I first met explorer John Leivers at South American Explorers in 2007. Like many visitors to the clubhouse in urban Miraflores, he was dressed as if was just about to embark on an expedition to search for El Dorado - breathable fabrics, khaki colours, wide-brimmed hat and a well-worn rucksack that did not leave his back. But unlike other visitors, this really was the uniform of his day job! Since his first visit to Peru in 1991, he has travelled the length and breadth of the country, working as an expedition leader and 're-discovering' pre-Columbian archaeology.
Our second meeting was a whole 10 years later, at Lima Cricket & Football Club; but I immediately recognised John from his unchanging explorer look! He revealed that his upcoming adventure was to walk from Tomebamba in Ecuador to Cusco, following the route of the Qhapaq Ñan, a vast system of traditional roads that connected all sections of the Inca Empire.
Considered one of the most impressive engineering works in history, it stretches into six modern-day countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador, as well as Peru. The true extent of the network is not known, because much has been destroyed since the Conquest, by horse's hooves, metal wheels and modern infrastructure. It is estimated to have covered at least 40,000 km (25,000 miles) with all routes leading to Huak’aypata in the centre of Cusco.
The Inca Empire - the Tahuantinsuyo - was divided into four regions (suyos): Chinchaysuyo (north); Collasuyo (south); Antisuyo (east); and Contisuyo (west). In order to maintain the economic, political, military and social integrity of such a vast area, it was vital to have regular communication between the various regions. Thus, the Qhapaq Ñan played a vital role in Inca strategic thinking.
The Camino Real, or Longitudinal Highland Highway, was the core axis of the entire route, running north-south and linking the Chinchaysuyo to the Collasuyo, by way of the Andes Mountain Range. It stretched approximately 6,000 km (3,700 miles) between Quito and Santiago de Chile.
Running parallel was the Camino de la Costa - the Longitudinal Coastal Highway - that ran for 4,000 km (2,500 miles) between Ecuador and Chile, along the coastal valleys and deserts nearer the Pacific Ocean.
These two main arteries were connected by transversal roads, which ran east-west, often following the course of the valleys; and also continued into the Antisuyo region. Even the famous Inca Trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu is just one side street in this enormous network!
Places to shelter and feed travellers, tambos, were built at intervals along the various roads; as were religious buildings, ushnus, where locals and visitors could pay tribute to their gods. Many of the natural features along the way, such as mountain peaks (apus) and lakes (cochas) acquired a divine significance. Not surprising given the awe-inspiring geography encountered.
The Qhapaq Ñan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, after a joint application by the six countries that share it - the first time that several countries had teamed up make a submission. It fulfilled UNESCO's criteria on a number of levels:
- Technological achievement in building a lasting structure in a mind-boggling variety of locations and environments.
- 308 archaeological sites associated with the road system.
- As an expression of the political, social and cultural values of the Inca Empire.
- Continuing to serve its original functions of integration, communication, exchange and flow of goods and knowledge,
- Reinforcing identity within the Andean world.
130 days after setting out, John Leivers and his group arrived in Cusco having walked nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 km) following the Longitudinal Highland Highway. Their expedition had aimed to create awareness about this ancient route, promote its historical and cultural legacy and provide a push to the development of tourism in cooperation with the local communities that live along the route of the Qhapaq Ñan.
The first fruit of this tourism initiative is a new five-day trek, with llamas doing the heavy lifting, on a rarely-visited section between Castillo in the Department of Ancash and Huanuco Pampa in the Department of Huanuco.