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The case for rebuilding the Inca Road

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As Peru grapples with the economic fallout of the global pandemic, preserving this vital cultural patrimony could also spur job creation and economic revival across the Peruvian Andes. 

What’s in an Inca road

About a decade ago, an explorer friend told me about an ancient Inca highway that went down the spine of the Andes. I later learned that the Inca Road (known as the Qhapaq Ñan) was one of the greatest public works of pre-industrial humans. Today it’s one of the largest UNESCO world heritage sites on the planet. About five years ago, I decided to walk it by foot and write about this traditional corridor of Andean trade and commerce as I went.

The author and his explorer friend John (right) capturing daily life on the Great Inca Trail

Four thousand miles later – after crossing various departments of Peru and passing through cities, villages, and remote and forgotten landscapes – I had been given an intimate look into the country’s interior. I did it all in the name of exploration, awareness, and conservation. Tourism was my day job, and the potential of the disappearing Inca road as a cultural resource for tourism development in underserved and economically depressed regions was clear. My industry colleagues and I were bringing more than a million visitors to Machu Picchu a year (about a quarter of the total tourist arrivals to Peru), but other equally incredible spots were receiving almost no visitors. It was becoming clear that Peru as a brand needed to diversify to other regions of the country and spread the benefits of tourism to other departments.

The author and his team of humans and llamas traversing the Great Inca Trail. (Photo: Rodrigo Cabrera)

What I learned from walking the Inca road network for months on end was how connected Peru’s archeological sites are, and how there are versions of Machu Picchu at ruin sites across Peru. Machu Picchu is partly a product of a century of time, labor, and private and public investment that restored a dilapidated ruins complex hidden on a jungle mountaintop into a major resource for the country.

Machu Picchu today, after time, labor, and private and public investment turned the site into a major resource for the country.

Compare, for example, Machu Picchu with the important Inca citadel at Huánuco Pampa in Northern Peru, which sees only a handful of visitors every day. Huánuco Pampa has thousands of buildings in need of restoration, and is situated on an impressive stretch of Inca road that’s 50 feet in width. It’s a thousand miles from the throngs of tourists and luxury hotels in Cusco. But walking around the place and seeing what a small team of archeologists and locals have been able to preserve and restore, you can imagine its incredible tourism potential.

Imperial Inca architecture at Huánuco Pampa. (Photo: Christian Declercq)

The focus my team and I took towards tourism development on the Inca road following our explorations, has been based around fully-supported trekking. Basically, the same stuff thousands of tourists do when hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, just along monumental sections of Inca road in other parts of the country that can benefit from tourism. Our company’s economic model is even partly configured to help preserve the Inca road … But we’re just a small team trying to demonstrate a working model to prove that Inca trails across all of Peru have potential as a tourism resource. If this idea can expand across our larger industry, it would help mitigate future over-tourism at Machu Picchu.

Then a pandemic happened

On March 15, 2020, Peru instituted one of the strictest lockdowns on the planet; a lockdown that lasted for more than 100 days. Seventy percent of Peru’s economy is informal and composed of low-skill labor. This meant that most of the country’s jobs disappeared overnight as the military enforced a lockdown that only allowed essential businesses to operate. In Lima, Peru’s capital, hundreds of thousands of members of the informal economy took to their feet, walking hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to their native regions after public transportation was halted across the country for almost four months.

The ensuing economic chaos continues to require unprecedented measures from the Peruvian government. Even distributing economic aid is a massive challenge as only two out of every ten Peruvians have a bank account. The recovery in Peru is not going to look like the recovery in Europe or the United States. Peru’s approach to recovery needs to put millions of low-skilled, underserved Peruvians back to work – and hopefully do so in a way that builds the critical infrastructure of the country. Peru needs its own version of what Franklin Roosevelt called the “New Deal”, when the United States put the poor and hungry back to work during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It would be a bonus if the Peruvian version also bolstered the institutions and presence of the state, which has historically been weak in the country’s hinterlands.

Mass exodus from Lima of rural Peruvians on foot back to their native regions, spurred by the pandemic. (Photo: Instituto de Defensa Legal)

Kick-Start Peru

That is exactly what the government of Martín Vizcarra is trying to achieve with his recently announced program “Kick-Start Peru” which hopes to create a million jobs to improve the country’s critical infrastructure. Tourism in Peru represents 10% of the country’s economic activity. I would argue that this makes tourism a critical industry and tourism infrastructure a critical resource. I would also argue that Peru’s most untapped tourism resource is the Qhapaq Ñan. The Great Inca Trail is one of the richest archaeological corridors in the world, connecting 5,000 years of societal development across a region that some have called the Mesopotamia of the Americas. Machu Picchu is just the tip of the iceberg.

Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra announcing the Kick-Start Peru program. (Photo: gob.pe)

Luis Jaime Castillo, ex-Minister of Culture and brand ambassador for Peruvian archeology, recently suggested that the “cleaning and maintenance of the thousands of archeological ruins could create 150,000 low-skilled jobs over 24 [of Peru’s 25] departments.” This would be, he explained, “an investment with a clear return, increasing the competitiveness of Peruvian tourism ... Tourism has always been an engine for growth and development that is inclusive”.

The thousands of archeological sites that Castillo mentions are often along the Qhapaq Ñan …So why not reconstruct the Inca road connecting them too? In the process rebuilding an ancient Inca corridor that will allow future generations of Peruvians to derive economic benefit from their cultural patrimony. Tourism in Peru promotes micro-business, and touches on all socio-economic sectors of society. When done right, it is far more sustainable and reusable than the extractive industries that rule the Peruvian economy.

An upcoming election

In the first part of 2021, the country will vote on a new president, and congress that will take Peru into the most uncharted economic territory in a generation. Whoever comes out on top will need to prove to Peruvians of all stripes that they have a plan to rebuild an economy in tatters. In a country where voting is mandatory, they will have to win support of the millions of Peruvians in the informal economy who have been plunged back into poverty. They will need the support of leaders in Peru’s critical industries. They will need to speak to millions of middle-class Peruvians whose livelihoods depend on tourism. Peru will need to persuade the world to visit its shores again.

Peru’s geography is extreme, and its citizenry spans the Pacific coast, the 20,000-foot Andes Mountains, and the steamy lowlands of the Amazon jungle. Ever since the marauding Spanish established Lima in 1532, governing the country from Lima has been a challenge. In contrast, the conquered Inca were masters of administration in this vertical, multi-cultural Andean world, governing an empire with a population equivalent to that of modern Peru by implementing a monumental road system that was as functional as it was imposing.

Walking the Inca corridor today, you realize that Peru’s main political parties slightly match their Inca predecessors in that their coordination reaches almost every corner of the country. You might be in a remote village of a hundred people clinging to the side of a mountain, but you will still see political adverts painted on adobe huts. Politics in Peru arrives before running water and electricity.

The most consistent political imagery I encountered on my long walk came from one of the oldest and most powerful political parties in Peru today, Acción Popular. Its logo featuring a shovel represents a term in Peruvian Spanish (“obras”) which means “public works”. A reminder that the path to government invariably goes through the provinces of Peru and that power is bestowed to those who can demonstrate “obras” for the people. Winning candidates for president and congress will eventually have to build millions of jobs and keep the public finances from collapse. It is not going to be easy, and the potencial for corruption will be rife. But the possibility of putting hundreds of thousands of rural Peruvians back to work restoring and preserving Inca road, while at the same time building a more sustainable future for Peruvian tourism, is worth the challenge.

Acción Popular political propaganda along the Great Inca Trail in Huanuco Pampa. (Photo: Nick Stanziano)

A winning political strategy often combines job creation with a sense of national pride – and rebuilding the Great Inca Trail has both elements. If you were to transpose a map of the Qhapaq Ñan over contemporary Peru, it would show that the transportation and communication network of the Incas is the same network that drives the regional economies of the country today. It’s also not a coincidence that many of Peru’s modern highways follow the same lines as the Inca road network.

A map of the Great Inca Trail wending through the heart of Peru, along the spine of the Andes.

Kick-starting Peru and rebuilding Peruvian tourism for the future

Now is the time to stimulate the regional economies of Peru by rebuilding the Inca road and its associated archeological sites in the name of inclusive economic development for Peru’s future. Now is the time to start treating Peruvian tourism as a critical industry of the country.

As an adopted citizen to this beautiful country we call Peru (one so enthusiastic that I walked across it!), I speak from a personal, and arguably biased, position. Yet as a practitioner in regional tourism, I also speak from a position of economic realism and feasibility.

Let’s get Peru back to work and rebuild Peruvian tourism while we’re at it!

This piece is dedicated to my explorer friend John Leivers, who not only introduced me to the Qhapaq Ñan, but also walked its length with me. Over our 130-day continuous trek from Cuenca, Ecuador to Cusco, Peru we had ample time to discuss the manpower and capital required to rebuild the Great Inca Trail. Many of the ideas in this article come from those discussions.

About The Author: Nick Stanziano co-founded SA Expeditions and currently serves as its Chief Explorer. Originally from California and nationalized citizen of Peru for a decade, he straddles two worlds. Nick has a BA in Global Studies from the University of California and a trans-global MBA from Saint Mary’s College of California. Nick believes wholeheartedly that tourism has the potential to bring dignified income to the forgotten people of South America and the world.

The Great Inca Trail traversing down the spine of the Andes. (Photo: Kevin Floerke)

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