Road leading up to Machu Picchu in Peru

Inca Empire Constructed Over 40,000 Kms of Roads and Superhighways in 100 Years

The Inca Empire was a superpower that was centered on the western coast of South America. This prevailing civilization flourished between the 15th and 16th centuries, and at its height of power it extended from Quito, Ecuador, in the north, to Santiago, Chile in the south. The Inca Empire was the largest empire in the Americas, and one factor contributing to this was its complex road system, which is known as the royal highway, or qhapaq ñan.   

The Vast Road Network

The roads of the Inca Empire have been estimated to cover a distance of over 40000 km (24854 miles), and can be found in modern countries that used to be part of this civilization, i.e. Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.

There were two main highways that traversed the empire from the north to the south. One of these followed the coastline, whilst the other was located further inland, and passed through the highlands of the Andes. In addition to these, there were also secondary roads, as well as some smaller trails. Some of these routes connected the two main highways, whilst others were built beyond the territories controlled by the empire. It has been suggested that these could have served to facilitate trade with, or for the conduct of military campaigns against, neighboring peoples. Along some of the more important routes, milestones were placed to mark each Inca unit of distance, i.e. the topo, which is equivalent to 7 km (4.3 miles).

This map shows the Inca Road System through South America.

This map shows the Inca Road System through South America. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Adapting Ancient Connections

It should be mentioned that the Incas did not built their entire road system from scratch. Some of these roads had been originally built by other cultures that once lived in areas conquered by the Incas, such as the Wari, the Tiwanaku, and the Chimu. Nevertheless, the engineers of the Inca Empire built upon these older roads, and made further improvements to them. In addition, the Incas began constructing new roads in more difficult terrains. Thus, the roads of the Incas were built across ravines, rivers, deserts, and mountain passes. The road through the Atacama Desert of Chile and one along the western margin of Lake Titicaca are two excellent examples of the achievement of Incan road-builders.

Suspension bridge Q'eswachaca.

Suspension bridge Q'eswachaca. (CC BY-SA 1.0)

Resting in the Chaskiwasi and Tambos

In addition to roads, the Incas also placed small stations (known as chaskiwasi) along the routes. Sometimes, larger ones (known as tambos) were placed at a distance of about 20 km (12 miles) from each other, where travelers could rest on their journeys. The roads were used primarily for official purposes of the state. For example, Incan armies used these roads to traverse the empire and maintain internal order, or to reach neighboring territories for the purpose of conquest. In addition, the roads served as trade routes, and tributes from conquered peoples were also conveyed along these roads to the major Incan centers. As the Incas did not have access to the wheel, these goods were transported on the backs of llamas or by porters.

The road system was also used by administrative officials, who travelled to the various parts of the empire on official business. This included the dispensation of justice and the maintenance of records. There were also runners along the roads, who would relay messages from one city to another.

Llamas on an Incan road.

Llamas on an Incan road. (Public Domain)

These runners would be stationed at intervals of 6 -9 kilometers (3.73-5.59 miles), and it has been estimated that information could travel up to 240 km (149 miles) in a single day. Apart from messages, runners are also known to have transported perishable items, such as fresh fish from the coast, to the tables of Inca nobles. It may be pointed out that ordinary people needed to obtain official permission before they could use the roads for travelling. Additionally, there were tolls at certain points of the route, e.g. bridges, where they would need to pay a fee to cross.   

Inca bridge over the Yanamayo river in the Pukayaku sector.

Inca bridge over the Yanamayo river in the Pukayaku sector. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Built to Last

A large part of the Inca road system survives even today and 273 component sites have been given World Heritage status. The durability of the roads built by the Incas is evident when compared to those constructed in modern times. It has been reported that many modern roads are destroyed by water each year, whilst the Incan ones have survived for centuries.

Top image: Road leading up to Machu Picchu in Peru (

By Ḏḥwty


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O'Brien, J., 2015. Inca Road: The ancient highway that created an empire. [Online]
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UNESCO, 2017. Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Road System. [Online]
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