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Into Qollasuyu: the Great Inca Trail expedition continues

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In June 2019 a team of seasoned explorers and tourism professionals will embark on the next leg of an adventure now four years in the making when they venture into the desolate Andean landscapes of Qollasuyu.


The Great Inca Trail team has been exploring the remnants of the 500-year-old Inca Road system across South America since 2016. These expeditions have taken our team from the glaciers of the Altiplano to the shores of the Pacific, traversing more than 2000 kilometers along the spine of the Andes before continuing on through the mists of the cloud forests to the lost city of Vilcabamba. 

A friendly camelid poses in the high desert near the Chile-Bolivia border. (Photo: Kevin Floerke)

Our next journey could prove to be the most fascinating yet as we depart the imperial capital of Cusco to follow the road south into Qollasuyu, a place of otherworldly landscapes, vibrant cultures, and the remains of empires millennia older than the Inca themselves. Heading south across the high plains of Qollasuyu, our expedition will walk roads laid down by Huayna Capac during the great Inca expansion south, and later used by the ill-fated expedition of the conquistador Diego de Almagro.


Weaving the past into the present

As the royal Inca road departs Cusco’s central plaza and passes the monumental gateway of Rumicolca south of the city, it winds toward a series of plunging river canyons. Undaunted, Inca engineers devised an ingenious strategy to span these cavernous divides using only locally sourced grasses and the collective manpower of nearby communities. This tradition of collaborative engineering has been relegated to memory in every corner of the empire except one: the Q’eswachaka river valley. 

Communities from opposite banks of the river meet in the middle of the bridge. (Photo: MINCETUR Peru)

Here, community members gather once a year to renew ancient bonds of kinship and to rebuild the last remaining Inca suspension bridge. A festival every June brings together members of four communities from either side of the canyon to harvest and weave tufts of coarse q’oya grass into thick sturdy ropes that act as cables to support the bridge. Cooperating across the canyon, they raise the cables and weave together a new bridge, renewing their bonds to each other and to their shared Inca heritage. We will be on hand to experience this important moment in the past and the present of the Inca Road, and to share it with the world.


An inland sea

Departing Q’eswachaka the team will follow the Inca Road through the high plains, passing nearly forgotten cities and temples en route to a majestic inland sea. Lake Titicaca is the mythical origin place of the original Inca: the legendary Manco Capac emerged from its waters to found the dynasty that would unite the Andes under a single banner. Today, it is home to a diverse array of living traditional cultures as well as fascinating ruins that echo the lake’s mythical past.

Daybreak over Lake Titicaca. (Photo: Kevin Floerke)

The remaining Inca Road along the lakeshore continues to connect the Incas’ descendants, and the still-functioning causeways are a testament to their engineering prowess. Our team will walk these roads, as well as those on the Isla del Sol – once an extremely important pilgrimage destination for the Inca and those who came before them. We will walk in the footsteps of generations of pilgrims, to experience this natural and cultural wonder as it exists today.


Alien landscapes

From Titicaca, the Inca Road heads south towards even more breathtaking vistas. Crossing what was once an ancient seabed, the road skirts the edge of one of the world’s most unique landscapes, one that often appears to be born of another world altogether. The Salar de Uyuni is an immense salt flat that contains the crystallized remains of an inland ocean in what is now the Bolivian Altiplano. The arid climate and unique geological past combine to create fantastic and surreal landscapes that can only be described in cliché. Islands of fossilized coral jut out of a sea of white salt, breaking the uniformity of the horizon and lending perspective to a dreamlike scene.

The high altitude and desert environment make for fiery sunsets at the Salar de Uyuni. (Photo: Kevin Floerke)

Towering over this expanse is the volcanic peak of Tunupa. Home to several communities with roots in the ancient past, the volcano’s slopes feature burial caves that house the nearly perfectly-preserved mummified remains of their ancestors. This is a rare opportunity to see firsthand how these ancient burials continue to influence the identity of these indigenous communities today. Our team will explore those connections and how they inform and enrich this place as a modern destination for international travelers.


A sacred peak

After the sweeping vistas of Uyuni, the road heads south towards the Inca frontier. Approaching what is now the border with Chile, the grasslands give way to the desert. But the gateway between the altiplano and the Atacama is guarded by an ancient mountain deity: the mighty stratovolcano of Licancabur. At 19,409 feet (5419 meters), Licancabur rises from the plains and commands the landscape for miles around. The ancient populations of the Altiplano worshipped the peak as an apu, or living mountain god, making offerings and praying to it for good weather.

The sacred peak of Licancabur. (Creative Commons License)

The Inca themselves took notice upon their arrival at the turn of the sixteenth century, building both a tambo at the volcano’s base and a temple structure beside the crater lake at the summit. Our team aims to summit the peak to visit these ruins and pay our respects to yet another of the empire’s great apus. In doing so we will also be following in the footsteps of another legendary explorer. Johan Reinhard famously summited Licancabur in 1981 and accomplished what at the time was the highest altitude SCUBA dive in history.


A many-splendored tapestry

This expedition will weave together strands spun by the Inca and their prehistoric predecessors; the gold-crazed conquistadors of the Spanish conquest; the intrepid explorers of the past and present; and the vibrant indigenous communities that populate the ancient lands of Qollasuyu today. The result will be a project celebrating the rich tapestry of natural and cultural wonders that still exist along the Qhapaq Ñan today.

The mountains of the Cordillera Real as seen from the Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca. (Photo: Kevin Floerke)

Follow this link to learn more about how SA Expeditions promotes the conservation of the natural and cultural resources of South America. Or maybe you want to take things a few steps further by actually joining the expedition team in June of 2019? We have one open seat for the right individual: inquire at travel@saexpeditions.com.

The Bolivian flag flies atop the fossilized coral island of Incawasi in the center of the Salar de Uyuni. (Photo: Kevin Floerke)

Kevin Floerke is a writer, photographer, and independent researcher who has been studying the Inca road system for more than a decade. He has been accompanying and photographing the Great Inca Trail team as our resident archaeologist since 2016. He also took the title image of this blog. 

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