The “Inca Trail
” is famous around the world, though the trail many tourists know is just a small sector of the thread of Inca paths that held this great empire together.
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
is part of an extensive Inca system of trails of more than 23,000 kilometres that integrated the Tahuantinsuyo Empire
(which means four regions) that covered Colombia, the west of Brazil, Ecuador, Peru
and Bolivia, to the centre of Chile and the north of Argentina. These trails tended to be principally on the coast or in the mountains but in a few cases they reached the tropical edge of the jungle.
The Inca Trails
(or Qhapaq Ñan - which refers to the network of trails) were without a doubt one of the marvels of Tahuantinsuyo, according to the Peruvian historian, José Antonio del Busto, who explains that the Inca Huayna Capac most increased the network of trails in order to quickly mobilise his army.
The trails varied in quality and size, they could be 6 to 8 metres wide on the coast but, in the mountains the paving was only one metre wide but the path was audaciously steep and climbed over the difficult Andean mountains.
There are a number of ancient paths close to Cusco
– for example, at Qhorqa, some 20 kilometres from Cusco. On the route to Huchuy Qosqo, there is another interesting Inca Trail. These were constructed perfectly and are still used without much modification.
Hugh Thompson writes in his highly recommended book, “The White Rock”: “We are used to a road system designed for the horse and then for the car: a system which tries at all cost to avoid steep gradients and whose ideal (so established by the Romans) is the straight road over flat ground. The Inca needs were very different: the expansion of their Empire was driven by the llama
, which as a pack animal could carry their merchandise over long distances … Along the route, Inca tambos, the resting houses used by such merchants, as well as by chasquis, the Inca messengers, and by the Inca armies, would have plentiful supplies of p’olqo, the cloth used for protecting llamas’ delicate feet on the stone paths.
The llama was an all purpose provider. As well as being a pack animal (although it would never accept a rider), the meat could also be eaten, the dried dung used for fuel, essential in some areas of the high puna above the tree-line, and the coarse wool woven into textiles.
However, llamas have very specific needs: they are happiest at high altitudes (over 13,000 feet) and while they can descend for short periods, any road carrying them must deviate frequently to higher ground in order to gave them pasturage - a point the conquistadors complained bitterly about as they kept ascending endless mountain passes on their way from the coast to conquer Cuzco
. Camelids are far more accomplished climbers than the horse and so can negotiate stairways. The Incas could therefore avoid the lengthy ‘zig-zag’ technique by which European roads climbed a mountain slope and instead simply use steep stairs to gain height, so reducing road-building to a quarter of the European length. One of the tragedies of the Conquest is that the Incas failed to realise early enough the advantage this potentially gave them over the conquistadors and their horses. Each time the Spanish dismounted in order to negotiate the difficult mountain roads they could have been slaughtered”.
It is also interesting to note that the Inca were a totally regimented society. Although great numbers of people were moved around for state projects (mit'a) and resettlement, once at a location, they did not move. The royal roads were reserved for official travel.
Various chroniclers have given testimony to the beauty of these roads, including Hernando Pizarro, one of the first conquistadors to arrive in Cusco
, who wrote, “The path in of the mountains is something to see, because it is built in very difficult terrain. In the Christian World we have not seen such beautiful roads. All of the crossings have bridges of stone or of wood.”
Explorer Victor von Hagen set out to explore the Qhapaq Ņan
in a 1952 expedition which is interestingly recounted in his book, “Highway of the Sun: A search for the royal roads of the Incas.” He writes, “A message sent by relay runner (Chasqui
) from Quito could reach Cusco over a route of 1230 miles (km) in five days. From Cusco, the same message could be sent to the far end of Lake Titicaca
in three days….”
And famously, “ And in his palace in Cusco, the Inca dined off fresh fish delivered from the Coast, a distance of 200 miles over the highest Andes, in two days.”
“1230 miles in five days! That would mean that the chasqui relay was run at an average of 246 miles a day… the Romans were fortunate indeed if their mounted couriers could cover 100 miles a day!” Von Hagen and his team discovered an extra wide highway between Jauja and Bonbon and a series of well preserved chasqui stations (okla) that enabled them to carry out a series of investigations with local runners. They proved that by using a system of trained runners it was possible to cover the distance between Cusco and Quito in five days!
Interesting note: The word Chasqui, according to the Inca Garcilaso
, “has three meanings: exchange, give and take, and is a very suitable name for these men since they exchanged, received and gave messages from post to post.”
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
still existed and was re-discovered by Hiram Bingham when he realised his clearing work between 1913 and 1915. The Inca trail was a route of pilgrimage to Machu Picchu used by the Inca (or Emperor) in the 15th century. There are different sites between Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu where one can note the variety in architectural resources that give rationality, importance and mysticism to the Royal Road. It did not have a commercial use; there were other, more simple, trails to transport products, llamas and people to Machu Picchu. The purpose of the Inca Trail
was religious and ceremonial, a pilgrimage that included rituals to honour the mountains and peaks of the route, like Veronica or Wakaywilka.