Many people travel to Peru to hike the famous Inca Trail. There’s an undeniable allure to the idea of treading the same path once used by the ancient Incas.
However, the Inca Trail is not the only impressive remnant of the Inca Empire. The Incas built a vast and elaborate system of roads hundreds of kilometres, running from Colombia through Argentina.
When the encountered rivers and deep canyons, woven bridges were used to make the crossing. While the vast majority of there bridges have long since disappeared, one fantastic example remains the Qeswachaka Rope Bridge in the department of Cusco. Qeswachaka is reconstructed each year during an elaborate festival and is recognised as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The Incas were master bridge builders, and these bridges were an integral part of the road system. Qeswachaka, commonly known as the Inca Rope Bridge, is the last of these bridges still in use and is located just outside of Cusco in the Quehue District.
Though initially destroyed in an attempt to halt Pizarro’s attack on Cusco during the Spanish invasion, it was reconstructed and continues to remain in use to this day. The bridge spans the raging Apurimac River as it cuts through the breathtaking Apurimac Valley.
The Qeswachaka bridge is made of fibres woven together to create a strong rope, and small slats of wood are used to reinforce the footpath. Part of the reason the bridge has lasted almost 600 years, however, is that every year, the people of four local Quechua communities come together to replace the old bridge with a new one.
The Qeswachaka Festival, four days of work and celebration, marks this occasion. This ancient tradition has been carried out annually since the days of the Incas and continues to be an essential connection to tradition and culture in the high Andes.
Every year in June, the four communities enthusiastically come together for the process of rebuilding the bridge- an essential and ceremonial tradition. Individual members of the population hold the role of engineer, while others serve as weavers.
One male holds the critical position of “Chakaruwak”, meaning he is a specialist in braiding and construction. For the sacred art to be carried on from generation to generation and to keep the spirit of the bridge alive, fathers teach their sons the process, just as their fathers did before them.
Before the festival begins, community members collect the building material, primarily consisting of grass and natural fibres. These fibres will be woven into the cables used in the Qeswachaka Rope Bridge’s construction. Before the festival and bridge building can begin, however, the spiritual leader of the community must ask the apps, or the mountain spirits, for permission to start the process, and make offerings of coca leaves and corn to Pachamama, Mother Earth. After this offering, the weaving of the cables begins. In the afternoon, the men divide into two groups, one each side of the bridge, and start braiding the wires towards each other.
On the second day, the engineers begin by untying the old ropes, which are attached to stone nails, and connect the new cables to the pins. This is a time consuming and intricate process, but finally, the base and handrails of the new bridge are in place.
On the third day of the festival, construction finishes on the handrails and footpath, and when the installation has completed, the bridge is officially opened to the tune of music accompanied by traditional dances.
The festival reaches its climax on the fourth day, which is a day of celebration. The communities once again come together to celebrate the completion of the bridge through song, native dances and eating traditional foods. This final day serves as a culmination of all the hard work, and a celebration of the lasting traditions that have allowed these communities to keep their vibrant culture alive.
This year, the Q’eswachaka Festival falls during the second week of June, with the critical day of the festival on the second Sunday of the month.
The bridge reconstruction and subsequent festival will take place once again, as it does every year, as the local communities gather to honour both Pachamama and their ancestors and celebrate their community and heritage.
Interested in experiencing this incredible celebration of culture and history first-hand? Contact Ayni Peru at [email protected] or [email protected] for a customised trip to the Qeswachaka Rope Bridge, where you can learn more about Andean culture and its wealth of history and tradition.
Watch as the fibres are woven into ropes, then braided together to create the new bridge. You will have the opportunity talk to community members about the importance of the Q’eswachaka festival, and join in on the singing and dancing, before joining a local family in their home for the evening– a true once in a lifetime experience. Even if you can´t make the June festival dates, visits to the bridge can be organised year-round.