Spanning six countries and more than 30,000 km, Qhapaq Ñan was the artery of the Inca Empire. Today, the ancient network of roads is almost entirely void of footfall. Tufts of grass have enveloped much of the paving stones which, in its day, came together to form a perfectly paved road, almost 20 metres wide in places.
It is undoubtedly one of the greatest engineering feats in the history of humankind. The winding river of interlocking stones included suspension bridges and neatly crafted steps, hoisting travellers 4,500 metres above sea level. It traversed the Andes, cutting through snowy peaks. Lush forests, and arid desert, before spitting visitors out at the Amazon Basin.
The roads made up the heart of Inca infrastructure but weren’t for everyone to use. In the 15th century, ordinary villagers would need to get permission to use the network. Qhapaq Ñan’s main beneficiaries were the chasquis, the runners who relayed messages across the Incan kingdom. They would carry out their errands with unparalleled enthusiasm, carrying a message from Cusco in Peru to Quito in Ecuador (2,500km) in just seven days.
Unfortunately, the astounding feat Incan infrastructure would ultimately facilitate their defeat. When the Spanish arrived in South America, they used Qhapaq Ñan to access Incan mines, and quickly extract and transport the precious materials, as well as ravage the Incan cities and communities. Had the road not been so exceptional in its ability to connect the kingdom, the Incan communities would have remained inaccessible and the Incan empire may have avoided slaughter at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors.
The years have not been kind to Qhapaq Ñan. Much of the network has been lost to flooding and wind erosion. The exact location of some stretches of road have been lost. However, in recent years some have sought to re-establish Qhapaq Ñan as a trekking route for adventurous travellers.
The route is not easy. Many of the mountain passes deliberately traverse difficult ridges so that the Incan messengers could spot threats and approaching danger. Any attempt to open the route up to hikers will also depend on the cooperation of local villages. The road will need guides and regular havens for lodging.
The routes are not clear or maintained but if the region opened up to intrepid hikers, it would incentivise conservation efforts and preserve this engineering marvel for generations to come.