The elusive Inca Trail


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Text: Ana Sevilla / Ilán Greenfield

The Spanish found the great Inca Road magnificent (and practical) and continued to use it during colonial times, renaming it the “Camino Real”. Two hundred years later, Bolívar and his army used it again; they christened it the “Libertarian Path.” During the republic, García Moreno restored segments of this old road to his benefit and it was thus renamed “Camino de García Moreno”. All this contributed to erase from most people’s memories the original name and layout of the initial road system. This relic—of gigantic proportions—is undoubtedly all but forgotten today, but we invite you to imagine what it would be like to rescue it; what it would represent for our pride and sensibilities to be able to traverse it and experience it in all its grandeur…

We’ll go to hell if we don’t do anything

My conversations with Jorge Anhalzer about the Inca Trail are often passionate, erudite, irreverent, and at times full of anger. Jorge, a tireless hiker and intrepid aviator, knows the intricacies of the Andes like the palm of his hand. From the ground and from the air, Jorge has spent his entire life mapping the great Inca Road and when I ask him about its future, he answers sourly, in a Spanish embellished with Kichwa words, that he will go “to Hell” if he doesn’t do something about it: “In the last thirty years the Inca Trail has deteriorated more than in the previous 500!”

This sentence hits me like cold water to my face. We were so delighted to hear in 2014 that the Qhapac Ñan (previously written this way) was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The declaration seemed enough, we thought, to ensure that the greatest pre-Hispanic monument in South American history would be in good hands… But a single conversation with Jorge and a brief visit to the few remaining vestiges of this heritage are enough to understand that the distance to travel for true conservation of this piece of history so as not to be lost forever is even greater than the more than 500 km of steep ancient roads that cross our country. It is on the verge of extinction.


The Qhapaq Ñan is the main central artery of a complex network of roads organized throughout many centuries of Andean civilization that the Incas articulated as key to their political, military, ideological and administrative project of integrating and expanding their breadth throughout the continent into what they called the Tawantinsuyu, an Empire that reached its maximum expression in the fifteenth century.

In Ecuador, despite the fact that only 108 kms of Qhapaq Ñan have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage list, at least 500 additional kms of ancient road systems are today in an utter state of abandonment. Urgent action driven by research, sustainable community development, networking and innovation in culture is necessary to ensure the future of this heritage…

The good news is that there are some of us who go around the world “rescuing” ancient roads. Motivated by Jorge’s knowledge and concern, we established a research group (Alden Yépez, Jorge Anhalzer, Ana Sevilla, Karina Neumann) that today enjoys endorsement from the National Institute of Cultural Heritage (INPC) to identify a section of old roads in the northern highlands of Ecuador, linked to the ancestral, heritage Qhapac Ñan.

Qhapac Ñan, the main Inca Trail in Ecuador

As a result of his explorations, his extensive journeys through the Ecuadorian territory, his tireless curiosity that has led him to discover many secrets of our country’s history and past, especially those traced upon the crested contours of the Andes, Jorge Juan Anhalzer has managed to identify many portions of the Inca Trail, a cracked yet single line through steep mountains and valleys. Full of passion and through fabulous photographs that reveal the incomparable beauty of the Ecuadorian mountain range, the author/photographer has recently launched an astonishing book “Capacñán: Qhapac ñan… Ecuador’s Inca Trail”, a most inspiring document on the subject.

Where to get it?

Find the book in Quito at Librería Española or Cumbayá at El Búho, in Paseo San Francisco; you can also email Jorge Anhalzer directly @

Bridge to the past

Freddy Neumann is straight out of Guayllabamba like few people can be… In a town like Guayllabamba, whose population is made up of mainly migrants from other parts of the country, is a village that has grown exponentially into a city over the last thirty years. This is saying a lot, as Freddy is one of the few residents who still remembers, for example, how he used to play on the “broken bridge” over the Pisque River. It’s a distant memory, but a pertinent one. The bridge was demolished by army tractors some thirty years ago, but its construction, he estimates, can be dated back to the early years of the Spanish Conquest.

There were always legends surrounding these bridges, as well as the colonial “tunnels” that also existed in the area. It was already common in his youth to hear the term “Inca Trail” on the lips of most locals and many told tales of excursions in search of lost Inca treasures. Among these stories you had the “shortcut to Calderón”. That is, there was a way to get to the town of Calderon that bypassed the main highway. This always seemed a curious thing to Freddy, considering that the highway connecting Guayllabamba and Calderón descends a steep valley to later climb “to Quito”. One day, he asked Salvador Flores, a local worker who had mentioned the existence of this alternate route, to take him to it. At that time, Freddy recalls it was back in 1968, the Guayllabambeños used a small bridge that, with Herculean proportions, held its own amid two monstrous rocks over the Guayllabamba River. “It was like a portal”, Freddy says excitedly: “it opened my eyes to a dimension that I didn’t know about my own hometown: you didn’t have to go down to go back up again… you just continued calmly along the mountain ridge; only those few families knew the way.”

From Freddy’s story and the state of this section, the team officially began the Inca Trail’s rescue-mission here: a 10 km road that connects Pomasqui with Pueblo Viejo, in the Guayllabamba valley. Jorge describes the segment with awe: “the Capacñán’s passage through Guayllabamba is a grandiose thing. In this deep, arid canyon, what remains of the road descends to a fathomless riverbank, down to a spectacular bridge whose bases are magnificent stones carved by the Incas. The holes through which the original braided rope and straw bridge was hoisted are evident. The upper arch, probably built-in soapstone during the early Conquest, is no less amazing and beautiful. […] Higher up, we find a series of strategic hills, two Inca pucará forts that must have guarded the road and surrounding hills”.

The Guayllabamba section has enormous potential to become a new linear park for Quito. The beauty of the deciduous forest, of which there are so few remnants today due to the pressure of quarries and agricultural frontiers, with the astounding contrast of thorny vegetation and cheerful, multicolored flowers; the various archaeological sites of clear Inca affiliation we find along the way; the impressive Guayllabamba pass and the colonial bridge that still stands… We dream of creating a successful program and include the active participation of all outlying communities interested in safeguarding their heritage in Guayllabamba and Calderon.

These roads were made to be walked. We must restore them back to use. The “Capacñán”, the Inca Trail, can become a tourism magnet if only we were able to create a true network of viable roads protected and used by the local communities and visited and treasured by every Ecuadorian, lover of his/her history and heritage.

Only in Ecuador

Ecuador’s Capacñán, or Inca Trail, connected the northern Inca empire, reaching a width of 10 m in its most imposing road segments, astonishing world-renown explorers such as Alexander von Humboldt who compared it to the Roman Empire’s Road network. The Ecuadorian Capacñán is an unequivocal and unique symbol of Inca expansionism, the largest empire in South America, in its desire to reach and conquer the “land of the sun” in all its Equatorial splendor.

Puzzle pieces to continue building the Capacñan

These are some routes of the heritage Inca Trail where our team will carry out research after focusing on Guayllabamba’s stretch.

  1. San Antonio de Pichincha – cumbres del Mojanda – Lago San Pablo (60 km)
  2. Carchi: 30 km in excellent state used by alcohol smugglers.
  3. Tixán – Achupallas. This section links to the most popular Inca Trail segment (Achupallas to Ingapirca) in Ecuador, but doubles it in length and is probably the easiest restoration project to execute.
  4. In Loja we find several segments from 20-30 kms. Most are intersected by the main highway.
  5. South Quito (a heavily impacted segment of about 10 km).

Photos: Jorge Anhalzer / Ilán Greenfield

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