Also known as the Inca Trail, this vast network of roads, passing through some of the world’s most complex terrains, was crucial for the Inca Empire and its way of life.
The Qhapaq Ñan is an extraordinary set of roads that was used for several centuries by the Incas for communication, trade and defense. It reached its maximum expression in the fifteenth century when it spread across the length and breadth of the Andes in what are nowadays Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.
Based partly on pre-Inca infrastructure but much expanded by the Incas, the Qhapaq Ñan is built around four principal routes, all starting in the main square of Cusco, the capital of the Inca Empire. These, in turn, connect with several other road networks of lesser hierarchy, integrating towns, villages and rural areas into a single grid.
Declared a World Heritage Site in 2014, the network is a triumph of engineering in very different terrains. It runs from the high Andes at altitudes of more than 6,000 meters down to the coast, passing through rain forests, fertile valleys and desert landscapes. Some construction methods are unique to the Inca Empire which, although adapting them to different contexts, aimed to establish equal standards throughout the network, including infrastructure for trade, storage and accommodation.
Roadside structures have provided evidence of the valuable resources and goods traded along the network. They included precious metals, spiny oyster shells, foodstuffs, military supplies, feathers, wood, coca and textiles, which were transported from the areas where they were collected, produced or manufactured to Inca centers of various types and the capital itself.
As well as serving as the life support system of the Inca Empire and symbolizing its reach and power, the Qhapaq Ñan was a political project. For the Incas, it was a means of linking towns and centers of production and worship under an economic, social and cultural system at the service of the state.
Today, the most famous part of the Inca Trail is the segment from Cusco to Machu Picchu. However, parts of it can also walked in Chile where it reached south of Santiago and included a number of transversal routes.