The highest city that has hidden urban streams is the former imperial capital of the Incas. At more than 11,000 feet above sea level, Cusco, Peru is a magnet for tourism and home to a thriving Native culture deep in the Andean Mountains. The main river flowing through this city is the Huatanay. A trickle in comparison to the Amazon, but that’s what its water will eventually become.
Within the city are nearly a dozen tributaries that date back to the Inca period, some of them running as ditches and other covered by modern streets.
Where it Flows
The Huatanay is formed by the confluence of the Huancaro and Saphy Rivers near the Cusco Bus Terminal, 1.5 miles southeast of the historic city center at Plaza de Armas. The river’s name originates from the Quechua term for “One that ties.” From this point it flows eastward through the city on its way to the Urubamba River.
From a June 2015 Google Street View, the confluence can be seen on Calle Luis Vallejo Santoni, where the railroad tracks cross the stream. On the other side is the northern entrance to the bus terminal.
The Huancaro is the most visible of the Huatanay’s urban tributaries. Originating from the southeast of Cusco, the Huancaro features landscaped banks with levees and trees highlighting restoration efforts after decades of neglect and dumping.
At the Huancaro Market, the sloping banks show little evidence of the heaps of trash that used to line the stream. In the warm summer months, there is little water flowing here, but in winter and spring, the snowmelt from the Andes transforms the trickle into a torrent.
Returning to Vallejo Santini, the view above looks upstream on the Saphy, which appears as a ditch hemmed in by the road and the train track. The Huancaro is on the far left, with the two streams merging beneath the road. The gantry above the road welcomes travelers to the Santiago de Cusco district. The Inca sun medallion appears throughout the city as its official seal. Behind the gantry is a statue of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ruler who transformed the Cusco city-state into a far-reaching empire. The year was 1438.
Cusco Streams on Maps
Continuing on a straight line uphill from the Pachacuti statue, the next notable green space is the Orellana Pumaqchupan Park, which has a waterfall fountain topped by the sun medallion. On the 1860 E. G. Squire map of Cusco, this park is located at the confluence of the Saphy (light blue) and Tullumayo (blue) rivers, which the Incas channeled along the middle of streets that bordered the historic city center. Both of them have headwaters on the slope of the Sacsayhuaman plateau that overlooks the city. Prior to Spanish conquest, this hilltop functioned as a site for religious ceremonies. The orange rectangle marks Plaza de Armas, the government center of Tawantinsuyu, the Inca Empire.
A map of the Cusco landscape prior to urbanization shows a set of villages and additional tributaries that were driven beneath the streets in the past 500 years. Both Squire and this map show the Chunchuumayo as a mighty stream, but nothing of it is visible today on the city’s surface.
At the historic square, a tourism map shows the Incan city’s outline as a puma. In orange is the Saphy and in red is Tullumayo, also known as Chocquechanka. Sacsayhuaman is the puma’s head. While many states, cities, and streets in the U.S. have Native names, most of the namesake languages have gone extinct. In Cusco, the Quechuan languages are still going strong, spoken by nearly a quarter of Peruvians. As my knowledge of Quechuan is nonexistent, ask a resident about the meaning of these stream and street names.
Next to the Puma map is an archival image of the Saphy from 1906 hidden behind brick buildings that predate the arrival of the Spaniards. By the end of the 1940s, no daylight will touch this section of the Saphy.
A comparison of the Saphy in daylight and beneath a street offers two hints of its presence, the Inca brick walls and the unusual width of the street. This is similar to how the widths of New York’s Canal Street and Broad Street mark the former courses of canals buried long ago.
To see the Saphy water above the ground, one would have to walk another half mile uphill on Calle Saphy to see the portal where the water disappears. I can’t imagine the Saphy being daylighted but if the tunnel has enough clearance, perhaps it can be used for walking tours similar to Tank Stream in Sydney. Imagine seeing Inca brickwork with a flashlight! Between 1533 and 1536, so much Inca and Spanish blood flowed into the Saphy as the city was the scene of fierce combat between the two empires.
The Tullumayo also originates on the slopes of Sacsayhuaman, descending down Choquechaka Street and Tullumayo Avenue. As with Saphy, this stream was transformed into a canal by the Incas and covered in the early 20th century.
The channel that carries the Tullumayo is presently a median and parking lane along Tullumayo Avenue. The avenue’s width varies along its route between a boulevard and a two-lane street.
Between 1895 and 1906 photographer Max Uhle documented Inca architecture in Cusco. At the corner of Tullumayo Avenue and Cobracancha Street (really an alley), he shot a stone slab crossing the stream. The alley and bricks are still there today, but the slab footbridge and canal are covered by two lanes of traffic.
On the Huatanay
Returning to the Huatanay, the scene above in on the northern edge of the bus terminal with a marketplace next to the parking lot. In his busy section of Cusco, decades of illegal dumping made the river a health hazard. But unlike the old Inca canals, the Huatanay remains visible and in recent years the subject of a restoration campaign.
From a 2015 Google Street View at Simon Herrera Street the banks of the Huatanay are lined with trash but one can imagine stones, lawns, and a bike path on this neglected sectino of the stream. For the next couple of kilometers, the river flows along the edge of the city’s airport in the Wanchaq district.
On Kantu Street
In Wanchaq, a channelized tributary of the Huatanay flows in the middle of Kantu Street with an appearance resembling those of the buried tributaries in Cusco’s historic center.
I could not find the name of this tributary online nor in any Spanish language books on Cusco. Following this brook upstream, its channel appears tighter, a true pleasure for urban explorers in search of its source. The map serves as a guide. Among the roads following this tributary is Avenida Manantiales, which translates as Avenue of Springs.
The Huatanay leaves Cusco along with Route 3S, the Cusco-Paucartambo Road. Its course widens and buildings give way to a gorge carved by the stream. At the village of Huambutio the Huatanay flows into the Urubamba. In turn this river flows into the Uvayali, which then flows into the Amazon.
Among my “Out of Town” streams, the Huatanay is the highest in elevation and among the oldest transformed by urbanization, with its pre-Columbian history. For many world travelers a visit to Peru means a hike to Machu Picchu. But for me, it would involve searching for urban streams. Cusco offers many such examples within its borders. The capital of Lima has its centuries-old canals, as do the Inca-built cities of Cajamarca, Huancayo, and Ayacucho.