Nations Unknown: Tawantinsuyu

TawantinsuyuTawantinsuyu is the name the Incas gave to their empire. It means in Quechua, “Four Regions Together” or “Four Directions-under-the-sun United” – and reflects the expansion of the Incas from their homeland in the Cusco region of south-central Peru. By the time the Spanish arrived and took over the show, the Inca Empire had stretched north to Columbia; west to the Peruvian coastlands; south far into Chile and east into the Aymara lands of Bolivia. Of course, the modern nation of Tawantinsuyu doesn’t exist in any official sense and you will hardly find it mentioned anywhere beyond history books and the propaganda of some of the more ambitious American Indigenous groups. However there are some important elements to traveling through this part of the world that we couldn’t fail to see and thus begin to believe that these lands are in fact a nation unknown.

Tawantinsuyu shares a geography: The Andean mountain range which rises up in Colombia and runs for the thousands of miles south. On its eastern flanks are the Amazonian highlands – to the west, there’s the driest desert in the world stretching down the coast. This area shares a people: It was always the most populated part of South America and gave rise to many civilizations and cultures – it still has a large indigenous population whose style and look draws deep distinction with anywhere else on the planet. It shares a history:  From times before the Incas through domination by the Spanish and the struggle to survive in the modern world. And, also, they share the rainbow flag.

The Incan identity

But while the notion of Tawantinsuyu hardly exists, it is the legacy of and identification with the Incan Empire that is more visible in the minds and lives of the Andean peoples.  In search of a cultural tradition to either stand proud against modern-day exploitation, to repair the dignities lost in a colonial past or to forge new nationalisms, the concept of Inca is used wherever their empire stretched. So, in Ecuador, for example, the indigenous Saraguros people have increasingly built a self-identity with the Incas, naming schools and offices after Inca emperor –heroes and taking Quechua names as they take their place in the pan-Ecuadorian indigenous organizations that have formed to protect indigenous rights. On a grander scale, in Peru, the Inca legacy as a great empire centered on Cusco has been adopted on a country-wide level and used to build a national identity that is not simply to draw in the tourists. Equally in Bolivia, where the Aymara language and culture predates Inca control and the use of Quechua, the modern process of indigenous political emancipation and equality has employed symbols that have as much to do with conquering Incas as they have with any of the more ancient traditions.

No one is quite sure when the more organized cultures arose in this part of the world. Ruins have been found that date back to times before the Giza Pyramid of Egypt, some 5000 years ago – and the years since have been sketched in with the rise and fall of such civilizations as the Chavin, Paracas, Nazca, Huari and Tiwanaku. Many of these cultures held similar religious beliefs and managed the dry desert, mountain valleys or altiplano using the same technologies. It is obvious, of course, that there is a continuous evolution from the earliest to the later, culminating in the Inca. In fact, the Inca had only moved beyond their homelands to control this vast area in the century before smallpox arrived to ravage their population – followed within a few years by the Spanish. In the north of their empire, some of the regions would have had only a generation or two of Inca domination before they were forced to submit to the Spanish crown instead. Even at the center of the empire, Machu Pichu (that amazing feat of construction and engineering) was only completed a few months before the age of the Incas drew to a close. And yet, though there may have been only a mere flash of Inca right at the end of a long and industrious Andean culture, it is the Inca identity which is assumed by the descendants of their subjects.

Let’s perform a thought experiment: Imagine that Germany had won the First World War and had assumed control over Europe. A couple of generations later, then, imagine that the US had suddenly invaded and completely and utterly took control for the next few hundred years. In the distant future, an indigenous European people emerging from American dominance are searching for an identity by which they can promote their rights, preserve their dignity and take their place at the political decision-making table.  But instead of re-adopting the notions of French, British, Spanish or Italian, the Europeans are thinking themselves as the inheritors of a German culture – even if in reality they had only been forced to be German for a short while before being forced to be American.

The formation of an Andean identity

So why is this kind of what we see in South America? The first two answers to this are, of course, what happened during those years of Spanish control and what happened before, as the Incas built their empire. The Spanish Conquistadores were quick to destroy as much as they could of the symbols of indigenous identity that they found. Temples and buildings were torn down and recycled as churches, records were burnt and traditional practices were forbidden. The people were forced to dress differently and their whole society was rearranged to benefit the new rulers. And within these ashes the truths and facts of life before the Incas were seldom preserved.

But this process of forgetting was kicked off by the Incas themselves. As they expanded across the region, they practiced their own version of the classic “divide and rule” which they called mitmaqkuna. They transplanted conquered communities far from their ancestral lands so that their “federated” empire was a hotch-potch of different ethnicities. Going back to the example of the Saraguros in Ecuador:  Many of these people are descendants of a group that was forcibly moved there from Lake Titicaca, thousands of miles south in Peru, by the very same Inca conquerors they are presently working to identify with. This relocation of communities was performed all over the Incan empire and, once it fell to the Spanish, many people attempted to return to their proper ancestral homelands. The reality was a mixing, blending and unification of a large proportion of indigenous population… A second Incan effect was the spread of their own form of Quechua which quickly became a lingua franca throughout the empire. The Spanish were quick to use this single language to communicate with the varied peoples. And because of this it became easier for them to characterize the indigenous as a single cultural entity – a unification of identity that is still so evident today.

Which brings us to the modern nation of Tawantinsuyu.  The flag that I has been chosen to represent Tawantinsuyu is the rainbow flag known as the Wiphala. You set it fluttering proudly outside houses as soon as you climb into the Andes crossing south from Colombia. By the time you get to Cuzco it is deployed in the central plaza as the official symbol for that city, the former capital of Tawantinsuyu – and, in Bolivia, it’s alternate, squared version, has been adopted as the national flag, paired up with their traditional tri-color on police uniforms, government buildings and military aircraft. The Wiphala’s origins are pretty vague. It is known that the Inca employed a three-color rainbow combined with serpents as the crest for the Inca Emperor himself and remains of vases from the ancient Tiwanaku capital in present-day Bolivia also depict the squared pattern. But the very idea of a flag, fluttering high in the breeze and emblematic of a nation is a European invention and, so, we must examine what is meant by the indigenous communities, the length and breadth of the Andes adopting this re-vitalized motif.

In the north, the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador have long been fighting the commercial exploitation of their lands. In Peru, where they have brought in an “Indigenous Peoples Consultation Law”, to include the indigenous in decisions about mining or oil extraction,  they are now arguing who is truly indigenous and who is ‘merely’ a highland peasant. In Bolivia, Evo Moralas, the first indigenous ruler of a South American country, continues the “socialist” revolution and tries to make it acceptable to all the peoples of that divided country. The modern nations might be separate but the concerns are the same – that the original peoples have long been treated badly by outsiders and that they face a hard struggle to reconcile their situation with the rapidly developing world they exist in – even as they are afforded more and more rights. An identity, a background or a conscious history is an essential tool in this fight and they find that, by adopting an Incan identity and the rainbow flag, their heritage is actually a shared one that exists all over this region that was once called Tawantinsuyu.



Drive From Lima To Cuzco

Two Hours by Plane, A Day by Bus – Nearly a Week with our L.O.C.

After so many months in Lima, we were really looking forward to the drive to Cuzco. Time to let the cobwebs blow free and get some movement on again. For this run we had a couple of Londoners on board – a pleasure and a privilege for LOC Jigsaw to have a full crew and an opportunity to share a great travelling experience where every stop on the five-day journey will be something unique. The best thing about Peru is that it hardly matters which road you take – there are always going to be amazing things to see along the way and the drive from Lima to Cuzco via Nazca is no exception.

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Day One: Lima to Paracas

The long desert road down the coast is an easy drive and eased us all into the trip. Turning off the Pan-American Highway at Pisco which is one of the traditional centers of the Peruvian distilled grape juice called Pisco – surprisingly enough. Most of this town was destroyed in a powerful earthquake in 2007, the cathedral is still a ruin and, as we drive through to the coast and then south past foul-smelling fish meal factories  to the Paracas Nature Reserve, many of the buildings are still crumbling with gaps and piles of rubble between them.

We get to the Nature Reserve a little before sunset – enough time to pay the S/.5 per person entrance and drive over to the tiny port of Lagunillas where we camp up under an emerging starry sky.

Day Two: Paracas to Huacachina

Woke up to strong sunshine, beautiful blue sea and an endless sandy landscape stretching behind us – this barren landscape is a unique desert and the reserve is home to many kinds of birds, lizards and sea lions, foxes and dolphins. We went in search of the Mirador de los Lobos which is a cliff-top overlooking an island where thousands of sea lions hang out with the chance of seeing whales further off-shore. The track we took skirted a salty estuary and became a wash-board road and then climbed up on to the cliffs. We abandoned the truck where our heavy two-wheel drive could do no more and continued on foot for a couple of hours across this incredible scenery.

From Paracas it was a short drive to Ica, to pick up some supplies and then Huacachina, a unique oasis set among enormous sand dunes. After playing it safe in Paracas, of course, we had to get stuck here, trying to park up at the bottom of an enormous pile of sand as darkness quickly fell. Sure, we thought it was a car park – but probably a car park reserved for the dune buggies that took tourists out on excursions around.

Day Three: Huacachina to Nazca

Again, today was a short drive up onto the plateau that is famous for the mysterious Nazca Lines. First stop is at the viewing platform by the side of the highway. It’s only a couple of Sols to climb a twenty-metre high steel construction, ignore any vertigo inducement and enjoy this small section of the enormous earthworks. From here you can see three of the figures fairly clearly: a Tree, Hand and Parrot. Just a little further down the road you can climb up small hillocks and from here, although you don’t get to see any more of the figures, you do see close up some of the perfectly straight lines racing off into the distance and you do get a feel for the enormity of the whole thing.

On to Nazca itself, we stopped at some ruins on the outskirts of the town on that road that would take us up to the Altiplano. Not for the first time on the Peruvian leg of our earthcircuit, we could park up in the remains of some ancient citadel called Los Paredones. While the rest of the crew explored the adobe structure and the rocky hillside it was built against, the pilot had to make some running repairs on our ship (the handbrake mechanism had been wobbled loose driving over the corrugated tracks of Paracas). Climbing into the mountains the next day demanded a working hand brake and it was better to do it here, more or less at sea level, while there was the oxygen available to remove and replace all the back wheels and drums…

Day Four: Nazca to the Edge of Space

Maybe we’re just getting used to driving in mountains, but it didn’t’t seem like a long climb up. But it was. About four thousand five hundred meters. 4.5km. Doesn’t sound much but our ship is a Low Orbiting Craft and this, a tiny village in the Cotaruse District where we finally came to a stop at 4600m above sea level was like the edge of space. Beautiful drive up; the gray desert giving way to sparse green vegetation and herds of vicunas as we crossed the Pampas Galeras Natural Reserve; the sinuous climbing highway leveling out as we crossed into the highlands. We had a late lunch with coca tea to alleviate the developing altitude sickness but, even at our sedate pace, we were traveling too quickly for any comfortable acclimatization. By the end of the day it was very much a near-death type of painful: Thumping headaches for the pilot, nausea and vomiting for some of the passengers. I tried to say hello to the locals but all I could hear was blood pounding through my head. I tried to appreciate the incredible night sky, brilliant stars closer to us than ever before but my banging head was hung low with hood up hat I might die in peace…

Day Five: Cotaruse to Cconocc

A fitful night’s sleep followed by another exhausting drive through sparsely inhabited lands was the plan for our fifth day from Lima towards the fabled Inca city of Cuzco. After remaining above 4000m for quite a few hours we dropped into the valleys that led to Abancay and the gateway into the Cuzco Province. We were pretty much starving by the time we stopped at a restaurant on the edge of town wandering if we had the energy or daylight to cover the final couple of hundred klicks to our destination. The pilot said no – the map revealed hours of twisting climb ahead – and the restaurant owner advised us to overnight at the Cconocc hot springs just a few kilometers on.

We had been thinking about finding a river to stop at; a chance to wash ourselves, the truck and our clothes so that we might arrive in Cuzco fresher than we were – and that wishful thinking appeared to have got us some hot springs! With raised spirits we turned off the road and dropped a few hundred meters into a hidden valley with a surging river and lukewarm water gushing out to fill several deep pools.

Day Six: Cconocc to Cuzco

After a few long days on the road, thermal springs represent just about the best place to park up and soak away the pain. And we did just that: loitering until the sun had climbed high above us and we felt ready for the final push. Cconocc proved to be the perfect step before the big city, marred only by the itchy bites from some kind of tiny fly.

First there was a long climb up to attain the altitude that Cuzco sits at; a megalithic guardian watching over the Inca’s Sacred Valley. That section of road was in a bad state and slowed us right down for fear that the hand brake would come loose again. We picked up some hitch-hikers, local teachers happy not to have to squeeze on board their usual transit, and we picked up speed leveling out on the better highway heading in. Our low-orbiting craft purring happily with a full load and the destination in sight as if it could recall its previous life as a bus on the other side of the planet.

Smiles all round, then, as we curled around the hillsides, the city laid out below us. The end of an epic journey: not so much because of the distance – a mere six hundred miles – but because of the differences in the environments between the capital by the coast and this ancient place high up in the hills. The drive from Lima to Cuzco is the kind of journey Peru should be famous for.