Restoration Afoot for Ancient Inca Trails

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 17, 2004
Each day up to 2,000 tourists flood the ancient Inca mountaintop city of
Machu Picchu in southern Peru. They come to marvel at temples built from
perfectly chiseled blocks of granite and pay homage to the sun.

Most of the tourists travel by train from nearby Cusco. Others ride the bus. A few hundred heartier souls arrive on foot after a four-day slog along the famed Inca Trail.

"For the average tourist, [the Inca Trail] could be the adventure of a lifetime and a real stretch both physically and psychologically," said Karin Muller, a writer, photographer, and adventurer based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Walking the Inca Trail demands that hikers clamber over several high mountain passes. These range roughly between 11,000 feet (3,300 meters) to 14,000 feet (4,300 meters) in altitude. Well-preserved remnants of Inca architecture dot the route, which itself is paved in stone.

The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is but a 20-mile (32-kilometer) spur off the Inca High Road. The 500-year-old, 5,300-mile (8,500-kilometer) route follows the spine of South America's Andes and linked the Inca Empire from southern Colombia to central Chile.

(Muller's own travels along the length of the Inca Road were the subject of a National Geographic documentary and book, Along the Inca Road: A Woman's Journey into an Ancient Empire, published in 2001.)

The road is known as the Gran Ruta Inca in Spanish or Capaq Ñan in Quechua, an indigenous language of central Peru.

The World Conservation Union, a conservation nonprofit based in Geneva, Switzerland, is heading an initiative to restore and revitalize sections of the Gran Ruta Inca. The project aims to provide unique resource for tourism and to promote the sustainable development of the high Andean corridor.

"The world will know portions of the Gran Ruta Inca that are 12-meters [40-feet] wide or more, paved with stones, over 4,000 meters [13,000] feet above sea level, and it will be thousands of kilometers in length," project participants said in an e-mail statement.

Gran Ruta Inca

The Gran Ruta Inca project will initially focus on conservation and revitalization of the High Road, which served as the main artery in a network of ancient footpaths totaling more than 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers).

According to Muller, the network functioned like a nervous system, allowing Inca rulers to keep tabs on their people and keep their empire running smoothly.

In addition to the High Road, there were others. One followed the coastline. Several roads connected the coastal route to the Andes. Others roads trailed from the Andes into the jungle toward the Amazon.

Wooden posts on sand mounds marked the coastal road, a pathway that no longer exists. The High Road is better preserved. "The [Inca] had to carve it out of the Andes with steps. A lot more work went into it, a lot more long-lasting work," Muller said.

Some 262 miles (422 kilometers) of the High Road coincide with protected areas in the six countries along its route. But no road sections are protected for their own sake, according to the World Conservation Union.

In 2002 a World Conservation Union representative surveyed the condition of the Gran Ruta Inca between Quito, Ecuador, and La Paz, Bolivia. Large sections of the road in the highest and least-populated regions of the Andes were found to be visible and walkable.

The road has been covered or destroyed where it passes through major cities and towns. But in rural villages and hamlets of the Andean highlands, it remains partially intact.

These rural communities, occupied mainly by indigenous peoples living in extreme poverty, may gain the most from the Gran Ruta Inca revitalization effort, particularly if tourists seek less-traveled alternatives to the well-trodden Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

A revitalized route may also serve to reconnect villages for the exchange of potato seeds (local farmers grow over 3,000 different varieties) and reconnect "the sacred geography that is at the center of Andean tradition," according to the World Conservation Union.

Inca Culture

Muller said trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is well worth the effort. But she added that for tourists in search of real, thriving signs of the Inca culture—"not just a bunch of stone"—they need look no further than the people they encounter.

Muller suggests travelers be on the lookout for

• countryside roundups vicuña, a llamalike animal known for its fine wool;

• the annual Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun) held on June 24 in Cusco;

• the tradition of chewing coca leaves;

• and the colorful dresses worn by indigenous women.

Muller, who leads an annual organized trip to Peru, said any such a list is simply a starting point. She encourages travelers to summon the courage to participate in the local culture.

"Most travelers would love to participate in the culture, not just [observe it]. But they are afraid to step forward and try. They are being held hostage to their fear of rejection," Muller said. "The truth is, you are hardly ever rejected."

Breaking through this fear, Muller said, makes the journey a much richer experience. Tips for breaking the ice can be as simple as going to a local market to shop for potatoes, then asking how to prepare each kind.

Another option: While traveling along the Inca Road, Muller carries wool and a spindle with her. Whenever she pulls it out, Quechua women descend on Muller and her spindle, each taking turns showing her how to properly transform her pile of fleece into a ball of yarn.

"There is no one thing you should do to connect with the culture," she said. "The most important thing is to keep your eyes open and then try stuff. Put yourself out there. Overcome that fear."

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