Inca Roads


 An extract from The White Rock



“to read the road-system of the Incas is to read a different language from our own.”


Up to now we had been following traces of Inca road, immaculately laid stonework, as it elusively traced its way across the landscape, sometimes disappearing completely, then re-appearing over precisely the stretch one needed it most with the intuitive Inca sense for the mountains.


Inca roads are like magic writing. Over the years since that first journey, I’ve noticed how you can be at the top of a pass and see nothing – but a slight change of angle, a difference in the light, the mist moving across a rock-face and you suddenly see a line traversing a ridge, usually unnaturally high. 


The Incas liked the heights.  The Quechua guides I’ve worked with always travel instinctively on the high side of any given valley, while the natural tendency of European or American mountain trekkers is to keep to the bottom if they can.


For the tribes who had been conquered by the Incas, the roads must have been a continual sign of the Imperial presence.  As subjects, they had to contribute to the upkeep of those roads as part of the mita system of communal labour, even if they themselves were not always allowed to use them.  For these were not highways in the European sense, democratically open to all:  only those on state business were allowed to use the most important ones. 


Indeed to read the road-system of the Incas is to read a different language:  they are written with a different grammar to our own.  While the Western road typically ‘penetrates’ through the middle of  a territory, with spur-roads branching off, Inca roads were often used as much to ‘edge’ a territory, to delineate internal boundaries.  In the words of Cieza de León, ‘the Indians, in order to take stock of what they have in such a large land, comprehend it by means of their roads.’  The Andeanist scholar John Hyslop has commented that the roads were not only used to separate people, ‘but for thinking, by helping to conceive the relationship of one place to another’.


The four roads leading out of Cuzco to the four quarters of the Empire are well-known symbols of this.  Less well-known is the peculiar habit which Cieza de León also remarked on, the Inca tendency to re-build roads.  An incoming Inca Emperor might well order a perfectly usable stretch of road to be replaced by a new parallel stretch of his own, a mark of his arrival and also a re-affirmation of the Inca ownership of the land that the resulting new road-system contained.  It was also a useful way of ensuring that there were always enough mita jobs to keep his subjects busy.  Cieza reported Huayna Capac as declaring ‘to keep the people of these kingdoms well in hand it was a good thing, when they had nothing else to do or busy themselves with, to make them move a mountain from one spot to another.  He even ordered stone and tiles brought from Cuzco to Quito [a distance of 3400 miles], where they are still to be seen.’


Cieza got lost once leaving the Inca town of Vilcas.  He found that three roads seemed to point to precisely the same destination.  One had been built by the Emperor Pachacuti, another by his son Topa Inca, and the road actually in use (and therefore kept up and negotiable) had been built by his successor, the same Huayna Capac who believed in a Victorian way about the dangers of ‘idle hands’.  It was only after several frustrating false starts that Cieza managed to get on the right one.


But there was another little commented-on factor which makes the grammar of the Inca road-system so foreign to us.  We are used to a road system designed for the horse and then for the car:  a system which tries at all cost to avoid steep gradients and whose ideal (so established by the Romans) is the straight road over flat ground.  The Inca needs were very different: the expansion of their Empire was driven by the llama, which as a pack animal could carry their merchandise over long distances.  It was the llama which had carried goods as far south as Chile and as far north as modern Colombia.  Along the route, Inca tambos, the resting houses used by such merchants, as well as by chasquis, the Inca messengers, and by the Inca armies, would have plentiful supplies of p’olqo, the cloth used for protecting llamas’ delicate feet on the stone paths.


The llama was an all purpose provider.  As well as being a pack animal (although it would never accept a rider), the meat could also be eaten, the dried dung used for fuel, essential in some areas of the high puna above the tree-line, and the coarse wool woven into textiles.


However, llamas have very specific needs:  they are happiest at high altitudes (over 13,000 feet) and while they can descend for short periods, any road carrying them must deviate frequently to higher ground in order to gave them pasturage – a point the conquistadors complained bitterly about as they kept ascending endless mountain passes on their way from the coast to conquer Cuzco.  Camelids are far more accomplished climbers than the horse and so can negotiate stairways.   The Incas could therefore avoid the lengthy ‘zig-zag’ technique by which European roads climbed a mountain slope and instead simply use steep stairs to gain height, so reducing road-building to a quarter of the European length.  One of the tragedies of the Conquest is that the Incas failed to realise early enough the advantage this potentially gave them over the conquistadors and their horses.  Each time the Spanish dismounted in order to negotiate the difficult mountain roads they could have been slaughtered.


Once, years later with the American explorer Gary Ziegler, I came across a magnificent decayed stairway high up in the Choquetecarpa valley.  The stairway rose out of the grass ahead of us, seemingly out of nowhere, stone tread after stone tread, a full twelve feet wide, the width of a royal road – indeed probably the road that the later Incas may have used when they were in exile in the Vilcabamba after having fled Cuzco.


Even higher in the valley were some stone llama pens, built just below the pass at a chilling 13,700 feet: circular buildings, thirteen feet in diameter, clustered tightly together to give protection against the wind.  Above, a vertiginous stone stairway cut its way directly up towards the pass.  No travellers now ever passed along that road – those few that came through would use the modern mule track instead, which wound its course in a more sedate and European style over the other shoulder of the pass.  We had found this alternate ancient way because we knew where to look.  The Inca instinct for roads is a different language to our own, but it is one that can be learnt.




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