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Inca road system

The Inca road system was the most extensive and highly advanced transportation system in pre-Columbian South America. The network was based on two north-south roads, with numerous branches. The best known portion of the road system is the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Main routes

The eastern route ran high in the puna and mountain valleys from Quito, Ecuador to Mendoza, Argentina. The western route followed the coastal plain except in coastal deserts where it hugged the foothills. More than twenty routes ran over the western mountains, while others traversed the eastern cordillera in the mountains and lowlands. Some of these roads reach heights of over above sea level. The trails connected the regions of the Inca empire from the northern provincial capital in Quito, Ecuador past the modern city of Santiago, Chile in the south. The Inca road system linked together about of roadway and provided access to over of territory.

Situated between above sea level, this monumental road, which could reach in width, connected populated areas, administrative centers, agricultural and mining zones as well as ceremonial centers and sacred spaces.

These roads provided easy, reliable and quick routes for the Empire's civilian and military communications, personnel movement, and logistical support. The prime users were imperial soldiers, porters and llama caravans, along with the nobility and individuals on official duty. Permission was required before others could walk along the roads, and tolls were charged at some bridges. Although the Inca roads varied greatly in scale, construction and appearance, for the most part they varied between about in width.

Much of the system was the result of the Incas claiming exclusive right over numerous traditional routes, some of which had been built centuries earlier. Many new sections were built or upgraded substantially: through Chile's Atacama desert, and along the western margin of Lake Titicaca, serve as two examples.

The Qhapaq Nan constituted the principal north-south highway of the Inca Empire traveling along the spine of the Andes.

The Qhapaq Nan unified this immense and heterogeneous empire through a well-organized political system of power. It allowed the Inca to control his Empire and to send troops as needed from the capital, Cusco.

The most important Inca road was the Camino Real, as it is known in Spanish, with a length of ). It began in Quito, Ecuador, passed through Cusco, and ended in what is now Tucuman, Argentina. The Camino Real traversed the mountain ranges of the Andes, with peak altitudes of more than . El Camino de la Costa, the coastal trail, with a length of , ran parallel to the sea and was linked with the Camino Real by many smaller routes.

Chasqui runners and other users

Relay messengers, or chasqui, stationed at intervals of , carried both messages and objects such as fresh marine fish for the rulers in the sierra. Messages consisted of knotted-cord records known as quipu along with a spoken message. Chasquis could cover an estimated per day.

There were at least 1,000 and perhaps 2,000 way stations or tambos, placed at even intervals along the trails. These structures were intended to lodge and provision itinerant state personnel. Another structure found along Inca roads at precise interval is called qolqa or qollqa. These structures were closer together and held clothing, weapons, and various types of food.

Spanish chroniclers frequently described lengthy journeys made by the Inca ruler, carried on a litter, and surrounded by thousands of soldiers and retainers, to various parts of his empire.

Because the Incas did not make use of the wheel for transportation, and did not have horses until the arrival of the Spanish in Peru in the 16th century, the trails were used almost exclusively by people walking, sometimes accompanied by pack animals, usually the llama.


Various means were used to bridge water courses. Rafts were used to cross wide meandering rivers. Bridges built of stone or floating reeds were used in marshy highlands. Inca rope bridges provided access across narrow valleys. A bridge across the Apurimac River, west of Cuzco, spanned a distance of 45 meters. Ravines were sometimes crossed by hanging baskets, or oroya, which could span distances of over 50 meters. Bridges were sometimes built in pairs.

Trail to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu itself was far off the beaten path, "Rediscovering Machu Picchu" by Bruce Fellman, Yale Alumni Magazine (December 2002)] and served as a royal estate populated by the ruling Inca and several hundred servants. It required regular infusions of goods and services from Cuzco and other parts of the empire. This is evidenced by the fact that there are no large government storage facilities at the site. A 1997 study concluded that the site's argicultural potential would not have been sufficient to support residents, even on a seasonal basis.

Effect of the conquest

The true extent of the road network is not completely known, since the Spaniards, post conquest, either dug up the road completely in some areas, or allowed it to deteriorate and fall into ruin under iron-clad horses' hooves, or the metal wheels of ox-carts.

Patrimony in peril

Today, only 25% percent of this route is still visible, the rest having been destroyed by the construction of modern infrastructure. It is not only studded with archeological marvels, including those of Ingapirca in Ecuador, Cuzco in Peru, Tiwanaku in Bolivia and Quilmes in Argentina, it also includes hundreds of major and minor sites. It passes through a plethora of eco-regions, 4 of global importance, and includes such endangered fauna as the vicuna, spectacled Andean bear and the condor. But more than that, it is a road that connects a multitude of Andean villages whose customs and traditions are still practiced and which holds the potential to revitalize and strengthen a common identity.

Different organizations such as UNESCO and IUCN have been working to protect this ancient route, in collaboration with the governments and communities of the 6 countries through which the Great Inca Road passes.

The objective of UNESCO is to assist the countries that share this common heritage in a pioneering project: the preparation of a unique candidature to inscribe the Qhapaq Nan as a World Heritage Site.

Further reading

Moseley, Michael 1992. The Incas and their Ancestors: The archaeology of Peru. Thames and Hudson, New York.

Hyslop, John, 1984. Inka Road System. Academic Press, New York.

Inca: Lords of Gold and Glory. Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1992.

Andean World: Indigenous History: Culture and Consciousness by Kenneth Adrien.

Footprints Cusco and The Inca Trail Handbook by Peter Frost and Ben Box

Jenkins, David "A Network Analysis of Inka Roads, Administrative Centers and Storage Facilities." Ethnohistory, 48:655-685 .

External links

Site Qhapaq Nan, the Great Inca Road - 6000 km on foot across the Andes

Qhapaq Nan, Programme of Peru's National Institute of Culture (INC)

Figaro Magazine

IUCN Sur project on the Qhapaq Nan

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Inca road system

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