-Inca) wall.