One of the keys to having a large and prosperous empire is developing the infrastructure that nits the various parts of the empire together. The Chinese had their rivers and canals, while the Romans had the stunning Mediterranean Sea and their famously, large, complex, and extensive road network.

While the Chinese and the Romans were worlds apart, they were still influenced by each other and were not in complete isolation (e.g. they both had wheeled carts, used horses, and technologies trickled back and forth). The Incas were another world entirely in complete isolation from the Old World. And they independently developed roads - but roads without horses and wheels and bridges without arches. A very different world.

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About The Inca Road System

The Inca Road system was one of the greatest feats of engineering in the Pre-Columbian world - or even the world. These roads helped transform the tiny Inca kingdom into the largest empire in the Western Hemisphere. The Inca had no instruments of iron or wheeled transportation. Meaning that constructing these roads was via only backbreaking hand labor.

  • Length Of The Inca Roads: 24,000 Miles or 37,000 Kilometers
  • Countries With Communities Linked By Inca Roads: Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, and (Of Course) Peru
  • Also Known As: Qhapaq Ñan
  • Maximum Height: Some Alpine Roads Reached 5,000 Meters or 16,000 Feet
  • Width: Varied Between 1 Meter And 4 Meters or 3 Feet And 13 Feet
The Inca Road is one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering in the world. By the 16th Century, it had helped transform a tiny kingdom into the largest empire in the Western hemisphere. Related: 10 Things You Didn't Know About Machu Picchu

Of course, there are flip sides to many things in life. On the one hand, the roads nit the empire together and allowed the armies to respond quickly. They were vital for the empire's functioning and facilitated the movement of military communications, civilians, and logistical support. But they also enabled the Spanish to move quickly and for smallpox to spread rapidly. Ironically it meant that once the conquistadors found the roads, they had an open highway into the center of the empire.

  • UNESCO-Listed: The Inca Roads Became UNESCO-Listed in 2014

The Inca road system is not unique in South America, but it was easily the most extensive and the most highly advanced. The road system was based on two major roads running north and south. These two main arteries ran largely parallel to each other one ran along the coast while the other ran through the highlands. Then there was also the eastern route that ran from the mountain valleys from Quito in Ecuador to Mendoza in Argentina.

How They Were Used

The roads weren't just open for everyone. They were mostly for porters and llama caravans (llamas were the Inca pack animals), imperial soldiers, and the nobility and those on official duties. For others to use the roads they had to get permission and tolls were charged at some bridges. The roads allowed for quick and efficient communication through the sprawling empire. The Inca lacked a writing system, a shared monetary system, the wheel, iron and bronze, and horses (one can't ride a llama).

The road enabled message relays. These worked by having relay stations every 20 or 25 kilometers apart, there were runners who would jog the distance carrying the goods or the messages. The relay points could be simple huts or settlements.

The stones quarried from a sacred quarry near Cusco infused the roads with divinity and further legitimized the Inca god-emperors.

They Are Visible And Used Today

Today over 480 years after the demised of the Inca Empire or so, many of these roads endure. They are all around the Western side of the South American continent. As one hikes up to Macchu Picchu, one hikes one of the Inca roads.

1,110 miles northwest of the old Inca capital of Cuzco is a part of the "Great Road" - known to the Inca as "Capac Ñan". Some regard this as the greatest engineering feat in the pre-Colombia Americas. It stretched for an impressive 3,700 miles along with the Andes Ranges craving its way from Chile to Colombia. This highland route is better preserved and has more impressive stretches for tourists to see today.

Related: Skip Machu Picchu And Consider Visiting The Ancient City Of Chan Chan, Instead

The coastal road, by contrast, had many stretches where the flat landscape didn't require much engineering, and many stretches were largely only defined by markings. If one wants to see and explore more of the engineering and monumental architecture of the Inca, then check out the highland road.

Unlike the Roman Empire and its roads that served the empire for hundreds of years (over 500 years for the roads around Italy), it wasn't long until the Inca roads were to find new masters. They were the spine of the empire and operated roughly from 1450 to 1532 - around 82 years.

Next: 15 Inca Structures And Sites You Can Visit In Peru Today