Resurrection of the Great Inca Route
By Abraham Lama*
The enthusiasm of a group of hikers was the impulse behind a plan to restore the 8,500-km network of roads created by the Incas more than 500 years ago. Experts say it is a creation comparable to that of the routes laid by the Roman Empire.
LIMA - From May to December 1999, Ricardo Espinosa made a 3,000-km journey on foot between Quito and La Paz, head of an expedition of Ecuadorian, Peruvian and Bolivian archeologists following the monumental road built by the Incas more than 500 years ago.
The trek gave rise to a unique conservation project that will involve six South American countries and which proposes to revive the functioning of the Great Route of the Incas.
The proposal by Espinosa and his team was adopted in 2001 by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), which drew support from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Conservation International and other global organizations.
Although many stretches of the network have disappeared due to the ravages of time or to the impacts of human activities, still intact is the "Capac Ñan" (meaning "principal road" in the Quechua language), the axis of the network of roads built by the Incas to impose their dominion over territories that now form part of northern Argentina and Chile, southern Colombia, and nearly the entirety of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.
"The Incas did not have draught animals, so wheeled carriages were not possible or necessary. Their roads were designed for a world of people on foot. To once again walk those routes brings us closer to their creators. It permits us to see what they saw," said Espinosa, 43, a passionate student of philosophy and of the indigenous Andean religions.
The great Incan roads traverse valleys and high plains throughout the Andes, ranging from 1,000 to 4,500 meters above sea level, and are monumental in size: at some points the stone path measures 15 meters wide.
The restoration of the centuries-old network will be part of an ecosystem conservation program and will facilitate the integration of hundreds of indigenous communities along its 8,500 km of roads, according to the report that the IUCN presented at the World Parks Congress in September in the South African city of Durban.
A study conducted by the IUCN and Conservation International states that the restoration of the Route of the Incas would have important benefits for numerous threatened ecosystems, promote ecotourism and favor the development of the Indian groups that are found along its path.
"The Inca roads can be compared to the road network constructed by the Romans. If we were to put it in Africa, the great route would run from Cape Town, in South Africa, to the south of France," Miguel Pellerano, IUCN regional director for South America, told the Durban conference.
The historic, social and spiritual importance of this ancient feat of engineering requires the support of the international community, he said.
The idea of following the Incan roads "was whispered in my ear by humble residents who I met on my trek along the beaches," says Espinosa, known in Peru as "the solitary walker" for having covered the 3,000 km of beaches of his country in 1995. He wrote about his experience in a book that was a Peruvian best-seller.
"The Inca roads were described by researchers Alberto Regal and León Strube, and Victor von Haguen and John Hyslop conducted important field work. I decided to follow the entire extension of the main road on foot, just like the Incas," said the expedition-leader, who recounted the adventure in the book "Capac Ñan".
"I discovered that there are stretches that remain intact and can easily be restored, while others are deteriorated, but identifiable."
The route crosses eight nature reserves that together cover 422 km, or five percent of the total network, says Eduardo Guerrero, of the IUCN South America office, based in Quito.
Thousands of visitors to Peru skip the train trip and make the journey from Cusco to Machu Picchu in a two-day walk along the most famous of the network's lateral routes. But the great number of tourists is a cause of concern among the authorities.
The Great Route of the Incas presents a unique opportunity to alleviate congestion along that path, which is suffering deterioration, says Stephen Edwards, tourism expert with Conservation International.
"Small sections can serve as a pilot effort for fomenting ecotourism. I recommend four stretches, located between the northern and central sierras in Peru, although there are many others that are impressive for their monumental size, beautiful landscapes and because it is virtually impossible to reach them by vehicle," says Espinosa.
"The communities united by each section would work in partnership to manage tourism activities and preservation of the route. They would have to organize commercial services for lodging and meals for the visitors," he recommends.
In each country touched by the road network, commissions have been set up to study the feasibility of the project, which is hoped to develop with the participation of indigenous communities -- the descendants of the great route's architects.
* Abraham Lama is a Tierramérica contributor.