Inca Empire | Peru Unbound

Rise of an Empire

A legend persists concerning the origin of the Inca Empire. Four brothers emerged from Lake Titicaca. They took a long journey together. One by one they each disappeared until only one brother, Manco Capac, was left. He found his way to an area nestled in a mountain valley 10,000 feet above sea level, where the Tullamayo and Huantanay Rivers flow. Here he plunged a golden staff into the ground where the two rivers met. According to this legend, Manco Capac’s golden staff marked the beginning of the sacred city of Cusco.

Historians agree that the Inca Empire grew out of a tribe originally based in Cusco. At its strongest, the empire stretched 2,500 miles from Quito, Ecuador, to beyond Santiago, Chile. It covered the rich coastal settlements, the high mountain valleys, the rain-drenched tropical forests and the driest deserts. It’s thought that the Inca controlled 10 million people who spoke a hundred different languages. It was the largest empire on earth at the time.

The Sacred City of Cusco

Cusco was the center of the Inca world. Its first emperor, Pachacuti, took it from a modest village to a great city laid out in the shape of a puma. The head of this puma forms what is known today as Saksaywaman, puzzling remains of intricate stonework. Pachacuti had a great temple built for Inti, the Sun God, and set Inti up to be the Incas’ official patron.

Pachacuti was the first ruler to significantly expand the borders of the Cusco state. He encouraged the spread of cult ancestor worship. When a ruler died, his son inherited all of his earthly powers, but none of his possessions. Those were given to his panaqa, or other male relatives. The relatives used it to preserve his mummy and sustain his political influence. This allowed an emperor to maintain a living presence even after his death.

The natural consequence of stripping a new ruler of his father’s possessions was that the son, now the new ruler, was left to create his own wealth. The only way to do that was through land grabs, subduing more people, and expanding the Empire of the Sun.

Pachacuti’s offspring ruled after him through both violent and peaceful conquest. It’s thought that this is probably why the Inca Empire rose so quickly. With this set pattern, it was a matter of survival for subsequent rulers to maintain their position of power.

The Empire

The empire was divided into four quarters: Chinchaysuyu, Antisuyu, Kuntisuyu, and Qullasuyu. The official language of its citizens was Quechua, though it’s thought that a hundred other languages were spoken among the people. As tribes were conquered, they were still allowed to practice their own religions and lifestyles. They just had to recognize Inca cultural practices as superior to their own. This included worshipping Inti as the most important god of the empire. The Emperor was thought to be Inti’s representation on earth.   

The feast of Inti Raymi was an extravagant feast which gave thanks to the Sun God and the young women who were considered sacrificial virgins devoted to Inti.

There was an impressive transportation system in place as well. There were roads to all points of the empire. Chasquis, or message carriers relayed information from anywhere in the empire to Cusco. Every mile and a half they built way stations as resting points. Official runners sprinted between them, covering 150 miles a day. It took a little under a week for a message to travel 1200 miles from Cusco to Quito.

 Everyone was expected to contribute to the empire. One third of the land was worked for the emperor, another third for the gods, and the final third was land for personal use and profit. On top of it all, the people were also expected to pay taxes as tribute.

The Fall of the Inca

Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro captured the last Inca Emperor, Atahuallpa. Atahuallpa was ransomed for 24 tons of gold which would be worth $267 million today. The Inca people paid the ransom. The conquistadors strangled Atahuallpa anyway. The Inca Empire was a brittle one. After much battling between the Inca and the Spanish conquistadors, the death of Atahuallpa was the final straw for the Inca civilization. Everything collapsed.

Allegiance to a new Christian god soon replaced the Children of the Sun. The people of the Andes adapted as they had for thousands of years. They took what they needed from their new masters to survive, and kept as many of their old ways as they could.

Machu Picchu

The most well-known, pre-Columbian Inca ruin is Machu Picchu. It’s located on a high mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley about 44 miles northwest of Cusco. The elevation of the site is 7,711 feet above sea level.

Locals knew about the well-preserved ruin. But it wasn’t until Hiram Bingham III, a Yale archeologists stumbled upon the site and wrote a best-selling work about it, that the rest of the world became aware of the ancient site.

As one of the seven-wonders-of-the-world, Machu Picchu is one of the most visited sites in the world. Even purists who generally avoid popular tourist sites, preferring instead to find sites off the beaten path and away from crowds, make time for Machu Picchu. 

Hike Machu Picchu in comfort on our Machu Picchu Lodge to Lodge Trek.


Another well-known ruin site is Saksaywaman in Cusco. The stonework at this site confounds archeologists still today. The walls are made from massive boulders. The edges of these boulders are angular and oddly shaped, yet fit in precisely with each other. No mortar holds them together, but they remain, having survived earthquakes and the elements.

Most of the damage to the walls was inflicted during battles between the Inca and the Spanish when the Spanish invaded. As Cusco grew, the walls became a convenient source of building material for the city’s newer inhabitants. The stone used is not native to the area. Archeologists don’t know how the massive boulders were transported, but the stone likely came from mountains many miles away.