Trekking in Peru


Trekking The Qhapac Ñan

The great Inca Trail

Mike Gasparovic
By Mike Gasparovic

Although the Inca Empire was relatively short-lived—roughly 100 years from start to finish—it was, at its zenith, the largest and most powerful empire in pre-Columbian America.

The arms of the Inca state stretched the entire length of the Andes, from Argentina and Chile in the south to Colombia in the north, encompassing most of modern-day Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador in between.

Remarkably, the Inca elite were able to administer their mountainous empire without the use of the wheel, the written word, or even large draught animals. The biggest working animal at their disposal was the llama; fine for light loads, but far too small to carry people.

Instead, they had the Qhapac Ñan, “beautiful road” in Quechua; a 25,000 mile road network that stitched their entire empire together into one unified state.

But the Qhapac Ñan was much more than a highway. It represented a key foundation of the entire Inca system. It was the infrastructure by which official runners (chasqui) covered superhuman distances to relay urgent messages throughout the empire. It connected temples and spiritual centres, and it allowed the Inca army easy access to their expanding frontiers. It even allowed caravans of llamas to transport produce so efficiently that the Emperor in Cusco could enjoy fresh fish from the Pacific Ocean and everyone, slaves included, were well-fed and nourished.


Crowd-free ruins on the "Beautiful Road"

Credit: Christian Declercq / Kmcero

But the Inca’s hyper-efficient communications system was their own undoing. Once the Spanish conquistadors arrived, their horses, gunpowder and smallpox spread quickly, penetrating the heart of the empire and quickening its collapse.

As colonial Peru’s centre of gravity shifted towards the coast, this once great road system fell swiftly into disrepair, so much so that massive tracts are barely visible today.

There is one big exception of course: the world-famous and carefully restored “Inca Trail”, which was actually a tiny and relatively insignificant segment of the original network.

But with demand for the classic Inca Trail trek (and its popular alternatives) reaching unmanageable levels, there has recently been renewed interest in the old road network. The Qhapac Ñan was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014, and commercial trekking routes are being established along some of the old roadways, paving the way for adventurers to start exploring this historic path.

These routes are further north, in the Huaraz region, and they explore areas that few outsiders ever get to see. Rarely visited Inca constructions, remote villages, pristine mountains and lakes and, of course, the ancient road system itself.

The main appeal for this trek is the opportunity to appreciate a gorgeous area in the Andes that few people outside of those that live there ever get to see. Visitors experience how locals farm, weave, cook and work with the llamas, giving an insight into ancient cultural practices that are impossible to appreciate with a simple day visit to a community. And you’ll even learn how to work with the llamas yourself, as they come along with your group as the pack animals, just like in the days of the Inca.

About the author

Trekking The Qhapac Ñan

Mike Gasparovic

Mike is an independent travel writer based in Lima, Peru. He has written for Fodor’s, Peru This Week and has created two book-length guides to his new hometown. His chief interests are the history and culture of the Spanish speaking world.

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