6 mins

Royal road of the Incas

Fighting off dogs, judging Kung Fu contests and climbing over bridges made of string... life isn't predictable on the Inca's Royal Road


Gringo!” The voice boomed out of the shadows. I jumped back from the doorway. “Amigo!” it thundered again. Cautiously I poked my head inside the adobe schoolhouse to be greeted by a rotund face in wire-rimmed glasses. “My friend! You’re the answer to my prayers!”

Stumbling to VIP status

Lucho was the headmaster of this crumbling village school on Peru’s vast and mournful Plateau of Bombón. I looked round at the peeling walls. It was clearly a punishment posting.

Approaching down the Royal Road from the north, I’d seen from afar the collection of huts called Tambopampa and had limped breathlessly into the village, hoping to find something to eat. The place had been deserted.

“We’re all on the campo de fútbol, the soccer pitch. And I desperately need someone to open our sports day and judge the teams.”

There was no time to protest. He hauled me over, pointed to a platform and handed me a microphone. Taken aback, I stuttered something about the day being well and truly open; then as the youth of Tambopampa filed past I awarded them points as instructed for presentation, deportment and martiality.

If you’re wondering about the martiality, well so was I. It turned out to involve them addressing the platform with a sort of Kung Fu salute and a “Hah, ZO!” At the end of it all I decided this was how Winston Churchill must have felt after inspecting the troops. Totting up the scores, I announced the winning team to a whoop of unabashed joy. Then, with great solemnity, Lucho handed me a plate of potatoes and the whole school clapped. How wonderful to be an instant VIP.

It was a moment of celebration for me too. I’d just reached the 1,000-mile point on the greatest walk of my life. For 200 years until the Spanish conquest in 1533 the Royal Road had been the cornerstone of the Inca empire. So-called because it linked the twin capitals of Quito and Cuzco, it followed the spine of the Andes – almost entirely above 3,000m – and boasted the very best of Inca engineering. Stone causeways, rope bridges and solid rock ledges carried it across some of the wildest terrain on earth.

Serving a civilisation which knew neither the wheel nor the written word, the Royal Road was unique among the world’s great highways in being designed entirely for foot traffic – mainly the chasquis or king’s messengers who used it to sprint in relays from post to post.

The nine-day stretch from Castillo which I’d just completed had easily been the best so far. From deep limestone gorges to the high puna where only llamas and alpacas survive, it had introduced me to a part of the Andes where houses still have mud walls and families spend all day on the open hillsides, tending their flocks or working vast plots of potatoes. As in Inca times, this hardy native Andean root crop is the main source of sustenance, thriving at the highest altitudes and in the thinnest of soils.

More fiesta, little resta

From Bombón I passed the strangely luminescent Lake Junìn and crossed the Huaricolca and Acostambo ranges before descending into the Mantaro Valley, the first of three deep gorges I had to cross before reaching Cuzco. The Royal Road eased its way knee-crackingly into the gaping chasm. I felt light-headed with weariness but worse was to come. Rounding a corner on a narrow riverside ledge I found the village of Izcuchaca in full fiesta.

The elders were leading the fray, dancing round the square to the thump, thump, thump of a brass band. Percussion and French horns vied manically, each trying to make the most noise. After less than a minute I was dragged into the circle of heaving humanity and quickly realised that my John Travolta days were over. My knees were still shaking and I clung desperately to an ancient man, a real grandee, in an endless circular shuffle. A bucket of chicha (maize beer) was passed round, and as I accepted my third glass I knew the afternoon was going to be a difficult one.

At midday the revellers finally let me leave. Across the river the Royal Road zigzagged skywards. The heat was stifling, and as I gained height I gradually began to notice that on this side the streams were completely dry. I hadn’t filled my water bottles; and now the sweat poured off me, the tiny cooling breeze making no impact at all. Eventually I reached a house. “Is there any water here?” I gasped.

“No,” replied a man digging potatoes. “We get it from over the ridge.”

In desperation I followed his directions and finally, two hours further on, found a bubbling spring of clear water where I sank to my knees and drank. In fading light I stumbled across the mountainside, utterly spent. In almost total darkness I found a small grassy patch, banged in some pegs, tumbled into my tent and was instantly asleep.

A strange distant rumbling formed a background to my dreams, and in the cold first light of dawn I discovered what it was. Peering through the tentflaps I found myself looking vertically down a full 1,000m. The rumbling was the River Mantaro which I’d crossed the previous day. I’d set up camp just a metre from a precipice.

Despite such near-misses, walking the Royal Road wasn’t nearly as difficult as I’d expected. The daily walk-eat-sleep routine soon became second nature and as I marched along I let my thoughts drift far and wide. Who carved these extraordinary stones? How did they heave them into place? Did they look at their finished work and smile at a job well done? We know that Inca society was one of the most rigidly feudal the world has ever known.

From Manco Capac to Atahualpa, the ‘Inca’ was both king and god, so his orders would have been carried out without question. As I passed ruin after ruin, each exquisitely detailed even down to the shape of the bathroom water spout, I began to appreciate just what such an autocracy could achieve.

Soldiering doggedly on

My only real fear was of dogs. These ferocious perros pastorales were supposed to guard the flocks and herds from rustlers, but most of them were so stupid they couldn’t tell a rustler from a perfectly harmless gringo. I fended off their frenzied attempts to exterminate me and reflected ruefully that on these solitary uplands there must be a severe shortage of food and excitement. So when these two basic necessities came rolling round the corner in a single tempting package (me), the dogs could perhaps be forgiven for going berserk.

Only once did I actually get bitten. Six of the brutes hurled themselves at me, snarling and baring their evil yellow teeth, till their owner casually sauntered up and dragged them away. He noticed my shaking figure and chuckled. “You look a bit of a mess. Would you like a plate of potatoes?”

He told me he kept the dogs because he and his neighbours were always stealing each other’s animals. “I don’t know why,” he said. “It’s just a tradition.” After this experience I gave all canines a wide berth. Perros pastorales indeed. It made them sound like poodles.

I was now less than 100km from Cuzco but separated by the awesome canyon of the Apurímac, a thunderous torrent whose Quechua name means ‘Great Speaker’. Its currents have scared generations of travellers witless and nearly stopped the Spanish conquistadores in their tracks. In Inca times a spindly suspension bridge dangled across the chasm. Although only just wide enough for soldiers to cross in single file, it stretched 45m from pier to pier – in those days probably the longest suspension bridge in the world.

I was keen to see the site of this most celebrated specimen of Inca engineering but it proved impossible to reach. Landslides had long since blocked the cliff stairways, and the tunnels through the rock faces had collapsed. The bridge itself, always a temporary affair, was torched in an attempt to halt the Spanish march on Cuzco, and only cursorily re-strung in later years. But upstream I found an amazing alternative. At a place called Qeswachaka, miles from anywhere, the world’s last remaining Inca suspension bridge was swaying gently in the breeze.

A bridge too far?

The Qeswachaka bridge straddles a gorge only slightly less breathtaking than the one once crossed by the Royal Road. The locals on either bank maintain it with huge enthusiasm. Every June they stream down into the canyon carrying armfuls of pajabrava, the tough, spiky tussock grass that thrives in the high Andes, which they press and weave into six thick cables – four for the footway and two for handrails. The cables are strung between the original Inca piers and secured round great eucalyptus logs buried deep underground.

Finally the footway is laid with brushwood. Unbelievably, the resulting structure can carry a loaded llama; but the fibres deteriorate so quickly that by December the bridge is collapsing and the following June the whole process has to begin again. In Inca times a team from surrounding villages would have been permanently assigned to re-string and repair it, at the same time acting as guards, ready to apply a match in case of invasion. Today the work is more of a seasonal distraction, a way of paying tribute to Inca forebears and an excuse to get together and drink some chicha.

The cables wobbled alarmingly as I set foot on them. The fibres creaked and stretched and I suddenly felt rather small and vulnerable. The valley seemed deserted. But the pajabrava was fresh and the workmanship sound. With a sigh of relief I scrambled onto the far bank and set my sights on Cuzco.

Rejoining the Royal Road, I struck out across the Plain of Anta where in 1533 the city’s defenders made their last desperate stand against the advancing Spanish. In those days the road crossed this swampy expanse on a raised stone causeway but now only its flanking ditches remain. The land has been drained for grazing by a most un-Inca animal, the cow, source of the delicious cheeses they sell in Cuzco.

Beyond the plain the road disappeared completely and I followed a narrow-gauge railway up to the final pass. The approach gave surprisingly little warning of the vast city on the other side. I passed through eucalyptus groves dotted with huts of red-brown adobe. Children ran semi-naked; pigs nosed in the dirt. Away to my right a modern highway hummed with traffic, but that was all.

The end of the wilderness

Then I was at the summit. The tracks passed through a crumbling arch and there, filling the valley ahead, was my final destination. The conquistadores’ first glimpse was of a city on fire, ignited by its retreating inhabitants. Mine was of sprawling suburbs stretching into the misty distance. Cuzco is Peru’s fourth largest urban centre and has doubled in size in the last 50 years; but its historic core has been exquisitely preserved as a World Heritage Site.

I could see it now, colonnaded shops and ornate churches huddled round the Plaza de Armas – the great central square. The scene looked thoroughly Spanish but I knew that the buildings were set on Inca foundations, and from where I stood the red-tiled colonial roofs were dominated by the vast, glowering Inca hill fort of Sacsayhuaman.

I stepped cautiously down the hill and made my way through cobbled streets, trying to absorb the clamour of South America’s number one tourist destination. After eight months in the wilderness it was too much. Lugging my rucksack across the Plaza de Armas I sought refuge in the cathedral, its tall brass-studded doors thrown open to reveal a priest taking a candlelit communion. But on the brink of the hushed interior I felt a tap on my shoulder and a voice in my ear. “That’ll be six dollars entrance please.”

I was back in the modern world.

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