The Beautiful Road (Qhapaq Ñan) Still Unites the Andes

The Inca Highway, called Qhapaq Ñan, or great / beautiful path, was in the news lately for two things. First, UNESCO recognized this engineering and architectural marvel that crosses six countries in South America as World Heritage. Second, the press reported a new section of Inca road to Machu Picchu, one with a tunnel, was recently discovered to everyone’s surprise.

After the Spanish invaded Peru, enabled by the amazing system of paved foot roads, the Inca Highway, the Qhapaq Ñan, fell into dis-use other than by local peoples who, when they needed it and it fit into community ritual, kept large sections of it in good repair. The system of upkeep is not unlike that the Qeswachaka Bridge maintenance recently recognized by UNESCO. It required the coordination of multiple groups of people as well as traditional knowledge and ritual.

Around Machu Picchu, much of the system of coordination among villages collapsed and the road became slowly covered by vegetation. As a result, even though the Inca Trail, the section of the Highway that goes to Machu Picchu, was well known and in great demand for tourism, a portion remained undiscovered until recently.

Qhapaq Ñan to Antisuyo from Cusco (Wayra)
Qhapaq Ñan to Antisuyo from Cusco (Wayra)

It travels from Wayraqtambo to the site of Machu Pichuu. It includes a tunnel built some 500 years ago that is five meters long. Arguably, it will help resolve some of the demand for getting people to the ancient city on a saddle.

Just as this portion of the Inca Highway fell into decay, many other parts of the great network have fallen apart or been destroyed. It was recently reported that the regional government of Pasco destroyed a portion of the Qhapaq Ñana there to construct a modern highway between Astobamba and Charquicancha. Similar destructions have occured throughout the last five centuries.

Paved Inca Road to Huaccoto
Paved Inca Road to Huaccoto

It is a marvel that large swaths, if not the majority, of the system of roads still exists. The highway was built on pre-existing bases of roads built by Pre-Inca civilizations, such as the Wari. Nevertheless, the Inca rebuilt the system and gave it their architecture and monumentality, which led to an exposition and symposium on the road and its Inca glory at the Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC.

The Peruvian State arguably sees the highway as a means of symbolizing unity in its vast and diverse country and hence has given effort to promoting the Highway and protecting it through declarations of it as Patrimony of Humanity. Nevertheless, large sections of the highway are still walkable. They give a very different way of seeing and grasping the marvels of present day Peru and neighboring countries, as well as the wonders of the past.

The Qhapaq Ñan truly is a wonder of human kind and deserves recognition and preservation. As it is conserved and celebrated, a well as promoted for tourism, I hope the ctions will be performed without destroying the traditional relationships of maintenance and claim to sections of the road by traditional communities and social groups.

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