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A closer look at Inca rope bridges

Published May 31, 2016 by Nick Dall

The vast Inca road network relied on about 200 rope bridges to traverse the steep valleys and canyons of the Andes. Only one such bridge remains…
Last month this blog gave a broad overview of the incredible Qhapaq Ñan; the 25,000 mile Inca road network which held together one of the greatest empires of all time. This month we look at the incredible rope bridges which made the road network possible. Constructed from grass and other natural materials, the swaying bridges were especially suited to the Incas as they never invented wheeled transport. The bridges were maintained by the communities nearby, as part of their mit'a - the Inca taxation system.

Q'eswachaka maintenance
A maintenance crew with a difference. (Photo credit: Mi Peru)


The Andes mountain range is a place of enormous cliffs, raging torrents and terrifying canyons. To establish a large empire in this terrain, bridges were absolutely essential. Instead of focusing all their energies on building massive stone edifices that would take decades or even centuries to build, the Incas constructed rope suspension bridges which could be erected in a matter of days and required continual maintenance and regular rebuilding.
Inca rope bridges spanned longer distances than any European bridges of the same era and they were also extremely strong. MIT professor John Ochsendorf has done tests which suggest that the cables of the sturdiest Incan bridges, incorporating leather, vines and branches, could have supported 200,000 pounds.
As G. Wayne Clough explained in Smithsonian Magazine in 2014, the bridges were “so awe-inspiring that upon seeing them, neighboring peoples would sometimes submit to the Inca without a fight. Later, conquistadors would be reduced to crawling, petrified, across the swaying rope contraptions, although they could bear the weight of columns of soldiers.”

Q'eswachaka rain season.
The bridge in use in the rainy season. (Photo credit: Rutahsa Adventures)


Q'eswachaka: the sole survivor
Only one Inca rope bridge survives today. The Q'eswachaka bridge spans the Apurimac river near Huinchiri in Peru, about three hours’ drive from Cusco. This handwoven grass bridge spans 120 feet, and is rebuilt every one or two years as communal effort by all the local people of the region. About 700 men and women congregate at Q'eswachaka for a fiesta that celebrates the construction of the bridge. The fiesta takes place over four days every June. The first three days are dedicated to the construction of the bridge, while the final day – the second Sunday in June – features typical music and dances and also allows visitors the opportunity to walk across the completed bridge.
Four great videos about the bridge
Hearteningly, Q'eswachaka has garnered quite a lot of scientific and media attention and several excellent short films have been made about the bridge. Instead of transcribing and regurgitating them in written form I have embedded some of the best video clips below.
This quirky four-minute clip by Atlas Obscura puts the bridge in context and also goes into a bit of detail about Q'eswachaka itself. If you've only got time to watch one clip, this is the one:



This slow-paced clip from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian goes into great detail about Q'eswachaka's construction and includes some great visuals:



This moving interview with Victoriano Arizapana, Q'eswachaka's chakakamayoq (bridge building specialist), delves into what the bridge means to Victoriano and his community.



If you have an hour to spare, this lecture given by MIT professor John Ochsendorf  at the Library of Congress goes into great detail about the importance of the bridges and it also examines the engineering behind them.

BridgeOfSanLuisRey
Inca rope bridges were the inspiration for Thornton Wilder's seminal novel.


Further reading
If, like us, you're now utterly fascinated by Inca rope bridges you'll be pleased to know that there is quite a lot written on the subject:
How about an interview with Victoriano Arizapana?
Or a slideshow of the construction of a replica bridge on the National Mall in Washington DC?
Or perhaps you'd fancy an in-depth account of a visit to Q'eswachaka?
In closing
The imposing stone monument at Machu Picchu may be the most famous feat of Incan engineering, but those in the know are equally impressed by the biodegradable rope bridges which could be built in days and torn down in seconds.
Might this more transient, ephemeral type of structure even be the way of the future? Food for thought.