Beyond The Inca Trail: Walking The Capac Ñan, South America’s Ancient Superhighway

Capac Ñan, Inca Road Network, Peru
Inca Road Network, Peru
“Can you hear me?”

My voice booms out unnaturally over the canyon.  In Peru in general, and in rural Peru in particular, cell-phone signals tend to be sketchy even under ideal conditions, so it’s a tiny miracle when Kiki, my journalist friend, comes through loud and clear.

Claro, hombre.  Es increíble, ¿no?”

Kiki and I are sharing a telepathic moment, as well as a telephonic one.  In both our cases, what’s running through our minds is ¡Asu!—Peruvian for “Holy cow!”

And with good reason.  My friend, despite being a limeño, an urbanite born and bred, is uneasily making his way up a narrow stair edging a cliff outside Cajamarca, in the central Andes. That he’s doing so without tumbling into a chasm has him breathless to recount the heart-stopping views from his current stretch of cloud forest.  Meanwhile, I, for my part, am doing my best not to look down; in this way, I’m hoping to ignore the surging currents of the Apurímac River some 220 feet below, as well as the precariousness of the reed-woven bridge over it that, like a fool, I’m about to venture across.

Kiki high over Cajamarca, I at Qeswachaca, the last remaining Inca bridge in the Andes.  Two ¡Asu!-inducing marvels, courtesy of the vast empire once known as Tawantinsuyo.

But my friend and I are joined by more than just our shared stupefaction, or the telephone signal, bouncing off a distant cell tower, that our ears are straining to hear.

Map of Capac Ñan, Inca Road System, South America

Map of Capac Ñan

Draw a line on the map of South America.  Make it snake southward along the Andes from Quito to Cuzco, skirting Lake Titicaca, all the way down to Mendoza, Argentina.  Do it again—this time close to the ocean, from the Peruvian coastal town of Tumbes, through Lima, down to Santiago de Chile.  Then fill in the space between the two lines with latticework, like base pairs on a double helix.

That scribbled DNA approximates the shape and extent of the Capac Ñan, the sprawling road network built by the Incas over half a millennium ago—and that Kiki and I are standing on today.  Out of its progenitive matrix sprang their moguls’ dominion over the largest empire in the Americas’ history.  It’s a geoglyph on an international scale, a continent-sized printed-circuit board, and if you sent a current through it, it’d surge uninterrupted from my dogged-out loafers all the way to Kiki’s hiking boots, some 700 miles distant.  Yet despite the fact that its offshoots forked into nearly every cranny of the empire, binding the capital of Cuzco to outposts so far-flung archaeologists are still stumbling upon new ones today, visitors to Peru overwhelmingly confine themselves to one tiny sliver, the Inca Trail—a mere one percent of the superhighway’s 25,000-mile total.

South America’s biggest ruin, and no one really sees it.

For this reason, Kiki and I have set ourselves a goal: we’re going to walk the Capac Ñan.  Or at least, parts of it.  Hitting the trail to Machu Picchu, yes, but also other Inca roads less traveled.

How far did we get?  Well, here’s the thing…

Plaza de Armas, Cusco, Peru
Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Crossroads of the Universe

Calle Triunfo, one block from Cuzco’s Plaza de Armas.  I’m standing in the middle of the street.  Tourists are jostling me, but despite their peeved stares, I can’t take my eyes off the brass plaque worked into the cobblestones.  Antisuyo, it says, with an arrow pointing uphill.

A decidedly low-key marker, considering I’m at the crossroads of the universe.

So the Incas saw it, and as I start my investigative journey, I’m following the signposts they left behind.  When the Inca empire overran the western part of South America in the 1400s, their rulers needed an infrastructural grid, a nexus that would allow them to yoke together what was essentially an unruly mishmash of warring tribes that had fallen under their dominion.  So they did what the Romans did: they built roads.  Miles and miles of them, all earth and stone, from sea level to altitudes of 20,000 feet.  Through deserts, rainforests, fertile valleys, inhospitable mountain peaks, you name it.  For purposes of communication and trade, yes, but also to dispatch troops to distant parts should the subject peoples there get too uppity.

These thoroughfares served as a constant reminder of the state’s presence, consolidating its power.  And as in Rome, all roads led to the capital, Cuzco, which the Incas considered (naturally) the center of the universe.  Tawantinsuyo, their name for the empire, means “four parts together,” and the exact spot where the north, south, east, and west routes connecting those four parts of the universe come together is here, in the Plaza de Armas, just feet from the plaque I’m gawking at.

Talk about feeling centered.

From that hub, the Capac Ñan radiated outward in a proliferating web, a branching vine with tendrils in modern-day Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, as well as Peru.  As I walk uphill, in the direction of the plaque’s arrow, I’m headed towards Antisuyo, the northeastern division of the empire, along a path that exactly corresponds to the old thoroughfare out of the capital.

That path takes me progressively further back in time.  From San Blas, Cuzco’s artsy district, to a serene peasant neighborhood, to Sacsayhuaman, the hilltop fortress that overlooks the town, I feel I’m returning to the traditional Inca folkways, still very much alive among rural Peruvians.

Finally I come to it: a tambo, or way station. Or what’s left of one, with a sign to mark the archaeological zone around it.  The tambos were like roadside inns, pit stops where Inca officials who had state business along the highways could rest and recharge.  Very likely they needed it, for many of them were chasquis, runners hired to convey messages from one royal bureaucrat to another.  Using a relay system, these runners could cover large distances very quickly; tradition holds it was possible to deliver fresh fish from the Peruvian coast to the emperor in Cuzco in under a day.

In the case of this particular tambo, all that remains are a few tumbledown rock clusters, with weeds sprouting between.  Nothing to evoke of the ghosts of the diplomatic envoys, soldiers, petitioning functionaries, and deliverymen who doubtless stopped here to change into their feathers-and-wool finery before setting foot in the royal court.

But the Inca retaining wall that runs down to the city is original, as are the sun-baked cobblestones under my feet.

How must this approach to royal Cuzco have looked in its heyday?  What travelers paused here to catch their breath at the first glimpse of the greatest city in South America?

I try to conjure up an image of foot traffic in the Andes 500 years ago, but the rocks around me only keep silent.

Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Pichu was built by the Inca’s using the mita system.

A Grammar of Stones

Meanwhile, back in Cajamarca, Kiki is having difficulties of his own.  Grammatical difficulties, you might call them.

His guide, Flavio Huyhua, is leading him on a forced march on the hills outside the town, where several veins of the Capac Ñan are still in good condition.  But now they’ve come to a fork, and Flavio has asked my friend, sweaty under the crushing Andean sun, to choose which way they’ll go.

Winded by the hike and not wanting to climb more slopes, Kiki picks the low road.  Flavio smiles knowingly, allowing his charge to advance some 200 yards before the path abruptly ends.

“Oye, gordito, lo barato salió caro, ¿no?” the guide jokes.  The easy way can turn out unexpectedly hard.

What Kiki’s still learning to read is what Flavio calls the “grammar of the stones.”  The Incas, it appears, didn’t conceive of roads the same way we moderns do.  Careful study of the Capac Ñan reveals a whole different way of thinking, one that modern wayfarers have to learn to interpret.

In this case, what stumped Kiki was their tendency to build several roads pointing in the same direction.  Inca rulers would frequently order the construction of a new path parallel to an old one for no other reason than to assert their superiority over their predecessors—or simply to keep their subjects busy.  The Capac Ñan, you see, was one of the numerous civil-engineering projects built by means of the mita, a manpower levy the Incas imposed on their subjects.  Every able-bodied man had to spend a set months of the year working for the state, lest idle hands lead to the deviltry of rebellion.  Monuments like Machu Picchu are one result of this system; the double pathway Kiki is treading is another.

The grammar of the Capac Ñan has other irregularities and tricky conjugations.  Unlike European roads, for example, which are conceived as tracks for carriages or automobiles, and so eschew steep gradients, the Inca trails are full of stairways that at times seem to clamber straight up.  This is because the only “vehicles” the Incas had were llamas, which unlike horses are excellent climbers.  Why take a complicated zig-zag when you can head straight to the top?  Also, to cope with the flooding that occurs in Andean valleys during the rainy season, the Incas tended to build roads high up on mountain walls.

A trait not lost on Kiki, as he scurries across a rock ledge barely four feet across.

Flavio Huyhua offers a wry reflection.  “The Incas, like all Andean peoples, had the mountains in their soles of their feet.  Intuitively they thought in terms of slopes, narrow passes, vertical ascents.  When I hear people say they’re amazed that all these paths are so high up, well, it’s because they didn’t grow up speaking the language of the mountains.”

Judging by Kiki’s success in negotiating those narrow passes, that language is one that can be learned.

A Communal Effort

As I rub my hands together and prepare to step onto the rope bridge at Qeswachaka, I anxiously recite to myself a number sequence: three, four, six, five hundred.

That incantation, meant as a talisman against my plunging into the Apurímac River below, refers, respectively, to the three days involved in weaving said bridge; the four communities who have thrown their collective wisdom into this weaving; the six cables that sustain it; and the 500 years of practice they’ve had to get things right.

With so much tradition behind it, I’m fervently hoping to convince myself of the structure’s trustworthiness.

It doesn’t quite work; I’m still shaking as I test the swaying cords.  But that’s not the fault of the 1,000 or so Peruvians from the communities of Huinchiri, Chaupibanda, Chaukaywa, and Collanakewe who come together every year to renovate what has to be one of the most astonishing engineering projects in the Andes.  (And, be it said, the safest.)

That tradition dates back to the early days of the Inca empire, making Qeswachaka the last remaining Inca puente colgante (hanging bridge) in existence.  For the greater part of a millennium, locals have come together here every June to cut the colla fibers, soak and dry them, twist them into cables the circumference of a good-sized log, and string them up between rocks on facing riverbanks.

Meaning the bridge at Qeswachaka doesn’t just stretch across the burbling waters of the Apurímac below: it stretches back in time as well.

Communal efforts like this highlight another aspect of South America’s grandest monument—namely, that it’s not really a monument at all, in the sense of a dead relic, interesting only to archaeologists.  No, the Capan Ñan is very much alive: thousands of rural Peruvians, Bolivians, and Chileans take it to work every day, or ride animals along it from village to village.  And because of this use, an estimated 500 pueblos in its vicinity still have traditions of road maintenance like the one at Qeswachaka, in most cases recycling the original Inca road materials because it’s easier than introducing new ones.  Hence the historic authenticity of the roads is very high, a fact noted by UNESCO when it made the Capac Ñan the largest single site on its World Heritage list in 2014.

Not bad for a mass-transit system built without draft animals, arches, the wheel, or iron tools.

When I ask the Huinchiri locals about this zeal to preserve, they’re very definite in their responses.

“The road is sacred, it’s pachamama,” says Eusebio Condorcanqui, a quinoa farmer, referring to the Inca goddess of the earth.  “The great Inca had power over nature, living and dead.  Long ago, they say when he whirled his golden sling, he ordered the rocks and stones to get out of his way.  They did so, opening a walled path before him.  That’s how the Capac Ñan was born.”

For the Incas, the entire 25,000-mile system was aglow with spiritual significance.  Huacas, or sacred sites, sprout up everywhere, be they temples, funerary towers, or sacrificial altars.  And even today, Andean campesinos sacrifice sheep or guinea pigs before setting out on a trip, praying for a speedy and safe return.  Many curanderos, faith healers, make the point of traveling on foot, claiming they get their medicinal powers from contact with the earth.

I’m hoping to tap some of that health-preserving energy as I entrust myself to the woven reeds at Qeswachaka.

I take a deep breath, closing my eyes.  Whatever happens, traveling the Capac Ñan has definitely confirmed the old saw about the path being as important as the destination.

Only, when I get to the Inca Trail later on, let it be more straight-ahead…

On the count of three—

Recommended Tours

Mike Gasparovic

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Mike Gasparovic is an independent travel writer based in Lima, Peru. He has written for Fodor’s, Peru This Week, and a host of online websites, in addition to creating two book-length guides for expats new to his adopted hometown. His chief interests are the history and culture of the Spanish-speaking world. His blog is Latin American Confidential.

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