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Inca Road & Bridge

Inca Road & Bridge


This Suspension Bridge Is Made From Grass

The 120-foot-long Incan bridge has been built and rebuilt continuously for five centuries.

On either side of a gorge high in the Peruvian Andes, an aging rope bridge sags precariously over the Apurímac River.

A Quechua man walks across the old suspension bridge at the start of the ceremony.

Every spring, communities gather to take part in a ceremony of renewal. Working together from each side of the river, the villagers run a massive cord of rope, more than a hundred feet long and thick as a person’s thigh, across the old bridge. Soon, the worn structure will be cut loose and tumble into the gorge below. Over three days of work, prayer, and celebration, a new bridge will be woven in its place.

The Q’eswachaka bridge has been built and rebuilt continuously for five centuries.

For hundreds of years it was the only link between villages on either side of the river in this region of Peru’s Canas Province—just one of many similar rope suspension bridges built during the Inca Empire, linking the massive territory by way of what is now known as the Great Inca Road. The road spanned nearly 25,000 miles and connected previously isolated communities, allowing soldiers, messengers, and ordinary citizens to traverse the empire.

The transportation network was part of what the Inca saw as their mandate to “go forth in the world and organize the world after a time of chaos,” says José Barreiro, assistant director of research and director of the Office for Latin America at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Barreiro was co-curator of an exhibition on the Inca Road and researched the Q’eswachaka Bridge.

“The bridges were part and parcel of that expansion of the empire from Cuzco into four directions, and crossing the very aggressive Andean geography,” he says.

The Spanish colonizers who toppled the empire in the 16th century were impressed by the engineering feat of the suspension bridges, built in areas where the rivers were too wide to be connected with wooden beams.

But over the years, some of the bridges were destroyed. Others fell into disuse and eventually disappeared with the introduction of new roads and bridges meant to serve cars in the 20th century.

Largely because of the isolated location, the tradition of the Q’eswachaka bridge endured, and today connects four Quechua-speaking communities: Huinchiri, Chaupibanda, Choccayhua, and Ccollana. Although a new metal bridge was built nearby for cars to cross the river, surrounding residents have continued using the old rope bridge to cross on foot for trade and social visits.

The Q’eswachaka bridge was inscribed in 2013 on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list for its significance to the people still living in the region.

“You can see the living culture in front of you today that harks back to 500 years ago,” Barreiro said. “As the political empire of the Incas was destroyed, what was left behind was the culture of the people at the village level.”

A major component of that culture is the idea of common labor, he says. Communities join together to work on common projects without the expectation of pay, knowing that the entire village or region will benefit in the end.

The methods of building the bridge, passed down through generations, have changed little over the years.

The process begins with the collection of strands of long grass, which are twisted together to form thin ropes. These, in turn, are twisted together into larger ropes, which are finally braided to form the heavy cables that will anchor the bridge. The communities then join together in the task of stretching the cables to prepare them for installation.

The cables are affixed to sturdy stone bases and experienced bridge builders begin working their way from the edges to the middle of the bridge, weaving the sides and floor with fibers and sticks. Once the builders meet in the center, they lay matting on the floor, and the new bridge is complete.

One notable change in the ritual in recent years is an increase in frequency, Barreiro said. Previously, the communities replaced the bridge once every three years. But as increased accessibility and tourism have brought more visitors to the area, they have increased the frequency to once a year. He attributed this both to safety concerns—the bridge is now seeing more traffic—and to the villagers’ recognition of the opportunity to draw more tourism by making the ceremony an annual ritual.

Once the bridge is completed, the communities celebrate with music, prayer, and feasting. The Q’eswachaka Bridge is now ready to serve another year.


The System

While people often refer to the Inca Road, the network of trails was much more than a single, contiguous pathway. Rather, it could be compared to the U.S. road system, complete with Interstates, state highways and all manner of local roads or dirt pathways. Together, it represented the spine of the Inca Empire, operating roughly from 1450 to 1532 when the Spanish arrived.

Some parts of the road were referred to as the “Royal Road,” or Qhapaq Ñan in Quechua, the language of the Inca. There were two main veins running roughly parallel to the western coast of South America. The coastal road went from the northwestern border of Peru with Ecuador around Tumbes southward to modern-day Santiago, Chile. This road passed through areas like Nazca, famous for the geoglyphs carved into the landscape and visible from the air, and Pachacamac, an important spiritual center just south of Lima. It’s less well preserved since it wasn’t as formally set even in Inca times. Many stretches were only defined by markings on the relatively flat landscape, according to Giancarlo Marcone Flores , an anthropologist at the University of Engineering and Technology in Peru and author of a book in Spanish about the road system.

The highlands road is the better preserved of the two today and it holds more examples of monumental architecture and engineering. It ran roughly from modern day Colombia down to the modern day Argentine city of Mendoza, including important Inca capitals like Quito, Cuenca and La Paz, with its center sitting at the main capital of the empire in Cusco.


Q'eswachaka Rope Bridge

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Known as Q’eswachaka (the first syllable is a lateral “click”), Queshuachaca or Keshwa Chaca, this is one of the only remaining examples of the Incan handwoven bridges once common in the Incan road system.

Made of woven grass, the bridge spans 118 feet and hangs 60 feet above the canyon’s rushing river. The Incan women braided small, thin ropes, which were then braided again by the men into large support cables, much like a modern steel suspension bridge. Handwoven bridges have been part of the trail and roadway system for over 500 years, and were held in very high regard by the Inca. The punishment for tampering with such a bridge was death.

Over time, however, the bridges decayed, or were removed, leaving this last testament to Incan engineering. The bridges’ sagging was addressed by destroying and rebuilding it in an annual ceremony—originally considered a social obligation under Inca rule, and now preserved as a way of honoring their history by the nearby community of Quehue, Peru. This bridge has been christened with a traditional Incan ceremonial bridge blessing and is in extremely good condition.

Every June, Quechua communities gather on the banks of the Apurimac River to renovate the bridge. On this day, they manifest their honour to Pachamama, the Earth Mother, and behold archaic traditions. When the work is over, people express gratitude to Apus (mountain spirits) and afterward celebrate with music, traditional food and drinks

Know Before You Go

From Sicuani, follow signs to Arequipa (a left turn if you are on the main highway facing toward Cuzco). Continue on that road until you begin seeing signs for Quehue. From Quehue, continue through town to the west (probably best to ask directions from a local at this point). When you cross the Apurímac River on the steel roadway bridge, Q'eswachaka is on your right. There is one walkway down to it on either side of the roadway bridge (about 100 m away from the bridge in both cases). The geocoordinates are -14.3811214,-71.484012.


The Inca Rope Bridge That’s Woven Across a River Each Year

WASHINGTON, DC — Each June in Huinchiri, Peru, four Quechua communities on two sides of a gorge join together to build a bridge out of grass, creating a form of ancient infrastructure that dates back at least five centuries to the Inca Empire. The year’s previous bridge is cut free and plunges into the Apurímac River below, swept away in the currents that flow through the Andes. Called the Q’eswachaka, the bridge is the last surviving example of the over 200 grass rope bridges that once connected the region.

Illustration of a rope bridge in ‘Old Civilizations of Inca Land’ (1924) (via Internet Archive Book Images) (click to enlarge)

A small portion of a 60-foot replica built by Quechua weavers is on view in The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. As Abigail Tucker reported for erected on the National Mall for the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival last summer, with the whole construction acquired by the museum. Another portion is reportedly planned to be on view at the New York City branch of the museum this fall.

The bridge section is among over 150 objects on view in The Great Inka Road, covering the ancient empire to the present in exploring the history of the 24,000-mile-long road network. There’s an embroidered llama neck collar from the mid-20th century, a Bolivian incensario in the shape of a wild cat from 600 to 900 CE, a goliath aryabalo ceramic jug from the 15th to 16th centuries, and even 3D digital models of Cusco stonework sites you can explore online.

Installed in the galleries, the bridge’s huge knots gripping fake rock, the experience with the Q’eswachaka isn’t the same as witnessing it in person, but it’s as close as many of us will get to this centuries-old engineering. The edges of the bridge appear frayed due to the thin material, and the crossing seems quite narrow. However, the bridge is incredibly strong, and able to hold 5,000 pounds. An illustration on the wall text shows llama and human both safely suspended from the bridge’s braids:

Illustration of the bridge’s support possibilities in ‘The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire’ at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC

Detail of the Inca rope bridge in ‘The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire’ at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC

Every year’s bridge starts humbly with the harvest of the local Jarava ichu grass, also known as feathergrass for its delicate blades. Cords of the grass are twisted together into huge cables, which require members from all the communities to stretch out. With two weavers starting on opposite sides of the ravine, eventually they meet in the middle, swaying above the water.

As Joshua Foer of Atlas Obscura pointed out in an article for Slate, at “least 300 years before Europe saw its first suspension bridge, the Incas were spanning longer distances and deeper gorges than anything that the best European engineers, working with stone, were capable of.” And they did it all in three days.

Inca suspension bridge in Peru (photo by Ramiro Matos, courtesy Smithsonian Institution)

Knots and the tactile feel of fiber were an integral part of Inca life, whether the tied strings of the khipu knot language, or the reed boats that still sail on Lake Titicaca. So the bridge is not just remarkable for preserving this technique, it’s also a point of pride for the communities, a living link to their precolonial culture. A modern bridge now stands not far from the rope bridge, and still, each year, the rope is woven from the grass.

In a 2014 interview, weaver Arizapana Huayhua told translator Jesús Galiano Blanco and National Museum of the American Indian research team director Isabel Hawkins: “If we stop preserving it, it would be like if we died.”

In the video below from the Smithsonian, you can see the weaving of the bridge from start to celebratory finish:

Grass cords for the bridge on view in ‘The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire’ at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC

The Inca rope bridge in ‘The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire’ at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC

The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire continues at the National Museum of the American Indian (4th Street & Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC) through June 1, 2018.


June 23, 2017

Bayonne Bridge Steel Rope, Making History in Lower Manhattan

By Neal Buccino, special to Portfolio, photographs by the Port Authority’s Mike Dombrowski

Six centuries ago, engineers in the Inka Empire designed cable bridges long enough to span Peru’s mountain gorges and durable enough to withstand earthquakes.

They wove these bridges out of grass and made them remarkably strong, using principles of physics that today support modern-day marvels such as the George Washington Bridge and Bayonne Bridge.

Next year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York—located in the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in Lower Manhattan—will help students learn about these technological achievements, with a little help from the Port Authority. The agency recently donated to the museum a five-foot length of steel suspender rope from the Bayonne Bridge, one of the 152 original steel ropes that held up its 9,800-ton roadway for 85 years.

Made of more than 200 tightly wrapped steel wires, the suspender rope was removed as part of the Port Authority’s Raise the Roadway project, which will permit ultra-large container ships to navigate the Kill van Kull.

The cable will live on in the museum’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center, expected to debut next April. There, the steel rope (tensile strength: 950,000 pounds) will be displayed next to a grass rope with a tensile strength of 4,000 pounds, of the kind still used in Peru’s last remaining rope bridge, the Q’eswachaka.

Nearby, suspended from the ceiling, visitors will see a 26-foot section of an actual rope bridge built by the modern-day keepers of the Q’eswachaka Bridge. The 4,500-square-foot imagiNATIONS Activity Center will include interactive exhibits on Native American innovations across fields as varied as engineering and architecture, medicine, and nutrition.

The exhibit will help visiting students understand how, with flexible strands of any material twisted and braided together, a rope much stronger than its component parts can be created.

“Showcasing a section of Bayonne Bridge steel cable alongside an Inka bridge rope made of ichu grass highlights the continuity in engineering concepts the Inka and their descendants have used for millennia,” said Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian. “Native innovation is everywhere in modern life, and this is one instance where we can directly point to it and provide that a-ha moment.”

“This steel rope carries all the history of the Bayonne Bridge, which in its day was the longest steel arch bridge in the world,” said Roger Prince, the Port Authority’s deputy director of Tunnels, Bridges, and Terminals. “We hope it provides an educational experience for everyone who visits the imagiNATIONS Center.”

This story originally appeared on Portfolio, the official blog of the Port Authority of New York. Used with permission. The imagiNATIONS Activity Center at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York is scheduled to open in spring 2018.

To learn more about Inka technology, visit the exhibition "The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire" online or at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. You can see neighboring communities work together as they do every year to rebuild the rope bridge at Q’eswachaka—including making the grass cables that support it—in the exhibition video here.

Q'eswachaka suspension bridge, 2014. Q'eswachaka, Apurimac River, Canas Province, Cusco, Peru. Photo by NMAI Media Initiatives, Smithsonian

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History of Bridges – Construction of Bridges Since Ancient Times

Bridge is not a construction but it is a concept, the concept of crossing over large spans of land or huge masses of water, and to connect two far-off points, eventually reducing the distance between them. The bridge provides passage over the obstacle of small caverns, a valley, road, body of water, or other physical obstacle. Designs of bridges vary depending on the nature of the terrain and the function of the bridge and where it is constructed. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the origin of the word bridge to an Old English word brycg, of the same meaning, derived from German root brugj?. The first bridges were believed to be made by nature — as simple as a log fallen across a stream. The first bridges made by humans were probably spans of wooden logs or planks and eventually stones, using a simple support and crossbeam arrangement. The Indian Epic literature Ramayana provides mythological accounts of bridges constructed from India to Sri Lanka by the army of Sri Rama, the mythological King of Ayodhya. The recent satellite photograph depicts the existence of this bridge, referred to in Ramayana. Mention of bridges being constructed by Mauryan dynasty in India, is given in Kautilya’s “Arthasastra”. During the wars Mughals have constructed many bridges across major rivers, in India. Before pre-historic people began to build the crudest shelter for themselves they bridged streams. Trees that have fallen across the stream from bank to bank acted as bridges. The wandering tribe that first deliberately made a tree fall across a stream were the first bridge builders. Observing monkeys swing of the several vines, led to connecting parallel cables with some sort of cross pieces, to support as bridges. Later hand grips were proved which led to suspension bridges. Rope bridges, a simple type of suspension bridge, were used by the Inca civilization in the Andes Mountains of South America The first bridges were natural of huge rock arch that spans. The first man-made bridges were tree trunks laid across streams in girder fashion, flat stones, and festoons of vegetation, twisted or braided and hung in suspension. These three types - beam, arch, and suspension - have been known and built since ancient times and are the origins from which engineers and builders derived various combinations such as the truss, cantilever, cable-stayed, tied-arch, and moveable spans

  • Beam Bridge: A horizontal beam supported at its ends comprises the structure of a beam bridge. The construction of a beam bridge is the simplest of all the types of bridges.
  • Cantilever bridges are built using cantilevers—horizontal beams that are supported on only one end. Most cantilever bridges use two cantilever arms extending from opposite sides of the obstacle to be crossed, meeting at the center.
  • The Arch Bridge is arch-shaped and has supports at both its ends. The weight of an arch-shaped bridge is forced into the supports at either end.
The suspension bridge is suspended from cables. The suspension cables are anchored at each end of the bridge. The load that the bridge bears converts into the tension in the cables.
  • The Cable-stayed Bridges like suspension bridges are held up by cables. However, in a cable-stayed bridge, less cable is required and the towers holding the cables are proportionately shorter. The longest cable-stayed bridge is the Sutong bridge over the Yangtze River in China.
  • Truss bridges are composed of connected straight elements with the help of pin joints. They have a solid deck and a lattice of pin-jointed or gusset-joined girders for the sides. Early truss bridges were made of wood, and later of wood with iron tensile rods, but modern truss bridges are made completely of metals such as wrought iron and steel or sometimes of reinforced concrete.

  • Cable-stayed bridge is a bridge that consists of one or more columns - towers or pylons, with cables supporting the bridge deck.

The bridge on the Sumida River in Tokyo, Brooklyn Bridge, New York

Tower Bridge, London, Golden Gate, San Francisco

Rialto Bridge, Venice , Sydney Harbour Bridge George Washington Bridge Howrah Bridge, Kolkata

Lakshman Jhoola, Haridwar, Bandra Worli sealink bridge, Mumbai By Tamarapu Sampath Kumaran Mr T Sampath Kumaran is a freelance writer. He regularly contributes articles on Management, Business, Ancient Temples, and Temple Architecture to many leading Dailies and Magazines.


The Inka called their empire Tawantinsuyu, which means "the four regions together." At its peak, the empire covered much of western South America.

The Inka Empire rose rapidly and burned bright. In little more than 100 years, it grew from a small kingdom in the highlands of Peru to become the largest empire in the Americas.

The Qhapaq Ñan, or Road of the Inka, made this triumph possible. A vast complex of roads, bridges, and other structures, the Qhapaq Ñan was the largest construction in the Western Hemisphere when Inka power was at its height. The Inka state used the road system strategically to oversee diverse populations within an empire of 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles), the equivalent of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas combined.

The whole road is of one design. made by hand and breaking through mountain chains and hillsides. it is one of the greatest constructions that the world has ever seen.

&mdashMiguel de Estete, Noticia del Perú [News from Peru], 1535


The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire

Construction of the Inka Road stands as one of the monumental engineering achievements in history. A network more than 20,000 miles long, crossing mountains and tropical lowlands, rivers and deserts, the Great Inka Road linked Cusco, the administrative capital and spiritual center of the Inka world, to the farthest reaches of its empire. The road continues to serve contemporary Andean communities across Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile as a sacred space and symbol of cultural continuity. In 2014, the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, recognized the Inka Road as a World Heritage site.

The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire explores the foundations of the Inka Road in earlier Andean cultures, technologies that made building the road possible, the cosmology and political organization of the Inka world, and the legacy of the Inka Empire during the colonial period and in the present day.

The Inka Road project is organized by the National Museum of the American Indian and is made possible by federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center, and internal Smithsonian Institution funds from the Consortium for World Cultures. Generous support for the exhibition is provided by the National Council of the National Museum of the American Indian and the ESA Foundation.


Inca Road & Bridge - History

Andean Road System

The Incas were magnificent engineers, they built the most elaborate network of roads and bridges of any ancient culture, known as Qhapaq Ñan. The success of its empire was partly due to being able to reach and control each corner of their territory. Inca engineers used and improved roads left by earlier cultures such as the Chimu, Wari and Tiwanaku among others.

Inca road network extended from north of Quito to south of Santiago

The Incas built more than 18,600 miles/30,000 km of paved roads in the most rugged terrain in the world. These roads and all the Inca and pre-Inca infrastructure along them are protected by UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1994.

There were two main roads, one connected the territory north to south extending along the coast and another along the Andes. Both roads were connected by a shorter network of roads. Along the coast they built a 3,000 m/4,830 km road that connected the Gulf of Guayaquil, Ecuador in the north to the Maule River, Chile in the south. The Andean royal road constructed in the highlands extended along the Andes Mountains. It reached Quito, Ecuador in the north, passed through Cajamarca and Cusco and ended near Tucuman, Argentina. The Andean Royal road was over 3,500 miles long, longer than the longest Roman road.

The Incas did not know the wheel and did not have horses either. Most of the transportation was done by foot using llamas to carry goods from one part of the empire to another. Roads were used by messengers or chasquis carrying messages across the empire. .

The Incas developed techniques to overcome the difficult territory of the Andes. Many roads crossed high mountains. On steep slopes they built stone steps resembling giant flights of stairs. In desert areas they built low walls to keep the sand from drifting over the road.

Suspension Bridges

Bridges were built all across the empire, they connected roads through rivers and deep canyons on one of the most difficult terrains in the world. These bridges were necessary in the organization and economy of the empire.

The Incas built spectacular suspension bridges or rope bridges using natural fibers. These fibers were woven together creating a rope as long as the desired length of the bridge. Three of these ropes were woven together creating a thicker and longer rope they would continue braiding the ropes until they had reached the desired width, length and strength. The ropes were then tied together with branches of trees and pieces of wood were added to the floor creating a cable floor of at least four to five feet wide. The finished cable floor was then attached to abutments supporting the ends on each side. They also attached ropes on both sides of the bridge that served as handrails. The last existing Inca suspension bridge is located near Cusco in the town of Huinchiri.

For more on Inca suspension bridges:

Chasquis or messengers .

Chasquis were chosen from the strongest and fittest males

Because the Inca Empire controlled such a vast territory they needed a way to communicate with all the its corners. They set up a network of messengers by which important messages would be conveyed. These messengers were known as Chasquis and were chosen from the strongest and fittest male youngsters. They ran many miles a day to relay messages. They lived in cabins or tambos along the roads usually in groups of four or six. When a chasqui was spotted, another one would run to meet him. He would run beside the incoming messenger trying to listen and to memorize the message, he would also relay the quipu if he was carrying one. The tired chasqui would stay and rest in the cabin while the other one will run to the next relay station. In this way messages could travel over 250 miles a day. .

In case of an invasion or a rebellion an emergency message was sent through a chain of bonfires. As each group of chasquis saw the smoke they would lit a bonfire that could be seen by the next cabin or tambo. The Sapa Inca would send his army toward the bonfire before the cause was known, usually on his way he would meet a messenger and learn from him the exact nature of the emergency.

Archaeological findings show that some tambos or relay stations were more elaborate than others. They were probably used as a place for officials or the Sapa Inca to stay during their traveling across the empire.


Watch the video: Inca road system awarded World Heritage status (January 2022).