The only Inca trail most people have ever heard of is the 26-mile path from Piscacucho (near Cusco, Peru) to the jungle-clad ruins of Machu Picchu. One of the planet’s most iconic treks, it lures some 25,000 hikers each year. Meanwhile, the trails of the greater Qhapaq Ñan network have gone largely unnoticed, unused, and unprotected.
But they are no less spectacular or significant, which makes recent efforts to develop and conserve areas around the cobblestoned paths of Qhapaq Ñan so important. This extraordinary feat of preindustrial engineering allowed the Inca to communicate, exchange goods, and consolidate power during the height of the empire in the late 15th century. That’s when the road system spanned nearly 19,000 miles, crossing the steamy rainforests, desiccated salt flats, and toothy Andean peaks between modern-day Colombia, to the north, and Chile and Argentina, to the south.
The weathered trade route still links the crumbling ruins of ancient cities with terraced fields of potatoes sown by modern farmers, who gallop by on horseback, woolen ponchos flapping in the wind. In 2014, Unesco recognized the Qhapaq Ñan as a sprawling, multi-country World Heritage Site, solidifying years of research by Peruvian investigator Ricardo Espinosa. Now there’s a push within Peru—which holds the majority of the route—to preserve, restore, and add value to kickstart rural development and diversify tourism away from Machu Picchu … (continue reading at National Geographic)