Q’eswachaka: The Last Bridge Standing

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Nestled in the heart of the Peruvian Andes, just a few hours away from Cusco, lies the last remaining Incan suspension bridge in the world—the Q’eswachaka Bridge.

Five centuries ago, the Inca Empire was at the peak of its power and found itself in dire need of creating a network to keep its people connected. In the hopes of making travel between villages and communities easier, they developed the Great Inca Road—a series of complex roads and structures spanning around 25,000 miles long.

(Photo: Embassy of Peru)

The Problem That Birthed a Suspension Bridge

Like all great inventions, woven suspension bridges came out of the need to find a solution to a problem: how to connect the various Inca roads of transport.

The Peruvian Andes, although abundant in resources, have many deep canyons and gorges, making it very difficult to cross. Thus, the braided bridges were created as a means to connect communities that had been previously isolated due to these complicated geographical feats. Estimates suggest that there were as many as 200 of these intricate bridges built, and it is said that they were used until the 20th century, long after the demise of the Incan civilization.

But as is often the case, the push for industrialization rapidly led to the decline of many Inca traditions, such as these bridges. Over time, more conventional bridges were built of sturdier material and, as a result, fiber bridges became more and more scarce.

The Q’eswachaka Bridge is the last of its kind, and on it carries the weight of an Incan tradition attempting to defy the limits of time.

The Q’eswachaka Bridge

Spanning 118 feet in length and hanging 60 feet above the Apurimac River lays this bridge, which is carefully woven out of a tall, thorny grass known as ichu. The Incas were masters of ichu and were quick to realize its versatility. Aside from the bridges, this material was used to build weapons, boats, and slings.

To build these intricate bridges, the plant was cut and braided—sometimes into weaves as thick as a human torso—then tossed from one side of the valley to the other to form a suspension bridge.

The Annual Rebuilding Ceremony

What makes the Q’eswachaka Bridge particularly unique is the way in which it is taken apart and reassembled each year in June. You can imagine that this isn’t your average highly industrialized building of a bridge; what unravels, instead, is a three-day ceremony of relentless weaving, braiding, and constructing with bare hands.

First, each household from the four surrounding Quechua villages—Huinchiri, Chaupibanda, Choccayhua, and Ccollana Quehue—brings 90 feet of their own braided cord to the Apurimac River, where the bridge has been assembled for the past 500 years. The new cords are then hauled from one side of the gorge to the other. Then, the master builders, Eleuterio and Victoriano, work cautiously from opposite sides of the valley to assemble the bridge using the previous cords as a skeleton for the newly woven pieces.

(Photo: Smithsonian)

The old ropes are eventually cut down once the four main cords for the new bridge are suspended and supported by stones on opposite sides of the river. Lastly, community helpers work together in placing the flooring together for the new bridge.

The locals partaking in this ceremony come together in celebration as the old cords are cut down and dropped into the river. This marks the moment in which the new cords woven with their bare hands have replaced the old. But, this bridge is much more than a symbol of the fruit of their labor; it is the place where their pride for the Incan past collides with a fervent desire to preserve their traditions of today.

For more information on the Great Inca Road and its many inventions (like the suspension bridges), check out the Smithsonian’s exhibit on the Inca Empire that will be on display until 2020.

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Cover Art: Flickr

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Lola is an avid writer, runner, and reader. A rising senior at Duke University studying International Comparative Studies and English, she is interested in the intersection between journalism, photography, and sociology. After her studies, she hopes to continue using her writing as a powerful tool to teach others about faraway cultures and places.