An Incan Treasure For Your Feet

Sun Journal

Road: Although Fragmented After 450 Years Of Pedestrian Traffic, The Royal Inca Road From Argentina To Colombia Is A Classic In Engineering. These Days It's The Road Less Traveled, But Still Something To Behold.

April 21, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

LATACUNGA, Ecuador -- The Royal Inca Road has needed repairs for most of the last 450 years, ever since the Spanish conquest of the Incan empire. This 3,250-mile highway, once an engineering marvel that ran from Argentina to Colombia, has been reduced mainly to legend -- a discontinuous series of fragments that are hard to find or paved over by the Pan American Highway or forever lost.

But bits and pieces have survived, such as the well-traveled trail near Ecuador's main Incan ruin, Ingapirca.

For Eduardo Cassola, the 54-year-old administrator of the Roman Catholic diocese office in the Central Highlands, the road remains a treasure.

At twilight, he walks in the village called Tandalavi, population a few hundred. He is on a quiet, two-lane road 55 miles south of Quito, 10,000 feet above the sea. It is a setting worthy of grand opera.

Farms and trees line one side of the road, and agave plants with 8-foot-long prickly leaves border the other. The sky is a deep blue. A breeze whispers down from the Andes. Behind Cassola, the sun turns into alabaster the glaciers of the mammoth volcano Cotopaxi, 19,650 feet high, three times the destroyer of the city called Latacunga. The light fades, the curtain falls on the day.

"My father, Caesar, was the president of the Provincial Council of Cotopaxi years ago, and he was responsible for this and other roads," Cassola says. "When I was a little boy, he took me to a bridge he had built on this road to Mulalo and said,`This is important this was Camino Real the Royal Inca Road.'

"Two years ago this was paved over because it leads to the airport, and they thought the airport would be a big passenger hub. It didn't work out."

Edward Whymper, an eccentric 19th-century English mountain climber who felt no peak was worth his trouble unless he was first on top, called the land around this stretch of highway -- the 25 miles or so from Latacunga to Mulalo -- the heart of the northern Incan land.

Whymper was an artist, writer, argumentative loner and fearless climber, and did much to awaken the outside world to the Ecuadorean Andes.

Traveling roads that followed the Incan highway, he reached peaks and made eight first ascents on major Ecuadorean volcanoes including the highest, Chimborazo, at 20,561 feet.

In his 1891 book of adventures "Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator," Whymper wrote of this stretch of the Incan road: "I took the old road that goes through Mulalo on the left bank of the Cutuchi [River], and I visited the so-called House of the Inca. The little that remained of the original structure had been converted into a modern farmhouse."

The Incas finished the basic 1,250-mile Royal Road in the mountains in the late 1400s to tie their southern capital, Cuzco, now in Peru, to their northern capital, Quito. That section connected the main seats of power and ran through the homelands of many of the tribes more or less united in the Incan empire.

Later extensions took the road north into Colombia and south into Argentina, making a 3,250-mile route over deserts and snowy passes. It was more varied than Roman roads -- steps cut into near-vertical cliffs, stones laid out in swamps and scores of bridges over deep chasms.

The highway was built in duplicate, for there were two parallel roads, one in the highlands, the other along the Peruvian coast, connected by lateral routes. That way, the Incas kept track of their empire of 6 million people in almost 100 conquered tribes living over an area of 1.25 million square miles. They called the empire Tahuantinsuyu, "the Four Quarters of the World."

The Incas created and sustained their empire in one century, beginning in 1438 when Incan warriors left Cuzco and began their tribal conquests. The Incas had no written alphabet, no iron and were without the wheel. But they imposed their laws, their language called Quechua, a religion that included the sacrifice of young people on Andean summits, a message system of knotted strings called quipus and their roads.

The Incas also had gold, but it helped bring about their downfall. In 1526 the head of the royal family died. He left his empire not to one son but to two, thus dividing the empire into Peruvian and Ecuadorean halves.

The sons fought. The Ecuadorean son, Atahualpa, won. Then the Spanish soldiers of Francisco Pizarro entered the weakened empire seeking gold.

On Nov. 16, 1532, the Spanish ambushed some of Atahualpa's entourage, and a year later they executed Atahualpa. The Spanish would rule until the army of Simon Bolivar defeated them near Quito, on May 24, 1822.

The Royal Inca Road was one for human feet, not vehicles. Long-distance runners called chasqui were organized into a vast postal and messenger system, with runners carrying messages in the form of quipu strings. Historians suggest that the runners were sometimes executed or otherwise severely punished for arriving late, or for failing to finish relay legs.

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