The “Inca Trail” is famous around the world, though the trail many tourists know is just a small sector of the thread of Inca paths that held this great empire together.
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is part of an extensive Inca system of trails of more than 23,000 kilometres that integrated the Tahuantinsuyo Empire (which means four regions) that covered Colombia, the west of Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, to the centre of Chile and the north of Argentina. These trails tended to be principally on the coast or in the mountains but in a few cases they reached the tropical edge of the jungle.
The Inca Trails were without a doubt one of the marvels of Tahuantinsuyo, according to the Peruvian historian, José Antonio del Busto, who explains that the Inca Huayna Capac most increased the network of trails in order to quickly mobilise his army.
The trails varied in quality and size, they could be 6 to 8 metres wide on the coast but, in the mountains the paving was only one metre wide but the path was audaciously steep and climbed over the difficult Andean mountains.
There are a number of ancient paths close to Cusco – for example, at Qhorqa, some 20 kilometres from Cusco. On the route to Huchuy Qosqo, there is another interesting Inca Trail. These were constructed perfectly and are still used without much modification.
Hugh Thompson writes in his highly recommended book, “The White Rock”: We are used to a road system designed for the horse and then for the car: a system which tries at all cost to avoid steep gradients and whose ideal (so established by the Romans) is the straight road over flat ground. The Inca needs were very different: the expansion of their Empire was driven by the llama, which as a pack animal could carry their merchandise over long distances … Along the route, Inca tambos, the resting houses used by such merchants, as well as by chasquis, the Inca messengers, and by the Inca armies, would have plentiful supplies of p’olqo, the cloth used for protecting llamas’ delicate feet on the stone paths.
The llama was an all purpose provider. As well as being a pack animal (although it would never accept a rider), the meat could also be eaten, the dried dung used for fuel, essential in some areas of the high puna above the tree-line, and the coarse wool woven into textiles.