In June 2019 a team of seasoned explorers and tourism professionals will embark on the next leg of an adventure now four years in the making when they venture into the desolate Andean landscapes of the Qollasuyu. Their mission is to continue exploring Qhapac Nan, the Great Inca Trail as is continues south from Cusco and into Bolivia before reaching Chile’s Atacama Desert region.
SA Expedition’s Great Inca Trail team has been exploring the remnants of the 500-year-old Inca Road system across South America since 2016. These expeditions have taken our team from the glaciers of the Altiplano to the shores of the Pacific, traversing more than 2000 kilometers along the spine of the Andes before continuing on through the mists of the cloud forests to the lost city of Vilcabamba.
Our next journey could prove to be the most fascinating yet as we depart the imperial capital of Cusco to follow the road south into Qollasuyu, a place of otherworldly landscapes, vibrant cultures, and the remains of empires millennia such as Tiwanaku and Chiripa, both older than the Inca themselves. Heading toward Lake Titicaca and across the high plains of Qollasuyu, our expedition will walk roads laid down by Huayna Capac during the great Inca expansion south and later used by the ill-fated expedition of the conquistador Diego de Almagro.
Weaving the past into the present
As the royal Inca road departs Cusco’s central plaza and passes the monumental gateway of Rumicolca south of the city, it winds toward a series of plunging river canyons. Undaunted, Inca engineers devised an ingenious strategy to span these cavernous divides using only locally sourced grasses and the collective manpower of nearby communities. This tradition of collaborative engineering has been relegated to distant memory in every corner of the empire except for one: the Q’eswachaka River valley.
Here, community members gather once a year to renew ancient bonds of kinship and to rebuild the last remaining Inca suspension bridge. A festival every June brings together members of four communities from either side of the canyon to harvest and weave tufts of coarse q’oya grass into thick sturdy ropes that act as cables to support the bridge. Cooperating across the canyon, they raise the cables and weave together a new bridge, renewing their bonds to each other and to their shared Inca heritage.
Together with our partners at Apumayo Expeditions, we will be on hand to experience this important moment in the past and the present of the Inca Road and to share it with the world.
The local outfitters with 25 years of exploring the rugged terrain of southern Peru and the project’s regional ambassadors, had this to say about their involvement:
"The Great Inca Trail system is an important part of Peru’s cultural history and one of its most impressive engineering marvels. Even so, it is not yet a popular tourist attraction and, in some places, it is even in danger of disappearing due to the construction of new roads and the growth of towns and cities. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is thus far the only section of Inca trail section that is well known among travelers from around the world. While undoubtedly spectacular, this short section sees a lot of tourist traffic and sometimes it can be hard to get permits in the high season.
"Identifying and promoting other, lesser-known sections of Great Inca Trail throughout the country offers the possibility of diversifying and showcasing other areas with unique landscapes, cultural wonders, and singular construction features. For Apumayo Expeditions this is an opportunity to join this initiative and develop new 'off the beaten path' alternatives for our clients and the global trekking community. As Peruvians, we are proud to join SA Expeditions and be a part of this group of leading South American tourism companies as they embark on this new and exciting phase of the project."
An inland sea
Departing Q’eswachaka the team will follow the Inca Road through the high plains, passing nearly forgotten cities and temples en route to a majestic inland sea shared by Peru and Bolivia, sacred Lake Titicaca. Titicaca is the mythical origin place of the Inca, the place where the legendary Manco Capac and his sister Mama Occlaemerged into the world to found the Inca dynasty that would unite the Andes under a single ruling class. Then and now the lake is home to a diverse array of living traditional cultures as well as fascinating ruins that echo the lake’s mythical past.
The remaining Inca Road along the lakeshore, which passes for both sides of the lake, continues to connect the Incas’ descendants, and the still-functioning causeways are a testament to their engineering prowess. Our team will walk these roads, as well as those on the Isla del Sol, once an extremely important pilgrimage destination for the Inca and those who came before them. We will walk in the footsteps of generations of pilgrims, to experience this natural and cultural wonder as it exists today.
In Bolivia the team will work and explore with Sendas Altas, the project’s Bolivian ambassadors. Experts in the region, Sendas Altas has long sought to strengthen the opportunities for tourism development centered on the road.
The development of the Great Inca Trail as a destination for responsible trekking itineraries falls directly in line with our work with community-based tourism projects throughout the country. Developing sustainable tourism has the potential to educate visitors and locals alike, preserve cultural patrimony and stem the migration of youth to urban areas.
In fact, much of the country’s extensive network of pre-Colombian roads and footpaths is still in use today. Some have been paved over to make way for modern roads, while others serve as community trails connecting villages to larger towns and allowing children to get to school. Some of these roads even allow for the trading of goods between the different agro-ecosystems found as one descends from the highlands to the lowlands – just as they have for millennia.
For the past ten years, Santiago de Okola, a traditional Aymara farming and fishing village located between some of the best-preserved stretches of Qhapaq Ñan in Bolivia and the shores of Lake Titicaca, has been offering homestays, hikes, and workshops that teach visitors about their lifeways. The prospect of receiving trekkers is an exciting possibility for the dozen families currently engaged in the project.
“We welcome visitors from near and far,” explains Maruja Hilari, president of the community tourism association. “There is so much history here and tourism helps keep some of the younger generations here with us. Our elders know about the road and we want to share that with the world.”
From Titicaca, the Inca Road heads south towards even more breathtaking vistas. Crossing what was once an ancient seabed, the road skirts the edge of one of the world’s most unique landscapes – one that often appears to be born of another world altogether. The Salar de Uyuni is an immense salt flat that contains the crystallized remains of an inland ocean in what is now the Bolivian Altiplano. The arid climate and unique geological past combine to create fantastic and surreal landscapes that can only be described in cliché. Islands of fossilized coral jut out of a sea of white salt, breaking the uniformity of the horizon and lending perspective to a dreamlike scene.
Towering over this expanse is the volcanic peak of Tunupa. Home to several communities with deep and visible roots in the ancient past, the volcano’s slopes feature burial caves that house the nearly perfectly-preserved mummified remains of their ancestors. This is a rare opportunity to see firsthand how ancient burials continue to influence the identity of these indigenous communities today. Our team will explore those connections and how they inform and enrich this place as a modern destination for international travelers.
A sacred peak
After the sweeping vistas of Uyuni, the road heads south towards the Inca frontier. Approaching what is now the border with Chile, the grasslands give way to the desert. But the gateway between the altiplano and the Atacama is guarded by an ancient mountain deity: the mighty stratovolcano of Licancabur. At 19,409 feet (5,419 meters), Licancabur rises from the plains and commands the landscape for miles around. The ancient populations of the Altiplano worshipped the peak as an apu, or living mountain god, making offerings and praying to it for good weather.
The Inca themselves took notice upon their arrival at the turn of the sixteenth century, building both a tambo at the volcano’s base and a temple structure beside the crater lake at the summit. Our team will aim to summit the peak to visit these ruins and pay our respects to yet another of the empire’s great apus. In doing so we will also be following in the footsteps of another legendary explorer. Johan Reinhard famously summited Licancabur in 1981 and accomplished what at the time was the highest-altitude SCUBA dive in history.
Southbound, the project’s Chilean ambassadors, had this to say:
"Though Chile’s Inca Roads are not as well-known or as well-preserved as the sections in neighboring countries, their impact was just as significant. Inca influences in Chilean territory reach all the way down to the Maule River (1170 miles south of San Pedro de Atacama) where the Incas were stalled by the Mapuche nation. The influence of the Qhapaq Ñan on the arts, commerce, and trade was felt across a region that includes most of Chile’s most inhabited valleys today.
"Participating in a project that will hopefully give the Qhapaq Ñan the place it deserves in our history and could potentially convince local authorities of the value of its restoration is something that makes everyone at Southbound very proud."
A many-splendored tapestry
This expedition will weave together strands spun by the Inca and their prehistoric predecessors; the gold-crazed conquistadors of the Spanish conquest; the intrepid explorers of the past and present; and the vibrant indigenous communities that populate the ancient lands of Qollasuyu today. The result will be a project celebrating the rich tapestry of natural and cultural wonders that still exist along the Qhapaq Ñan today.
The expedition will also weave together SA Expeditions with partners and fellow Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) members Apumayo in Peru, Sendas Altas in Bolivia and Southbound in Chile. Rather than work in isolation on a project with enormous potential and equally enormous challenges, SA Expeditions seeks to not only strengthen the visibility of the Great Inca Trail and the opportunities for tourism development along its vast network but also the network of local operators committed to making the trail a sustainable destination for all.