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What is Qenqo in Cusco?

There are so many incredible archeological sites around Cusco, Peru, that tourists rarely make it to them all. Did you know there’s a Temple of the Moon up on the hill behind San Blas? It has a well-preserved section of the Inka Trail from the Amazon, running right up to the edge of the hill overlooking the city. But it’s usually empty. There just isn’t time for many people to see all Cusco has to offer. But Qenqo is close to Saqsaywaman. If you make it to the massive stone walls of Saqsaywaman and its views over the city, access to Qenqo is included on your admission ticket. It’s a relatively short walk away. The thing is, when I saw photos of Qenqo, it didn’t look like much. I was wrong about it, though. I didn’t understand what it was. So let’s first answer the question “What is Qenqo?”–because it’s much more than a pile of rock. 

You go under Qenqo

The Qenqo complex played some important ritual role around death. There is a stone amphitheater for ceremonies. Some of the carvings on top of the rock align with astronomical phenomenon. And there’s a winding tunnel (“qenqo” = “labyrinth”) and canal the dives down under that massive carved rock and then passes out the other side.

Inside of the tunnel are altars and alcoves that may have been for offerings, for embalming mummies, for some rite of passage that the living would perform–we don’t know exactly. But, if you’ve visited other Inkan-era sites (like taking the Inka Trail to Machu Pichu), a stop by Qenqo will help you understand Inkan cosmology better. It’s a significantly larger, more intricate Earth Temple than the one you’ll see at Machu Pichu. And you get to pass through the underworld here! To understand the site, it helps to know a bit about how the Inka perceived the universe.

The amphitheater areas is ringed with a stone wall that has alcoves in it, that look like large seats, but imagine how cool it would look if those were all filled with candles at night before descending into the tunnel under the rock.

What's a huaca?

Qenqo is a (big, maybe the biggest) huaca. You’ll see others around Cusco (stop by the Huaca Sapantiana and the old aqueduct on your way up to Saqsaywaman) and across the old empire. They’re aligned with the Sun Temple in Cusco by a set of ritual lines called “ceques”. The huaca were like stone rivets holding the empire together. They connected pilgrims and travelers to the Sun Temple back at the center of the universe (Cusco), and they served important ritual purposes.

Huacas are the bones of Pachamama punching through the dirt. The stone monoliths and natural altars of a huaca provide an opportunity to knock directly on Mother Earth’s door and ask for things or share offerings with her or loved ones that had returned to the earth (and then on to the world above as a star (because it’s all just a big loop)).

So the huaca gets us close to the underworld. But the huaca at Qenqo is unique in that we actually go down into the underworld. That also teaches us something about Inkan understanding of the universe you’ll see repeated at other sites you visit…

Qenqo does look like just a big rock until you notice expertly carved, smooth steps leading down into a tunnel, through which you can see more unnaturally straight lines caught in sunlight falling through holes above.

Mirrors, symmetry, doubles, and dioramas

Similar to religious practices still widely popular today, the idea with Inkan spiritual sites is that the structure and rituals of the site allowed you to communicate more closely with the spirit realm. They did this through doorways, windows and recreating the geography of the spirit realm in our world, so that you could walk with the spirits and have a chat.

My favorite example of this was at Choquequirao, where a temple had false doorways with real windows that looked through to real doorways with false windows. You can see a photo in this post: Day-by-day review: The Choquequirao Trek with Alpaca Expeditions) That false window would’ve held some relic, an effigy, or a mummy of an important person, the equivalent of a saint in a Catholic church. The architecture / geometry is meant to allow you as a person in this world to communicate to that saint in the world where they are now looking back at you through their window.

At Qenqo, it’s likely it wasn’t just an underground passageway, but intended to give you access to the underworld spirit realm, and give the spirits there, access to our world. 

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