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.

S82A6265

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 swiftly fell 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 new 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.

How to get to Qhapac Ñan

By Karam Filfilan

Karam is Horizon Guides' editor.

Explore Peru

Why Horizon Guides?

Expert travel guides

Our guides are written by the leading experts in their destinations. We never take payment for positive coverage so you can count on us for reliable and impartial travel advice.

Authentic experiences

We curate exceptional trips in underrated places, organised by the very best tour operators who live and breathe their destinations and are passionate about authentic, responsible tourism.

Give back to mother nature

We'll plant 50 trees for every trip booked via the Horizon Guides site in partnership with the International Tree Foundation, who carry out sustainable community forestry projects in Africa.