31 Miles Along the Royal Inca Trail

The Royal Inca Trail or “Qhapaq Nan” is the name of the most extensive and highly advanced transportation system of the pre-Columbian South America, a main road with several branches joining the nations of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. It is an impressive 23,000km (14.291mi) system of roads built by the Incas, and it connected the northern city of Quito with the south of Chile.

One of the most famous treks of this road is probably the one that goes from the village of Achullapas to the village of Ingapirca, recently called “The Culebrillas Trail”. It is a 50km (31mi) portion of the road that hasn’t changed much in the past five centuries, where the historical characteristics are still conserved. This hike can be done in 2-3 days and follows the original royal road, with altitudes ranging from 3200m to 4500m (10.500 to 14.800ft) above the sea level. At the Andean high lands, perennial rain is expected all along this historical trail that goes through breathtaking landscapes and archeological discoveries. The original Inca roadways are found here. Some of them got paved with stone, but most of them remain the natural dirt pathways, of 1-4meters (3-13ft) wide.

From start to end, this route unveils five hundred years of history. The starting point, Achullapas, is a place that served as an Inca fortress for the expansion of the empire to the north of the continent. One first gets amazed by the route that goes through the fabulous valley of the Cadrul River, the Las Tres Cruces Lake and the ruins of Cuchishiana, an archeological vestige whose function is still controversial.

Following the road, at 4,350m (14.271ft) high, there is mountainous formation called the Nudo del Azuay or Quimsacruz, that is the highest land point on Ecuador. A certain number of rectangular structures that belonged to a Chasquihuasi (Chasqui House) or a Tambo (a resting place) are found there, as well as big rock mounts called “Apachitas” that evidence the Inca tradition of offering a rock in a propitiatory ritual to continue their trip. After this point, there are at least two possible pathways to take: The one that goes through the valley of Espindola – not usable during extended rainy periods -, and the shortcut parallel to the Espindola pathway that goes through the top of the valley. This route goes across the Cachapampa plain and the Sontzahuin torrent before arriving to the Culebrillas valley, home of the mystic Culebrillas Lake. To cross the Sontzahuin torrent, there is a wooden footbridge that seems to date back to the Incas period.

The Culebrillas (little snakes) Lake was called this way because of the 800m (2.624 feet) zigzag formation of the river that feeds the lake. Home to a wild duck colony, the lake’s clean and transparent waters were considered sacred by the Canaris, who used to throw there handcrafted objects and ritual ceramics in commemoration to their ancestors.

The lake features a number of elements that feed its mystery such as a stone stairway that enters the lake 30m (98ft) deep from the river shore; a big stone platform; and a recently discovered construction made from carved stone. At a depth of 4,000m (13.123ft), there is an Inca quarry or “Labrashca Rumi” full of hundreds of carved stones waiting forever to be carried to their destination. At the opposite shore and close to the lake, the old Tambo de Paredones is located. It is an important resting place that served also as a military spot with vast accommodations for the troops and warehouses for goods, arms and clothes.

Past the lake, the road leads to the village of San Jose. It takes about a two hour walk from there until you reach the end of the road at Ingapirca, the biggest Inca complex built in the current Ecuadorian territory.

Nominated by UNESCO for its World Heritage List, the Royal Trails are a meeting point for those who take the chance to travel by foot through this challenging landscape. They are a place of encounter for men and women from different horizons, a place where man faces nature and revives the past. What once was a means of conquest today becomes a symbol of unity between nations and their history.

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