Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Inca Trail
The Qhapaq Ñan, also known as the “Inca Trail,” represents an ancient road network that served as a crucial means of connecting various locations within the expansive Inca Empire. This intricate system of roads traversing the Andes mountain range played diverse roles throughout its history, facilitating the movement of towns, armies, caravans of llamas carrying goods, and more.
In addition to the vast distance it covered and the impressive scale of its infrastructure, the primary objective of constructing the Qhapaq Ñan was to establish connections between the arid desert lowlands of the Pacific, the lush Amazon rainforests, as well as the intermediate regions and the cold Andean plateau, which included high mountain passes, some exceeding 6600 meters in elevation. This extensive road network enabled the transportation of valuable commodities like minerals and food.
The heart of the Qhapaq Ñan was situated in Cusco, serving as the central hub from which all roads radiated and interconnected. This road system effectively linked all regions of the Inca Empire: Chinchaysuyo to the North, Collasuyo to the South, Antisuyo to the East, and Contisuyo to the West. According to the Latin American Heritage Directory, the total length of these routes exceeded 23,000 kilometers.
The Qhapaq Ñan, the Andean Road System, represented the backbone of the political and economic power of the Inca State, known as Tawantinsuyo. This extensive road network, spanning over 30,000 kilometers, connected numerous administrative and ceremonial centers established over more than 2,000 years of pre-Inca Andean culture. Its reach extended across a broad geographic area, from the central western regions of Argentina and Chile to the southwestern parts of Colombia.
Remnants of the Qhapaq Ñan can still be observed in various countries, including Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina. Its construction began during the reign of Inca leader Pachacútec and continued under Túpac Yupanqui and Huayna Cápac.
The road system featured aqueducts, suspension bridges constructed from natural fibers and stones, tambos for overnight rest stops, and water sources. This intricate communication system effectively managed resources from diverse geographical areas, enabling political and economic control of the regions it traversed.
The Qhapaq Ñan, the Andean Road System, represents a remarkable feat of engineering and cultural heritage. Constructed over several centuries by the Incas, it incorporated pre-Inca infrastructure and spanned some of the world’s most challenging geographical terrains, from the lofty peaks of the Andes at altitudes exceeding 6,000 meters to coastal areas, passing through rainforests, valleys, and deserts.
Its apex in the 15th century saw it extending across the length and breadth of the Andes, integrating towns, villages, and rural areas into a unified road network. Today, various local communities continue to serve as the traditional guardians and custodians of the Qhapaq Ñan, preserving its cultural traditions and languages.”
The Qhapaq Ñan’s grandeur stands as an unparalleled engineering marvel. The road’s construction techniques, including bridges, stairways, ditches, and cobblestone pavements, bear enduring testimony to the movement of prized commodities across this intricate network. These goods encompassed precious metals, sustenance, military provisions, feathers, timber, coca, and textiles, each traversing vast distances from their origins to the diverse Inca centers and the capital itself. Today, numerous communities still hold the responsibility of preserving this expansive Incan communication system.
In 2001, the Peruvian government extended an invitation to neighboring countries sharing the cultural legacy of the Qhapaq Ñan (Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru) with the aim of garnering international recognition, appreciation, conservation, and protection for this expansive Inca road network and its associated archaeological sites. This collaborative effort culminated in 2014 when “the grand Inca road” was inscribed on the World Heritage List.
The Path to Machu Picchu
One of the most frequently traversed segments of this road system is the one leading to the iconic citadel of Machu Picchu. This journey typically commences in the town of Qoriwayrachina, an ancient settlement whose ruins can be found in the Vilcabamba district.
The path spans approximately 45 kilometers and requires a four-day, three-night expedition to complete. Connecting significant Incan archaeological sites like Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna (Huinay Huayna), and Machu Picchu, this route has gained immense popularity among hikers, often referred to as the “Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.”
The second day of the trek proves the most challenging, as it crosses Warmihuañusca, a valley situated at an elevation of 4,200 meters above sea level. This high-altitude stretch demands the greatest physical exertion. Nonetheless, alternate routes exist, allowing for shorter, two- or three-day journeys to reach the renowned citadel.
The natural backdrop offers a diverse landscape, including lush tropical forests, arid cliffs, and snow-capped peaks such as Salkantay and Humantay, both soaring beyond six thousand meters. The terrain also features extensive terraces carved into the rocks, tunnels as long as twenty meters, and several remarkable archaeological complexes, most notably Intipata, Runkuraqay, and Intipunku.
During the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, travelers are accommodated at various campsites: Patallacta, Huayllabamba, Llulluchapampa, Pacamayo, and Wiñayayna. Adventurers are encouraged to embark on this journey but are advised to avoid the months of December and March, known for their heavy rains.
Dr. Soledad Quartucci is the founder and CEO of Latina Republic, a 501(C)3 California-based nonprofit organization. Latina Republic is committed to improving the diversity and professional development of storytellers in the media industry as representation matters and affects the stories we tell. Latina Republic makes space for and empowers unheard voices and trains the next generation of leaders in the U.S.