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Inca Road

Traversing the Inca Empire on the Inca Road


Stone Paved Trail Segment, Inca Trail

Stone Paved Trail Segment, Inca Trail

Jenny Mealing

The Inca road system (called Capaq Ñan or Gran Ruta Inca) was an essential part of the success of the Inca Empire. Including an estimated 40,000 kilometers in its extent, the Inca road was built for use in all kinds of climate, and intended to move people and goods--and armies when needed--across the length and breadth of the empire.

Two main roads made up the Inca Road system, one along the coastline of South America between Tumbes (Peru) and Talca (Chile), and one through the Andes highlands between Quito (Ecuador) and Mendoza (Argentina). Many other shorter routes led to different Inca provincial centers. One of the shorter segments called the Inca Trail leads to the residential palace of Pachacuti called Machu Picchu, and hundreds of thousands of hikers climb its switchbacks each year.

Inca Road Construction

Since wheeled vehicles were unknown to the Inca, the surfaces of the Inca Road were intended for foot traffic, accompanied by llamas as pack animals. Some of the roadways were paved with stone cobbles, but many others were natural dirt pathways between 1-4 meters in width.

To traverse the mountainous regions the Inca built long stairways and switchbacks; for lowland roads through marshes and wetlands they built causeways; crossing rivers and streams required bridges and culverts; and roads between desert oases were marked by low walls or cairns.

Architectural innovations along the trail included drainages through gutters and culverts, and in many places low walls delimited the road. In some places tunnels and retaining walls were built to allow safe navigation.

Lodging Along the Inca Road

Historically, people could walk along the road at the rate of about 20-22 kilometers a day. Placed along the road about about every 20-22 km were tampu, small building clusters or villages which provided lodging, food, and supplies for local business.

A postal system was an essential part of the Inca Road, with relay runners called chasqui stationed along the road at 1.4 km intervals. Information was taken along the road either verbally or stored in quipu. In special circumstances, exotic goods could be carried by the chasqui: it was reported that Sapa Inca at Cusco could dine on 2 day old fish from the coast, a travel rate of 240 km a day.


See the Inca Road Photo Essay for more photos

D'Altroy, Terence N. and Christine A. Hastorf 1984 The Distribution and Contents of Inca State Storehouses in the Xauxa Region of Peru. American Antiquity 49(2):334-349.

Hyslop, John 1984. The Inka Road System. Academic Press: London.

McEwan, Gordon F. 2006. The Incas: New Perspectives. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006. History Reference Online. ABC-CLIO.

Smith, Monica L. 2005 Networks, Territories, and the Cartography of Ancient States. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95(4):832-849.

Thompson, Donald E. and John V. Murra 1966 The Inca Bridges in the Huanuco Region. American Antiquity 31(5):632-639.

This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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