The 120' long Incan bridge has been built and rebuilt continuously for five centuries. Each spring, native communities come together to take part in a ceremony of renewal. Working together from both sides of the river, the villagers run a massive 100' cord of rope as thick as a human thigh across the old bridge. The old bridge is then cut loose and falls away into the gorge below. Over three days of work, prayer, and celebration, a new bridge is woven in its place.
For centuries this was the only link between villages on either side of the river. It was one of numerous similar rope suspension bridges built during the Inca Empire that linked the massive territory by way of the Great Inca Road. The road spanned nearly 25,000 miles and connected previously isolated communities, allowing soldiers, messengers, and ordinary citizens to travel the extent of the Empire. This transportation network was part of what the Inca believed to be their mandate to organize the world after a time of turmoil.
The Inca Empire
The bridges were a main feature of the expansion of the Inca Empire from Cuzco in four directions across the Andes Mountains. The Spanish colonizers who toppled the empire in the 16th century were astonished by the feats of engineering required to construct the suspension bridges.
Over the years, some of the bridges were destroyed. Others fell into disuse and eventually disappeared with the introduction of new roads and bridges designed for cars.
Mainly because of its isolated location, the tradition of the Q’eswachaka Bridge endured. Today the bridge connects the four Quechua-speaking communities of Huinchiri, Chaupibanda, Choccayhua, and Ccollana. Although a new metal bridge was built for cars to cross the river, nearby residents have continued using the old rope bridge to cross on foot.
Preserving a cultural heritage
In 2013, the Q’eswachaka bridge was inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list because of its significance for people living in the region whose culture goes back 500 years. As the political empire of the Incas was destroyed, all that was left behind was the culture of the village people.
A major component of that culture is the idea of common labor. Knowing that the entire village or region will benefit from the end result, communities join together to work on common projects without an expectation of being paid. Methods of building the bridge, passed down through generations, have changed little over the years.
The construction process
The process begins with collecting strands of long grass to be twisted together to form thin ropes. These, in turn, are twisted together into larger ropes. Finally, these are braided to form the heavy cables that anchor the bridge. The communities then join together in the task of stretching the cables to prepare them for installation.
Cables are affixed to sturdy stone bases and the experienced bridge builders begin working their way from the edges to the middle of the bridge, weaving the sides and floor with fibers and sticks. Once the builders meet in the center, matting is laid on the floor and the new bridge is complete.
A notable change in the ritual in recent years is an increase in the frequency of replacing the bridge from every three years to once a year due to increased tourism to the area. Both safety concerns and recognition of the opportunity to attract more tourism led to the decision.
The amazing result
Once the bridge is completed, the communities come together to celebrate with prayer, music, and feasting. The Q’eswachaka Bridge is now ready for another year.