What It’s Like to Travel the Inca Road Today

A rocky rollicking journey to Machu Picchu along one of the greatest engineering feats in the Americas

Hiram Bingham called Machu Picchu “the most important ruin discovered in South America since the Spanish conquest.” (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)
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The last stretch of road that the emperor of the world descended was dauntingly steep, and its seemingly endless terraced-stone expanse is still there 482 years later. The stepped, wide-granite thoroughfare spills down, and down, and down, from the Peruvian Andes into the flat valley of Cajamarca.

This section, about 1,100 miles northwest of Cuzco, is part of the “Great Road,” or Capac Ñan, as the Inca knew it—the grandest engineering achievement of the pre-Hispanic Americas, stretching roughly 3,700 miles along the Andes, from present-day Colombia to Chile. During my descent late one afternoon about ten years ago, my knees aching, I was haunted by the specter of Atahualpa, the Inca monarch, who would have perhaps traveled this route to his fatal encounter with Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conqueror. Atahualpa usually traveled by litter, but he was a young warrior-king in a nation that valued walking, and he might have felt the need, as I did, to prove he could make it down on foot. He would have seen these same curbstones, the countless steps leading down the hillside into the valley.

The Capac Ñan network still exists in remarkably durable portions across six countries of South America, though it was built without iron tools, draft animals, a single arch, or the wheel. With suspension bridges and ramrod-straight roads laid out by ancient surveyors, the road functions as a kind of map of Inca ambitions, an eternal landmark imposed by a preliterate society that left no written documents. It is also the subject of a groundbreaking new exhibition, “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire,” at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

I’d glimpsed other portions of the roadway before as well. Years earlier, I had unwittingly stumbled on sections while riding my motorcycle through central Peru and Bolivia, where people invited me to abandon my wheels and follow them up stone pathways to villages that lay across misty peaks. But this time, determined to explore the road in its full atmospheric power, I took the easiest way to reach the legendary route. I flew to Cuzco, the onetime Inca capital and now Peru’s tourism hub, and stepped outside my hotel.

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(Map: Sophie Kittredge; Source: Daniel G. Cole, Smithsonian Institution, Esri and NaturalEarth. The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire, Smithsonian Books and NMAI (2015))

I was met on the stoop by Donato Amado Gonzalez, a historian with the Machu Picchu Archaeological Park, a small, intense man who kept a fast pace without apology. Our first stop was only a few blocks away: a wide trash-strewn alley. “It’s called the road of the conquistadores,” Amado said, “because they entered Cuzco right here.”

Underneath centuries of layered mud and garbage lay a stretch of the north road, the Chinchaysuyu. The greatest of the Inca Road’s thoroughfares, it once ran from Cuzco to present-day Quito, Ecuador, and then kept going to what is now Pasto, Colombia. On the right side of the alley was a footpath, a well-trodden remnant of the ancient byway, made of smooth cobblestones. On the left ran a feature of most Inca roads: a canal to control erosion. Peruvians brushed past me and turned up into a suburban neighborhood.

The Spaniards entered Cuzco by this route only after they had sealed the fate of the emperor in Cajamarca. Pizarro and his tiny band of soldiers lured the imperial entourage into a tight plaza and opened fire with cannon. Pizarro himself seized the emperor by the arm. The invaders agreed to spare Atahualpa’s life if he filled a room, once with gold and twice with silver; when he did, they garroted him anyway. They appointed a rival in his place, and moved south through a demoralized and confused Inca empire, co-opting the elite with promises that nothing would change.

They walked much of the way to Cuzco, because their horses suffered terribly from the sharp edges of the Capac Ñan’s stepped inclines. Most of the Spaniards were impoverished farmers from the region of Extremadura, and I had to wonder how they felt when they rounded the corner here, and entered the vast plaza at the heart of an empire, surrounded with monumental palaces and temples, everything glittering with gold leaf and brilliant hanging textiles.

Amado blitzed onward at a punishing uphill pace. As we crossed a busy road lined with hotels and sweater shops, he pointed to a stretch of byway called the Puma road. It led up to the monumental complex of Sacsayhuaman—an impressive ruin today—and over the mountains to the ritual center of Huchuy Qosqo, or Little Cuzco.

We race-walked to the edge of Cuzco. Finally, high over the city in the failing light of dusk, Amado gestured wide as we stepped around a corner: “There!” he almost shouted. “The royal road!” It was the best-preserved section in Cuzco, a wide, straight portion of the Capac Ñan that ran hundreds of yards, neatly walled on both sides as it traversed the slopes of a steep hill. There were houses below, and a road clogged with traffic above. The path was more than three yards wide, neatly edged, and still floored with stones worn smooth by Inca religious processions.

A black-on-black thunderstorm was rolling across the open valley toward us, but we continued on the road and climbed up to an apacheta, a shrine consisting of a stone pinnacle abutting a smooth stone platform. I asked Amado if every road had a sacred site like this, but he shook his head. “Every sacred site had a road that leads to it,” he said.

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Scholars have gone to great lengths to understand the Capac Ñan, among them Karen Stothert, an archaeologist from the University of Texas at San Antonio, who began walking it in 1967 while still a Peace Corps volunteer. “You are talking about thousands of miles in some of the most rugged topography in the world,” she told me by phone. “The road climbs 5,000 feet straight up mountains. Sometimes it is built on a stone ledge, just wide enough for a llama. If you bump your backpack, it can bump you right off the cliff, 2,000 to 3,000 feet down.” She has conducted seminal research on the road system, especially in Ecuador and Peru, documenting and mapping bridges, walls, tunnels and drainage systems on the eastern slopes of the Andes.

Stothert likes to challenge easy versions of Inca history. “First of all,” she says, “we call them Inca roads, but many of us know some parts were built before the Inca.” For at least 3,000 years, other cultures, including the Moche and the Nazca, forged trails that connected to the larger world, and engaged in long-range trade for herbal medicine, gold and hallucinogenic compounds. When the Inca conquered the Andes in the 15th century, they put a stop to that “somewhat egalitarian” society, Stothert says, brutally subduing hundreds of nations. For many ordinary people, the Inca Road meant subjugation and impoverishment.

Across the empire, some 25,000 miles of road—including this intact section—led to Cuzco (in the distance). (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)
A view of Cuzco from Huanacuari, a sacred hill for the Incas. According to one legend, the first Incas saw a rainbow above this hill—a favorable omen. (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)
Tourist climb the steps to Machu Picchu. (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)
The path to Gate of the Sun, the Inca portal to Machu Picchu (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)
Spanish colonists demolished Qorikancha, the Incan Temple of the Sun, and built the Church of Santo Domingo, using temple remnants as its foundation. (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)
The site of Ollantaytambo includes Inca buildings that are among the oldest continuously inhabited in South America. (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)
In Ollantaytambo, along the route to Machu Picchu, a local woman prepares beans to sell in the plaza. (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)
María Belin cuts an Andean pumpkin, called a zapallo, in Ollantaytambo. (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)
A farmer hoists a load of dried-grass forage for his herd of cows in Ollantaytambo. (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)
At a street festival in Cuzco, the Peruvian band Show Ma’Jazz parades down a section of the original Inca Road. (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)
In Cuzco, people in white masks, called Collas, whip each other in a dance called Yawarmayo, or Blood River, in honor of Qoyllur Rit’i, an Andean pilgrimage festival. (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)
People pause for breakfast at Isabel Jibaja’s food stand in Cuzco, a stop on the Chinchaysuyo road system. (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)
Troop “Machu Picchu,” scouts from the Seventh Day Adventist Church, pose for their official photo in Saqsaywaman, above Cuzco. (Ivan Kashinsky and Karla Gachet)

Stothert’s investigations influenced the work of Richard Burger, former director of Yale’s Peabody Museum, who compares the Inca road system to “the skeleton of a fish,” with its major north-south axis and many smaller subroads spreading east and west. As far back as the 1970s, Burger, a noted authority on Machu Picchu, walked sections of the road in northern Peru, and he likens it to the Roman road system in audacious scale and purpose. Like the Romans, the Inca needed to move their professional army quickly over long distances. The road also offered a unique communication medium: A corps of imperial messengers, the chaski, ran in relays, passing spoken messages 150 miles a day between Quito, one of the northernmost points of the empire, and Cuzco. Also, the road served as a conduit for products that symbolized the four corners of the Inca world and its immense wealth—feathers and wildlife from the jungle, gold and silver from present-day Bolivia, massive stones pushed all the way from what is now Ecuador for use in temple construction, and beach sand transported from the Pacific coast to fill the ceremonial main plaza at Cuzco. The road itself was regarded as sacred, a tool for spreading worship of the sun god personified in the emperor.

Maria Eugenia Muñiz, an archaeologist from the Ministry of Culture in Cuzco, has surveyed stretches of the roadway in support of a multinational effort to receive World Heritage site designation for the Capac Ñan. (­Unesco granted the designation in 2014.) In lower valley sections, Muñiz said, the trail was not only flat and straight, but beautiful, with “gravel and dirt packed down, with a canal accompanying it.”

And yet the real achievement of Inca engineers was putting the high in highway, with sections of the road running at 10,000, even 16,000 feet. Their ideal road traced a perfectly straight line across the high slopes of a hillside, above the risk of landslides and below exposed ridges. Drainage was vital, and the Inca poured labor into substrates, ditching and walls that held back erosion.

Much of the initial construction was done by slaves, prisoners of war and conscripted laborers, but for regular maintenance, the Inca made individual families responsible for short stretches. The emperor was obligated to repay the workers not with money—the Inca didn’t have currency—but with a stipend of clothing, chicha (fermented-corn beer) and food. These were dispersed from official storehouses along the roads, which “connected the different regions,” historian Donato Amado Gonzales had told me. Potatoes and llamas from the high puna, or uplands, were traded for corn from the midlands, fruit and coca from the eastern jungles, and fish from the Pacific coast. The Capac Ñan integrated the empire, but also diversified it.

But the Great Road began to decay and disappear almost as soon as the Spaniards conquered Peru. Designed to be traveled by humans on foot and by llamas, it was torn up by iron-shod horses and tough mules. The collapse of centralized power reduced maintenance. Spaniards quickly built new roads suitable for horses and wagons. The one development that eventually rivaled the damage to the road by the conquistadors was the automobile, which led many people who formerly walked the old roads to abandon them, or, worse, cover them with asphalt. Others pulled up disused stonework to improve their houses. The once vast network of main roads and myriad connecting arteries—reaching some tens of thousands of miles at its peak in the 15th century—has declined to some 3,000 miles of visible road today.

But limited segments are in use. I saw people commuting on the section in Cajamarca, and Bolivians walking to market on a stretch of Inca road that runs across the Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca. Villagers even make repairs, working collectively in the Inca fashion. In the Apurímac Valley of Peru, less than a day’s drive from Cuzco, four communities gather annually to rebuild an Inca suspension bridge made from woven-grass ropes—a tradition going back half a millennium. “Maintaining the bridge maintains their culture,” says curator Ramiro Matos, a Peruvian archaeologist and ethnographer at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and a lead organizer of the exhibition. The bridge project, he adds, exemplifies one way that the Capac Ñan lives: “It is the Inca Road today.”

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Amado had walked me into the Cuzco ground, but when he departed after two hours, disappearing into the night at a brisk pace, I didn’t quit. I’d noticed a brass plaque embedded in the sidewalk just above Cuzco’s Plaza de Armas. The plaque read “Antisuyu.” A long arrow pointed uphill.

The east road. Antisuyu was what the Inca called the northeastern section of the empire. It included part of the Amazon Basin, a land they considered hot, dangerous and eerily flat. But Antisuyu was rich with things that don’t exist at 10,000 feet: fruits, fish, animals and endless forests. The Amazon tribes barely submitted to Inca rule, but were known for providing the Inca army with skilled archers.

I climbed up through the neighborhood of San Blas, now one of the hippest in Cuzco, the road to Antisuyu lined with bars, restaurants, hotels, bodegas and cyber­cafés. Shops sold Marilyn Monroe silk-screen prints, paintings of the Virgin Mary and sweaters. I was thirsty but kept climbing, block after block. The modern street—overlaying the exact route and dimensions of the Capac Ñan to Antisuyu—continued as Cuzco thinned out into a poor suburb, dark and smelling of animal manure. The road, sometimes paved in modern reproduced cobblestones, turned to concrete for a while. Late at night, sweating, I passed the ruins of Sacsayhuaman.

But where the road topped out and left the Cuzco Valley, the cobbles were suddenly bigger, smoother, darker. An illustrated signboard, part of an archaeological site, said these were the original cobblestones of the Capac Ñan; the foundation of the wall on my right was the original Inca retaining wall.

At one time, I later learned, there had been a tambo here, an ancient Inca rest house. Upon reaching Cuzco, lords of the Amazon tribes would have to stop here to dress in their finery. Their armies of archers would have worn exotic feathers, and trumpeted on shell horns as they made a dramatic entrance.

Finally, I turned back into town, descending again, and before midnight I was back into steep San Blas, footsore and happy. I popped into a quiet restobar decorated with posters of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. An Elvis look-alike came in and set up a microphone.

The road leading to this door had always been about connecting. About new people coming great distances to see the center of the world.

I wonder if the archers felt satisfied, too, when they settled in, footsore, to drink their chicha.

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After a week in upper Peru, I had acclimated to thin air, but only partly. Walking downhill was becoming easy, but uphill was still a problem, so in the early morning I hired a taxi to carry me into the high terrain southeast of the ancient capital. Hours later I was let off at a pass near 13,000 feet. A dirt road spiraled down the far side, but the driver pointed me up, to a spur between two peaks. I started up.

Very slowly up. Every breath seemed ripped out of my lungs, and reaching the next pass, clearly visible at 14,000 feet, took almost an hour. Two curious 12-year-old shepherd boys, dressed like skateboard punks, accompanied me for a while until they grew bored with my frequent stops.

Eventually I reached the top and, on the far side, found a flattened, cleared route through the grass, bordered with stones—the Capac Ñan. A few downhill minutes brought me to a complex of seven ruins, at least some of which may have been shrines. A young Peruvian archaeologist, Cesar Quiñones, was leading a dig here at Wanakauri, a ritual site guarding the entrance to the two great valleys—Cuzco and Urubamba—that were the heart of the Inca empire.

The small site itself was intriguing, significant in Inca creation myth­ology, but the real draw for me was the long stretch of Inca road that led down to the Cuzco Valley—“maybe the best-preserved road in the Cuzco region,” Quiñones said. It had the five features of typical Inca road-building, he pointed out: “Walls of containment and retention. A roadway three meters wide. Paving stones. Stairways. Cutting and filling of earth.” On the highest point, piles of stones and a flattened platform indicated a place of sacrificial activity. We spent an hour looking at the waist-high walls that remained from Inca buildings; priests probably lived here, while important visitors ascended the road from Cuzco for celebrations.

Quiñones pointed to the trace of the Capac Ñan in the distance, descending like a pencil line across curved mountain slopes. He warned me to get moving: It was lunchtime and I had about eight miles of trail to cover, with an extra couple of miles of dirt road before I could expect asphalt, and a possible taxi. “It’s a very clear path,” Quiñones said, “you won’t miss it.” I tightened my shoelaces and started down the trail.

Nothing happened on my walk. Nothing at all. Rainstorms passed around me, loose horses challenged me but galloped off, cows ignored me, a shepherd girl in a fedora and homespun skirt passed by, refusing to look at me. Her pigs, cows and dogs moved very slowly up the dead center of the Capac Ñan.

I got lost twice, but the retaining walls would pop up in the distance, or a single, carved step would usher me back to the trail. Late that afternoon the passage petered out, I bushwhacked down to a mud road, and walked into the Cuzco Valley, where I found a taxi. It dropped me on the edge of the old city, where the road from Wanakauri joined the main road from the south, which arrived in central Cuzco with a final, perfectly paved section that touched like a tangent against the rounded walls of Qoricancha, the Temple of the Sun.

A couple of police officers pointed it out to me, without fanfare, as if it were an everyday occurrence to work next to a 500-year-old miracle.

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Machu Picchu was neither the capital of the Inca empire nor the main destination of its roads. Part of the site’s great mystery is its obscurity: The Spaniards never found it, nor mentioned it in their chronicles, even as they sought and tore apart every possible repository of Inca treasures.

Machu Picchu’s brooding splendor—untouched by the Spanish—also preoccupied the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-73), who visited the site in 1943. “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” first published in 1946, became Neruda’s paean to the genius of anonymous builders who created its looming ramparts. For Neruda (who uses a variant spelling for the site), Machu Picchu is the wellspring of a powerful indigenous culture:

Mother of stone, spume of condors.
High reef of the human dawn.
Spade lost in the primal sand.

The site’s enduring hold on the poet’s imagination, writes Neruda translator John Felstiner, is that it is “a human construction conforming superbly to raw, ineluctable nature: That is what gives Macchu Picchu its mythic aura.”

According to Richard Burger, Machu Picchu was probably a “country palace” or imperial retreat built for one of the greatest Inca kings, Pachacutic, who reigned from 1438 to 1471. The Inca didn’t leave much evidence behind. Hiram Bingham, the explorer and Yale professor who reached Machu Picchu in 1911, recovered primarily broken pottery, the remains of perfume bottles and what Burger calls “ancient beer kegs,” large ceramic jugs. Burger suggests that the Inca “probably packed up their valuables and took them back” to Cuzco during the Spanish conquest.

Machu Picchu’s monumental stones, some weighing perhaps as much as 150 tons, are the best evidence of the city’s royal status. Only an emperor “could use stone masons and had an unlimited supply of labor” to build so well at such a remote location, Burger told me. Unlike Cuzco, which was looted and rebuilt by Spain, Machu Picchu had been overgrown by vegetation for 500 years, preserving it.

I traveled by taxi over the Andes and down into the Sacred Valley, arriving at the station of Ollantaytambo, where the little train that serves Machu Picchu lurches along the banks of the Urubamba River. But I wasn’t going by train. Crossing the river on a narrow footbridge, I met the members of my hiking group—a family of Chileans and our guide, Ana Maria Rojas.

Before setting out to walk what is today the most famous of all Inca byways, I had consulted over cups of coca tea in Cuzco with Alain Machaca Cruz, a 31-year-old Peruvian who works with the South American Explorers Club. Machaca had trekked more Inca road miles than anyone I’d ever met, for his company, Alternative Inca Trails. He once did a 15-day expedition down the road to Antisuyu (“At least 19 or 20 days for you,” he noted, after assessing my condition). He’d been born in a small Quechua-speaking village on the Capac Ñan southeast of Cuzco. “The camino inca was the prime means of transport and communication in an era with no other,” he told me. “My parents, when bringing products to market, they had to use it. There was no other way.” By comparison, Machaca said, “There are very few people who walk today.” He quoted his parents, first in Quechua, then Spanish: “Now that we have cars, we don’t walk.”

By contrast, the famous trail to Machu Picchu, he noted, is “totally saturated. You have to reserve eight months in advance.” Tourism promoters helped to popularize the name “Inca Trail” for the path to Machu Picchu; 500 people a day now crowd onto the route, often unaware that it is just “43 kilometers of what was the 40,000-kilometer system” of the entire Inca Road, Machaca said. Richard Burger agreed, telling me that the relatively obscure road to Machu Picchu gets far more traffic today than in Inca times, when only a small elite—the emperor and his court, retainers, and servants—would have used it.

But crowding is relative. On the trail that day, I started uphill with the Chilean family. The husband was an explosives engineer and fitness buff who conquered the mountain easily. His wife was less equipped for the terrain, and slower, but their twin teenagers kept everyone in good spirits. Perhaps once an hour, we would overtake another group resting, or be overtaken while we paused.

We trekked along the side of the steep Urubamba Valley. There were periodic grunts of the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me variety when Rojas pointed out the trail ahead, running across some distant ridge as a dark line in the dense vegetation.

The trail itself wasn’t as wide as those I’d seen in Cajamarca or Wanakauri, but like everything at Machu Picchu, it had been eerily preserved by centuries of obscurity and abandonment. I paused to examine a few steps carved out of the rock. “They clean it from time to time, but not much more than that,” said Rojas. She gave concise answers about Inca history, knew her royal chronology and names, and carried a notebook full of useful details about architecture. She called Hiram Bingham the “scientific discoverer” of Machu Picchu, neatly eliding a popular argument in Peru that Bingham was not the first person to see the ruins, because grave robbers and local farmers had been there first. Still, as Rojas told the Chileans, Bingham “showed the heritage of Peru to the world.”

She didn’t happen to mention another traveler who came under the spell of Machu Picchu. In 1952, Che Guevara—then the questing Argentine medical student Ernesto Guevara—arrived here during a journey that began by motorcycle through Latin America. Radicalized by the poverty he witnessed on his odyssey, Guevara experienced Machu Picchu as an ultimate symbol of resistance. At the site, he wrote in The Motorcycle Diaries (published posthumously in 1993), “We found the pure expression of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas—untouched by conquering civilization.” Machu Picchu owed its force, he added, to the fact that the mountain redoubt had “sheltered within its hold the last members of a free people.”

We passed more groups that afternoon, and then went up a steep trail into an open bowl, where a dozen Peruvian workers were laboriously trimming the grass from a score of Inca terraces, using machetes. Above loomed a complex of gray stone houses, Winaywayna (translated from the Quechua, “forever young”). Now we struggled up into the remains of impressive ceremonial sites and a dozen stone houses with trapezoidal windows. The stonework was in the best condition of any Inca ruin I had ever seen. We were effectively alone in what seemed a little precursor complex to Machu Picchu.

Karen Stothert had walked here in 1968. The trail was in bad condition and overgrown, and her group’s progress was so slow that when they finally reached Winaywayna, they hadn’t had water for cooking for two days. But in the ruins they found water still flowing in the old Inca fountains. “We had two dinners in a row,” Stothert recalls, “with butterscotch pudding the first time and chocolate pudding the second. I gave thanks to the Inca for good engineering.”

Our modern accommodations were instead a tight cluster of wall tents for backpackers that night.

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Rested, we finally crossed over the last pass, and entered through the Gate of the Sun, the Inca portal to Machu Picchu. There Rojas left us in silence for a few minutes, where we joined the other sweaty backpackers gazing down on the ruins that now define South America. From about a mile away, the connection between road and town, empire and emperor, was blazingly clear.

The ghost of Che Guevara seemed to hover here as well.

The lost city was down there, a perfect, peaceful retreat that sat in a warm location over a lush valley. Of course emperors would want to be here—everyone wanted to be here. Thanks to the train, more than a million people a year now come to Machu Picchu, to breathe in the atmosphere, the sacred majesty and the raw power of the site. When the greatest empire in the Americas stood at its peak, this was the view.

“Let’s go,” Rojas said. A road is for walking, after all.

About Patrick Symmes
Patrick Symmes

Patrick Symmes has written about travel and globalization for such magazines as Harper’s, Outside, and Condé Nast Traveler. He is the author of two books on Cuba: Chasing Che, which retraces the journeys of Che Guevara, and The Boys From Dolores, a profile of the Jesuit school that shaped Fidel and Raúl Castro. (Photo Credit: Stephen Lewis)

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