Early Highways in Peru

Retracing an ancient Incan trade route

Appalachia, Summer/Fall 2009

I suppose it’s sacrilegious for an intrepid hiker to go to Peru for the first time and not trek the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu, but it was a conscious decision that I don’t regret. Hike the famous Inca Trail to a world heritage site with hundreds of people? Or hike a not-so-famous Incan trail into some of highest, most beautiful snowcapped peaks in the world with a few head of cattle and a couple of watchful caracaras for company? The more I contemplated a Peruvian trek, the more Machu Picchu sounded mucho crowded, and the more the Cordillera Blanca seemed cordial to backpackers in search of an alpine experience.

Located in the northern Peruvian Andes at 8 degrees south latitude, the Cordillera Blanca is the highest mountain range in the world outside of the Himalayas. Twenty-two peaks in the range pierce the sky at over 6,000 meters, including the highest peak in Peru, Nevado Huascaran (elevation 6,746 meters). Huascaran is no gentle giant. In 1970, a landslide from the mountain buried the town of Yungay, killing about 20,000 inhabitants.

The slide was triggered by an earthquake, which claimed about 70,000 lives, the largest natural disaster in the history of Peru. The only survivors stood atop a small hillock, laced with catacombs and crowned by an enormous Christ statue, whose arms spread wide toward the summit. I stopped at the sight of the buried city on the way to the trailhead for our trek. How vulnerable would we be if a similar earthquake occurred? The Cordillera Blanca is extremely active geologically, something as a resident of benign New England I never thought to check before arranging this trip. Luckily, my worries would prove unfounded. Though the geology I would traverse did not shake me physically, it would move me deeply as only the highest, most majestic mountains can do.

I selected one of the classic routes in the region known as the Santa Cruz Trek, a four-day route that follows the Santa Cruz River to its source, crosses the Continental Divide at Punta Union Pass and then traverses through several remote villages to the town of Vaqueria. Our guide Hisao Morales was an accomplished mountaineer, who owned a local climbing school. My trekking partner was a college friend, Debbie Hannam, who hikes with me in Vermont and New Hampshire in the summer and who has been my trekking partner on two other far-flung expeditions, one to Bhutan and the other to Ethiopia. Our small band also included Pablo Morales, Hisao’s father, an expert on local flora and an icon among local mountaineers with many first ascents in the region; Estefan, our cook; and “Juan,” who owned our pack mules. I called him Juan because I could not understand his native name.

The Santa Cruz Trek also appealed to me for its historical significance as an Incan trade route used for the transport of goods from the interior rainforest to the coast. It was one of several key passages over the Andes that eventually connected to one of the major north-south “highways,” stone-paved thoroughfares than ran the length of the South American continent at the height of the Incan empire. Historians credit the rapid expansion and success of the Incan Empire to its 22,000 miles of roads and trails, of which about half were paved.

Before creating this remarkable transportation system, the Incas were little more than a local tribe, located in the Cuzco Valley, who believed themselves descendents of the sun god, Inti. In 1548, the ninth “Inca” (ruler) named Pachacutec defended his tribe against neighboring invaders despite overwhelming odds and then began an era of his own aggressive military expansion.

In just 25 years, Pachacutec gained control over the Central Andes as well as most of the territory from southern Colombia to central Chile. He realized early in his reign that the only way to keep local uprisings at bay was to move quickly to quell them, but it was difficult to move troops quickly without good roads. To this end, Pachacutec enforced a labor tax. In other words, people paid their taxes in the form of labor, not money, which included building roads. Although some of these passages were ceremonial, most allowed communications, troops, diplomats, common citizens, and goods to traverse the empire. Though the Incas did not build the route we were about to explore, they did use it, so it is considered an Incan trail.

Lisa Densmore is the Emmy-winning host of Wildlife Journal and Windows to the Wild on PBS and a professional photographer and freelance writer. She is the author of Best Hikes with Dogs: New Hampshire & Vermont (The Mountaineers Books, 2005) and Hiking the Green Mountains (FalconGuides, 2009). To see more of her photos from the Cordillera Blanca, go to www.DensmoreDesigns.com.

The full text of this story may be found in the Summer/Fall 2009 Issue of Appalachia.

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Lisa Densmore Ballard

Lisa Densmore Ballard is an award-winning writer, photographer, and television producer/host, as well as a long-time member of AMC. She is the author of seven books, including Hiking the White Mountains (FalconGuides) and Best Hikes with Dogs: New Hampshire & Vermont (The Mountaineers Books).

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