Expedition members examine ruins found along the Inca Trail

Explore Inca life beyond Machu Picchu on this South American trail

Hiking amid Andean peaks, ancient ruins—and no crowds—on this 19,000-mile stone path from Colombia to Argentina.

Trekkers and pack llamas make their way along the Qhapaq Ñan in Peru. One stretch of this Inca trail leads to the heavily touristed ruins at Machu Picchu, but on other sections of the sprawling ancient trade route, travelers find themselves alone. Outfitters and the Peruvian government are expanding access to the area.
Photograph courtesy of SA Expeditions

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, which became so overcrowded by 2019 that the government enacted a timed entry system to control the 5,000 daily visitors.

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Explorers, archeologists, and anthropologists have all traveled the Qhapaq Ñan in recent years to identify stretches of contiguous stone pathways, looking for communities prime for development, as well as ruins in need of conservation. Tourist routes are emerging along the sprawling network’s main corridor—known as the Great Inca Trail—which runs from Cuenca, Ecuador, in the north, to Cusco, Peru, in the south. The plan is to help save an old road by positioning it in a new light.

The efforts around Qhapaq Ñan could provide a viable alternative to Machu Picchu-focused treks, as well as extend the reach of the tourism economy—and the potential for sustainable development—to new regions.

A masterwork consolidates an empire

More than a simple path, the Qhapaq Ñan was like a line chart for administering an empire. The Incas crafted it—in many cases, atop existing paths—with a series of stone structures roughly nine miles apart. Called tambos, they were motels, military checkpoints, and supply hubs rolled into one.

John Leivers, an Australian explorer and researcher of Andean history who’s walked stretches of the Qhapaq Ñan since 1994, praises the efficiency of its trails. “They [the Incas] perfected everything, from the lengths to the angles, altitudes, steps, and gradients,” he says. “You couldn’t ask for a better route from point A to point B.”

Built on the backs of Inca men performing mit’a, or mandatory public service, the Qhapaq Ñan traverses one of the world’s most extreme terrains, including the driest non-polar desert on earth (the Atacama) and some of the highest peaks beyond the Himalayas. Yet, it rarely heads straight up or down, navigating geographic obstacles (mountains, river valleys) in such a mannered way that groups of soldiers or caravans of llamas could easily tackle it, trudging from tambo to tambo.

“The Inca built the trails in very high places because the higher you go in the Andes, the fewer ravines you have to cross and the fewer hassles you have,” explains Leivers. “There are also more springs, lakes, and water.”

The higher-altitude sections through the center of Peru—between 11,000 and 15,000 feet, behind the perennially snowcapped peaks of the Cordillera Huayhuash and Cordillera Blanca mountains—are the best preserved, Leivers says, due to their relative isolation and small population centers. Yet, even here, villagers have removed stones from paths to create corrals for animals or bases for mud-brick homes. Mining companies have also paved over sections of the Qhapaq Ñan to build access roads—even though Peruvian law safeguards the nation’s patrimony.

Can tourism save the Qhapaq Ñan?

Nick Stanziano, the Lima-based cofounder and CEO of adventure outfit SA Expeditions, sees ecotourism as the best way to combat the route’s rapid deterioration. After studying old maps, consulting centuries-old texts, and quizzing Peruvian researchers, he set off with Leivers on a series of expeditions beginning in 2017. The goal? To develop adventure tourism on the Qhapaq Ñan by assessing the best trails, opening them up to trekkers, and assembling support teams (cooks, mountain guides, and llama handlers) needed to manage journeys in the high Andes.

Stanziano focused his efforts on the Great Inca Trail, the main Peruvian backbone of the Qhapaq Ñan network. It’s the most monumental road left in existence, and has the kind of aesthetic value needed to develop tourism.

“This is the greatest preindustrial road that exists today, and it exists in a place that’s kind of been forgotten by the industrial world,” says Stanziano. “So, there have to be some economic incentives to preserve it, and I believe tourism is the best one you can offer this region, which is in dire need of more humane development.”

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Stanziano’s e-book documents 220 days on the Qhapaq Ñan, making the case for how the 1,800-mile Great Inca Trail could become an epic tourist route akin to the Pacific Crest Trail, which he grew up next to in northern California. For now, he’s focusing on a roughly 100-mile stretch in the middle, offering five-day 50-mile treks north and south of Huánuco Pampa, located about 275 miles northeast of Lima.

Peruvian tour operators such as Apumayo Expediciones and Lima Tours have followed suit with similar treks; larger international companies including Intrepid plan to launch routes in 2023, helping to guide adventurous hikers through this high-altitude terrain, where temperatures in the winter high season (May to September) can swing from the 60s with blazing sun to the low teens with frost.

Most trips involve wild camping near tambos or villages, or on the farms of families along the way, injecting money into the local economy through camping fees, food purchases, and access to ruins.

‘The future is on these roads’

The village of Huánuco Pampa offers the best example of how the tourism industry, Peru’s Ministry of Culture, foreign donors, and local communities are working together to preserve the Qhapaq Ñan and showcase it to outsiders. Thanks in part to a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Embassy in 2018, archeologists are now restoring the ruins of a large administrative center here, which includes an Inca temple, terraced ushnu (ceremonial structure), and towering qollqas (storehouses) built between 1460 and 1539.

This has attracted tourists, who stick around thanks to a new campground with dining facilities and guided tours, all provided by a tourism co-op run by 20 residents from the nearby community of Aguaymiro.

“We’re privileged to have such a powerful legacy in Peru, but we don’t always recognize it or the ways in which we can transform this into development opportunities for rural communities,” explains Carla Córdova, a specialist with Peru’s Ministry of Culture who helped form the Huánuco Pampa co-op in 2017. To get communities invested in conservation, she adds, they first need to see some tangible benefits.

José Valverde, a member of the co-op, says he was surprised that Huánuco Pampa could “attract foreigners just like Cusco.” He offers them guided tours of the ruins and prepares bountiful pachamanca meals, where meats and potatoes are cooked in an earthen oven over hot stones. “We as a community need to realize that, with tourism, we can also make a living,” he says. “It’s not working out so well for us just with agriculture.”

There are seven sites like Huánuco Pampa along the Peruvian portions of the Qhapaq Ñan that now have teams from the Ministry of Culture working on investigation, conservation, and community outreach. This makes Stanziano hopeful that, over the next decade, key stretches of the Great Inca Trail might see a group or two passing through each day, with a variety of companies buying food from local farmers, camping on their land, and creating new economic opportunities as they go.

“Peru has to think about what tourism is going to be in 20 years,” he says. “And I believe the future is on these roads.” 

TRIP PLANNER

How to get there: To reach Huánuco Pampa, take an eight-hour bus ride ($10) from Lima to La Unión, the closest village, and arrange a quick taxi to the ruins. Alternatively, travel outfits such as SA Expeditions offer transfers from Lima on booked tours.

What to expect: Hikes along the center of the Great Inca Trail average between nine and 12 miles daily, depending on the length of the trip. This can be quite taxing due to the high altitude. There are no campgrounds beyond Huánuco Pampa, so most trekkers place their tents near tambos or on family farms (both typically next to fresh water), paying an informal fee of a few dollars per person to the local community. Basic Spanish is helpful for communication. Temperatures can dip well below freezing at night, but it’s often sunny and spring-like during the day.

Booking a tour: The Great Inca Trail is generally easy to navigate (look for the stones!), but given the altitude and remoteness, most visitors opt for pack llamas to carry supplies, as well as cooks to source and prepare meals. A full eight-day tour package from Lima with transfers, guides, gear, cooks, llamas, and hotels on either end costs around $5,000 per person.
Mark Johanson is a Chile-based journalist who covers travel, food, and culture. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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