Running an empire
Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Road System
Before there were highways, before there were post offices, before there was the internet, the Incans created their own version of these. It was all wrapped up in one very simple idea and was operated by just the two legs of man. In fact, it was this basic invention that helped the South American civilisation flourish in the 15th and 16th centuries and expand at one of the fastest rates in history.
What was this invention? It was called the Andean Road System, or Qhapac Ñan. Most people today know of it as the Incan Trails, though.
This system of transport had more than 30,000 kilometres of trails… which, to state the obvious, is a lot. Just stop and think about that for a second – you would have cross the USA at its widest point 7 times to travel the same distance. This vast network covered an area that now includes 6 countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
It wasn’t just the size of the Andean Road System that made it so incredible, though. Many of these trails went through the high mountains of the Andes up to an altitude of about 6,000 metres. If you’ve ever been that high yourself, you’ll know how hard it is to breathe, let alone race along a narrow pathway.
The second thing to understand is how these trails were used. They were certainly not used by vehicles (it was well before anything like that existed here – and it wouldn’t have been practical anyway). For the slow and burdensome tasks like transporting goods, llamas or alpacas would be herded along the road. But for anything that needed speed, it was too risky to use animals. Instead, men ran along them at an unbelievable pace.
This is probably the most interesting part of the Andean Road System. It’s easy to imagine a caravan of animals carrying supplies – that happened on transport networks all across the world. But what was so unique and incredible about these trails was the way the Incans used them to relay important messages.
The men who would run along the tracks were called ‘chasqui’ and they had a special position in the society as runners of the empire. These Incan runners were well trained and agile. They would sprint along the roads – across mountains, through deserts, into rainforests – in a relay system. When one man got to a pit stop on the road, they would pass the message to another rested man, who would do the next leg. Using this method, they could cover up to 240 kilometres in a single day!
The Incan Empire spread out from the capital Cusco in Peru to a huge area covering much of South America. Many parts of the roads that made up the network still exist in some form – and this is partly because the Incans protected them by building stone stairs or walls along the side of them.
The most famous part of the network is the path that leads to Machu Picchu, the legendary religious ruins. It is commonly referred to as the Inca Trail and now has hundreds of tourists trekking along it every day. For my visit to Machu Picchu, I walked one of the alternatives – the Lares Track. While it doesn’t have the stairs built of stone into the mountains like the more popular option, it is technically part of the Andean Road System. Much like the transport networks of any country these days, there is more than one way to get from A to B and detour via C.
But explore north of Quito into Colombia or as far south as Santiago in Chile, and you’ll find remnants of the roads. The track may be clearly marked or a small wall of rocks may indicate the route. More than four centuries after the Spanish arrived here and wiped out the Incan civilisation, their legacy remains and it truly is a masterful piece of human engineering.