Ancient origins

Dizzying Inca Rope Bridges Were Grass-Made Marvels of Engineering

Spanish conquistadors couldn’t believe their eyes while exploring the rugged terrain of the Andes during their invasion of Peru. On entering Inca territory in the 16th century, they were bowled over by the advanced road system known as the Qhapaq Ñan . However, the engineering that really left them speechless were the awe-inspiring rope bridges , crafted and maintained by Inca communities with nothing but woven grass.

The vast Inca Empire was united by an incredible road network spanning over 25,000 miles (40,000 km). This impressive system traversed the harsh mountainous terrain of the Andes and ran along the coast, linking Ecuador in the north to Chile and Argentina in the south. It was a remarkable feat of engineering, designed to connect and sustain the expansive Inca civilization.

Created entirely by hand, Inca engineers were undaunted by their geography, creating paths through deserts and mountain passes. To bridge the many rivers and cross perilous ravines, their suspension bridges were the longest of the pre-industrial age; the Apurimac Bridge near modern-day Curahuasi measured 148 feet (45 m). According to The New York Times , “at least 200 such suspension bridges spanned river gorges in the 16th century.”

For the Spanish, rope bridges were incredible and terrifying in equal measure. “When the bridge is being crossed, it trembles very much, so that it can make any not accustomed to it dizzy,” noted Pedro Sancho, in his chronicle of the conquest of Peru in 1534.

The longest of the Inca rope bridges, measuring 148 feet (45 m), hung across the Apurimac River near modern-day Curahuasi. This drawing by American archaeologist E. George Squier was included in an 1877 book on Peru. ( Public domain )

Developed from the 13th century onwards, Inca rope bridges were made out of perishable materials such as willow, reeds and wild grasses, which were then woven and braided to create cords and cables. They were also designed to be disassembled quickly, which was particularly useful in times of war.

During the time of the Incas, key bridges were looked after by supervisors tasked with maintenance. Meanwhile, due to the harsh climate and the resulting limited lifespan, local communities were roped into maintaining and reweaving the bridges every year or two, an aspect noted in several Spanish chronicles and which continued into the 20th century.

The Queshuachaca bridge, named after the Quechua for “grass” and “bridge,” which also crosses the Apurimac River near Huinchiri in Peru, is frequently reported to be the last surviving Inca rope bridge . It is rebuilt every two years during a festival which brings together the surrounding communities and embodies the social organization and values of Andean culture.

Inca rope bridges proved ideal for their environment, as the stubborn Spaniards learnt the hard way through failed attempts to erect European-style bridges. Replaced by metallic cable bridges in the 19th century and then modern roads, there is little left behind of what was once an extraordinary example of sustainable engineering.

Top image: Woman crossing the Queshuachaca Inca rope bridge near Huinchiri in Peru. Source: Danita Delimont / Adobe Stock

By Cecilia Bogaard

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