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The inka trails: 39 thousand kilometers of handmade roads

An extensive network of ancient hand-built trails connects civilizations and preserves the history of the region.

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The Inca Trails are an extensive network of stone paths that run through five countries in South America and were developed and built in part by the Inca Empire more than 500 years ago. They were a vital part of the growth of the so-called Tahuantinsuyo Empire.


This incredible man-made engineering work initially had more than 60,000 kilometers of roads, which were built using stone as the main material, it is important to note that both the Incas and previous civilizations had no knowledge of the use of the wheel at the time of their construction. 

The Inca Roads are composed of two longitudinal axes parallel to the coastline, that is, two main or central roads from which multiple branches and short roads branched off. These main roads connected cities as far north as Quito, in what is now Ecuador, to southern towns such as Tucumán, in what is now Argentina.

The central point of this ancient network of roads, i.e. the place where all these roads connect, is the city of Cusco; the Inca Empire was divided into four regions or 'suyos', namely: 

  • The northern territories were called Chinchaysuyo and were occupied by civilizations such as the Chinchas or Chimúes.
  • The territories located to the southeast were called Collasuyo, and were extensions populated by the Collas and the Aymaras, among others.
  • The territories to the southwest were called Contisuyo, and were populated by tribes such as the Conti, Collaguas and others.
  • The jungle territories located to the east were called Antisuyo, and were inhabited by multiple Amazonian tribes.

The elements or parts that make up the network of Inca Roads are among others: the roads or sidewalks made of stone, the edges of the roads, the lithic bridges that are found throughout the length and breadth of this network of roads and the tambos or deposits. The road has a width ranging from one and a half to fifteen meters.

One of the most important questions that researchers always ask is how citadels like Machu Picchu, built on top of a mountain located in the middle of a rainy sub-tropical jungle, remain standing to this day, and the same question is asked for the network of Inca trails. Recent research has used modern engineering techniques as well as state-of-the-art equipment to discover the reason for this mystery, arriving at several conclusions:

  • The knowledge of water, both its chemical and physical properties, was well exploited by the Inca engineers, who were careful to study the local geography to determine in which sections platforms or stairways should be built to prevent the mountain from sliding, in which sections hollowed walls should be built to drain the water inside the mountain, and in which regions the road should be paved to avoid its destruction by snow or frost. 
  • The use of different materials and strata or floors was a fundamental part of the construction of these roads, since in rainy areas a base of pebbles or rolled stones was added first to allow water drainage, the next layer or stratum was made of earth mixed with small stone and so on, many of these construction techniques allow these buildings to remain standing to this day.
  • The knowledge and veneration of the Incas for the environment or Pacha Mama can also be seen in the construction of the Qhapaq Ñan, since the road does not destroy the environment but rather becomes part of it, respecting the shapes, slopes and contours of the mountains, riverbeds and other natural forms.
  • It is believed that the road is also aligned to an energetic pathway that runs through the earth, which in modern scientific parlance is known as earth magnetic fields. It is for this reason that many locals believe that this Inca road network possesses a spirit or 'life' of its own.

Bridges are also an important element in this complex and elaborate network of roads, we can find bridges made entirely of stone, but there are also hanging bridges made of vines, bridges made of wood and oroya bridges (in this type of bridge there is a rope that connects one bank of the river with another). Most of these bridges were destroyed during the Spanish conquest.


The oldest sections of this ancestral road network, also known by the Quechua name 'Qhapaq Ñan' which means roads of the King, were built by civilizations such as the Tiahuanaco and Huari, more than 1300 years ago. The main objective at the time of erecting these roads was to connect different geographic regions due to the fact that many important cities are located in the middle of the high Andean mountains, making them difficult to access.

Many stretches or sections of this road were built with the purpose of linking ceremonial centers of worship with mountains or Apus, as is the case of the road between the citadel of Pachacamac (place in front of the sea) and the immense snowy Pariacaca, over 5,700 meters above sea level.

Ironically enough, it is almost certain that the Spaniards discovered and used this extensive road network to reach and conquer more quickly the more distant territories of the Inca Empire.


The world famous Inca Trail, 39 kilometers long and end

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