Question: What Andean mountain village, crisscrossed with stairways and bridges of grass, is known to the Incas as the birthplace of the rainbow?
Answer: Chinchero, Peru
The small stone village of Chinchero, located 17 miles north of Cuzco at an elevation of over 12,300 feet above sea level, does not receive nearly the number of visitors as its neighboring Cuzco, nor can it claim to be a part of the Sacred Valley. Yet travelers in the know often find their way to this Incan village in the sky, whose name in Quechua is derived from the word sinchi, meaning “brave man.” According to Inca mythology, Chinchero is the birthplace of the rainbow—and stepping out amongst its ancient ruins, blue lagoons, grassy terraces, and snow-capped mountains in view—it’s easy to see why.
Chinchero was built on a wide plateau with two levels: the highest level houses the town’s church atrium, and the lower level is home to the main square. Along the eastern section of Chinchero, you’ll find its picturesque agricultural terraces. Like giant steep staircases with 15-foot high steps, Incan terraces—some of which are still in use today—were used to provide a steady food supply (in this case, potatoes) to nearby inhabitants. Incan farming terraces were constructed with irrigation in mind and successfully turned mountainsides into farmland, all while protecting the town below from possible mudslides and flooding during heavy rains.
Chinchero’s ancient terraces showcase the ingenuity of the Inca people, who first appeared in the Andes during the 12th century A.D. Here are 10 more interesting facts about the Incas you may not have known.
- High IQ: The ancient Incas administered intelligence tests to their children, and based on their results, either taught them a trade or sent them to school to become part of the nobility.
- The eye of the beholder: Skull deformations were en vogue—The Incas would tightly wrap bandages around the heads of their children to purposefully deform their skulls by limiting growth in one direction.
- Like a hole in the head: Due to the brutal nature of disputes within Inca times, it wasn’t uncommon to be struck in the head with blunt objects. This led to the invention of creating burr holes in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain. This surgery became so common, that one in every six skulls from Inca times had at least one hole in it.
- Head games: Burr holes permitting, fierce Inca kings and warriors would use the skulls of their defeated enemies as drinking vessels.
- Amazing race: While having no official writing system—relying instead on knotted ropes to encode information—the Incas developed a sophisticated postal service by using a chain of runners to relay messages across rope bridges. The messengers were paired off so while one slept, the other delivered news and supplies. Through this massive relay, messages traveled an incredible 200 miles per day.
- Building bridges: The Andes were crisscrossed with Inca rope bridges, which were longer and stronger than any bridge found in Europe at the time. While fibrous structures aren’t destined to stand the test of time, one has remained for more than 500 years: Qeswachaka, the oldest suspension bridge in the world. Locals would rebuild the bridge every year using grass weavings and rope. Although Inca women wove the raw materials for the bridge, it was considered bad luck for a woman to be nearby during construction.
- A perfect fit: In addition to their mastery at using reeds and grasses, the Incas used a stone masonry method to construct buildings without the use of mortar. Workers would perfectly fit stones together so nothing could fit through the cracks, thus creating nearly earthquake-proof construction.
- The business of marriage: Polygamy was a common practice for Inca nobility, who could have several wives. The farmers and builders, however, needed to remain monogamous for economic reasons. Even though marriage was more of a business partnership than a romantic one, new couples would unite on a trial basis for a few years—after which either party could choose to end the arrangement before making it final.
- Road trip: The Incas built the largest pre-industrial road and highway system in the world, with over 18,000 miles of known roads. Whether on foot, llama, or alpaca, this made travel remarkably easy throughout the Inca Empire.
Discover the legacy of the Incas with O.A.T. during Machu Picchu & the Galapagos.