Cuzco recently celebrated the nomination of the Qhapaq Ñan, the Royal Inca Highway, for the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ceremonies took place on the esplanade by the Qoricancha, Cuzco’s ancient Temple of the Sun. Peru’s Minister of Culture was in charge of the ceremony and was accompanied by his peers from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador all of whose countries hold portions of this amazing pre-Columbian road system.
Among all the activities, perhaps the most appreciated by the people of Cuzco and visitors was the presentation in Cuzco’s Main Square, its Plaza de Armas. Delegations from the original peoples who formed Tawantinsuyo—the Inca Empire—performed traditional music and dance to celebrate the campaign for World Heritage status and model the unity of a state before the Europeans broke it apart.
Induced by this conjoined initiative of different countries who come together to value our ancestors’ work, we also reflect on our history. We find the foundations of the South American peoples. They were joined together and in constant communication because of this extensive network of roads, much of which is surprisingly still extant.
Without doubt it was the key to the administrative success of Tawantinsuyo. The Qhapaq Ñan, Royal Inca Highway, was even admired by the Spanish invaders Stupefied by the amazing structures designed for their environments, the Spanish traveled this highway to Cuzco. Various chronicles narrate the magnificence of the highway that connected them with inns (tambos). There they could rest, take provisions, and even find arms if necessary. The roads were traveled by thousands of persons. In every inn there was always a caretaker, as well as a messenger waiting for an oncoming one in order to receive his message and carry it onward.
None of this amazing system of communication would have been possible without the network of roads that were in perfect condition. From then until today the roads fell out of constant repair. In the last few years, governments have begun to repair the roads for their value to tourism.
Today we also find thousands or stories that come with this route. Many of them are like legends and pass from generation to generation. They are told and spread in social events, birthdays, the taking on of cargo responsibilities for feasts, or in simple afternoons of casual conversation in chicherias or guariques, popular gathering points. Many of these are located close to where the road passes, as if they were modern tambos ready to provide chicha for travelers along the highway.
It is difficult to distinguish among so many stories which are really true. Nevertheless, there will be one, at least, that will leave you with lots to think about. Older people tell stories with such passion, perhaps remembering their best years. They tell how Cuzco was in the old days when it wasn’t so populated. They talk about these roads that connected people in the different neighborhoods as well as the different earth shrines we call waqas.
It was a wide road that was carefully paved with white stones all up and down its length. Under the light of the moon or the sun it was as if the roads were illuminated so people could clearly find the path.
Today you can easily walk from San Blas along the old highway that led to Antisuyo, one of the Empire’s four quarters, towards the Temple of the Moon.
The old people also tell how in their day many of the huacas, the sacred places, did not have the importance they have today, with the growth of tourism. As a result, many shrines were abandoned as were large stretches of the highway. Some were even torn apart as people lifted stones for the foundations of their homes.
People say that it was not unusual to see parts of the road glow as if on fire. In those places many people would look for hidden or ancient treasure. As a result people will speak of the caretaker of some hacienda or other who found fortune in this way and immediately left his work. He would instead buy luxurious and ostentatious properties in the city. But oftentimes the curse of the gold would damage him and his family. If it did not kill you, it would bring family tragedy and other negative effects.
There are many similar stories and much more told even today along the edges of the Qhapaq Ñan.