Each year in June, the people of the comunidad campesina of Huinchiri, along with villagers from three other nearby communities, rebuild a suspension bridge across the canyon of the upper Río Apurimac. The bridge is a keshwa chaca made of ropes hand woven of qqoya grass, a type of Andean bunchgrass. A steel girder bridge crosses the canyon a short distance upstream from the keshwa chaca, so it is not necessary that this rope bridge be rebuilt for any present-day transportation purposes. And yet the Quechua people continue to build the bridge annually, as apparently they have done since Inka times. It is their custom, and by maintaining the bridge they honor their ancestors and Pachamama.
The road to the keshwa chaca crosses the high country between the Vilcanota and Apurimac rivers, then makes a dizzying descent into the Apurimac valley via an incredible series of hairpin curves.
The keshwa chaca from the road, as first glimpsed. (1998)
A closer view of the bridge from above. (June 1999)
The keshwa chaca nearly a year old and badly deteriorated; note how much the bridge sags. (1998, shortly before the rebuilding festival.)
The newly rebuilt suspension bridge. (June 1999)
Crossing the Río Apurimac on a bridge of straw. (June, 1999)
The scene is quite different in the rainy season when the Río Apurimac is in full flow. (Mar. 2001)
It takes a brave soul to cross the keshwa chaca when it has weathered for nine months and the river is raging below. (Mar. 2001)
But Don is either brave or nuts!. (Mar. 2001)
Villagers from Perccaro show off their fiesta traje at the bridge. (Mar. 2001)
We met the chaca camayoc (master bridge builder), a native of Hunichiri, and gave him a copy of the Dec. '73 National Geographic in which he found a photo of his father, the chaca camayoc before him. (Mar. 2001)
The following photos were taken during the annual June rebuilding of the keshwa chaca and the indigenous festival celebrating the renewal of the bridge, rebuilt annually by the comunitarios to honor their ancestors and Pachamama.
Saturday, the third day in the three-day rebuilding of the keshwa chaca, the main cables are up, and the bridge is well on its way to completion. The main cables were raised on Friday. Note last year's bridge, which has been cut and dropped into the Río Apurimac 60 feet below. (June 2003)
Quechua women from the nearby communities sit and chat as they braid ropes of grass to be strung from the hand rails to the floor of the bridge. Earlier in the week they braided huge quantities of similar thin ropes, which the men then twisted and braided together to make the big cables that support the bridge. (June 2007)
On Thursday the main supporting cables were fabricated by the men. The next day, these cables were strung across the river, raised, wound about the heavy stone sleepers in the walled bridge platforms on each side of the canyon, and carefully adjusted to hang evenly. Note in the photo that the left-hand and right-hand handrail cables (the higher cables) are of distinctly uneven size, reflecting the different quality work done by different communities. (June 2003)
Once the floor cables and handrail cables are completely ready, the next job is to tie lightweight rope stringers from the two handrails to the four load-bearing cables, making a unit of the structure, and creating sidewalls that make it possible to cross the bridge without danger of falling off. (June 2003)
However, more than rope stringers are necessary for the bridge to hold its form when being crossed. Inch-thick sticks are lashed with rawhide strips to the four floor cables, forming rigid cross-ties that insure that the cables maintain their spread and cannot become entangled. (June 2003)
Dure the 2003 rebuilding, a controversy arose late Saturday afternoon as to whether or not the mayor of Quehue, one of the communities involved in the bridge rebuilding, had fulfilled his promises of support for the project. This resulted in a work stoppage and an emotional gathering was held on the road above the bridge site. After considerable palaver, work was resumed and the bridge finished on schedule. (June 2003)
The final stage in the reconstruction of the bridge is to lay flooring mats over the four main cables. While the sidewalls are being strung together, others are busy making these mats of brush for the bridge floor. (June 2003)
The edges of the flooring, bushy when first tied together, must be trimmed. Note the use of a footplow blade to trim the irregular edges of the flooring mats. (June 2003)
Carrying a rolled segment of floor mat onto the suspension bridge. (June 2003)
Once construction is completed, the bridge is dedicated. All throughout the construction the process has been protected by several shamans performing appropriate ceremonies nearby one of the bridgeheads, and now formal speeches are made by local officials, and, often, by a distinguished guest. In 2003 the guest of honor was the Director of the Instituto Nacional de Cultura, seen here tossing ceremonial liquor at the conclusion of his speech. Afterwards he was given the honor of being the first to cross the renewed keshwa chaca.
Shortly after the Director of the INC and his entourage crossed the bridge, this Quechua man in full traje crossed. (June 2003)
The finished bridge was then opened to all spectators and visitors, who were charged a toll of one sol for the privilege of crossing! Note how little sag there is in the renewed bridge, as compared to the year-old bridge in the photo at the beginning of the webpage. (June 2003)
View of the Rutahsa Adventures group campsite, below the site of the keshwa chaca festival. Ours was the only group of foreigners present at the bridge rebuilding and festival. (June 2003)
A camping experience you'll only get in the Andes: a local shepherdess brings her cows, sheep and llamas through our camp! (June 2003)
Rutahsa Adventures groups always bring school supplies, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and children's clothing as a "mini-aid program" for the village children. In this case, since there were four communities involved in the rebuilding of the keshwa chaca, we sorted and divided the supplies into four parts, and filled up four duffel bags the night before the bridge festival. (June 2003)
Sunday morning comes, tents are erected and crowds gather, marking the beginning of the Festival of the Keshwa Chaca. (June 2003)
Many native dance groups perform at the festival. Apparently the dance groups are judged and winners go on to dance at bigger festival competitions, and ultimately perform in the Inti Raymi festival in Cusco. (June 2003)
During a break in the dance performances, the duffels of school supplies and children's clothing donated by the Rutahsa Adventures group were presented to officials of the four communities responsible for rebuilding the bridge. Our driver, Eusebio, made the presentations inasmuch as he is a native Quechua speaker and could express more eloquently than we could our gratitude to these Quechua people for preserving their traditions and continuing to rebuild the keshwa chaca. (June 2003)
And more dance performances and celebration continued on into the afternoon, to the delight of an audience spread over the hillside above the main festival area. (June 2003)
The remains of a more famous Inka bridge over the Apurimac are found well downstream from today's bridge at Huinchiri. The most famous of all the Inka bridges, that on the Inka highway between Cusco and Lima, crossed the Apurimac near the bottom of a stupendous gorge many hundreds of meters deep. The bridge was a key point for the Inka armies and for the invading Spanish Conquistadores as well. After the Conquest this bridge remained in service for about four and a half centuries, being renewed annually or biannually, until the it was replaced by a wire rope suspension bridge at a different location. The famous Inka bridge, disused and neglected, collapsed sometime in the 1890s. It was the collapse of this famous bridge that inspired Thornton Wilder's 1927 novela "The Bridge of San Luis Rey".
American archeologist/diplomat/explorer E. George Squier crossed this bridge in the 1860s, and left us a beautiful, if hair-raising, description of the approach and crossing in his wonderful book "Incidents of Travel and Exploration in the Land of the Incas" (1877), now a sought-after classic.
Today not only is the bridge long gone, but the Inka road and bridge abutments are difficult to locate. In the early 1950s, Victor Von Hagen found the bridge site unreachable from the Cusco side, landslides having destroyed major sections of the Inka road on that side. However the bridge site can still be approached from the southwest side (Lima side) of the Río Apurimac canyon by turning off highway 3S onto the gravel road that descends to the Cconoc hot springs spa. The old bridge site lies just three kilometers downstream from Cconoc, but is quite difficult to find without a local guide.
The remains of the old Inka road, once located, can be followed down to a series of short tunnels, perhaps better described as a single tunnel with windows and skylights. This tunnel is believed to have been driven by the Inkas, as there is no known trail around the tunnel site. However it has been enlarged in post-Inka times as demonstrated by blasted drill holes here and there in the tunnel walls. Likely it had to be enlarged in colonial times for the passage of horses and mules, which the Inka did not possess. Squier described his passage trhough the tunnel in the 1860s.
From the trail just below the lower end of the tunnel, a view can be had safely of the remains of the badly overgrown Inka road as it descends steeply down before turning the corner to the bridgehead. Unfortunately, a landslide has carried away the road just beyond the this point, and further descent is not for the faint-hearted. In fact, it is distinctly unsafe as the unstable scree tends to want to move and carry anyone attempting a traverse right on off the cliff into the river below. [Traverse photo courtesy of Judd Lundt.] However, if the slide area is crossed a better view can be had of the stonework supporting the Inka roadway clinging to the canyon walls.
Beyond the slide, the old road continues down into the pongo, i.e., the narrow inner gorge, to the point where the bridge hung for so many centuries. On the Cusco side the bridgehead surmounted a natural rock projection referred to as the estribo (stirrup) by the Spaniards. From the bridgehead on the Lima wall of the canyon, one can look straight across to the remains of the Cusco bridgehead. Apparently just a few loose grey stones lying on the estribo (upper center of this photo) are all that is left of the bridgehead platform.
From the historic bridgehead the view of the inner gorge is stirring; one can only imagine (or read Squier's thrilling account) what it must have been like to cross this greatest of all Inka suspension bridges.
FYI: The background color used in this website is the html color officially known as "Peru".
RECOMMENDED READINGS & RESOURCES: Finch, Ric, 2002, Keshwa Chaca, Straw Bridge of the Incas: South American Explorer, v. 69, p. 6-13. McIntyre, Loren, 1973, The Lost Empire of the Incas: National Geographic Magazine, v. 144, n. 6, p. 729-787. McIntyre, Loren, 1975, The Incredible Incas and Their Timeless Land: Washington D.C., National Geographic Society, 199 p. NOVA: Secrets of Lost Empires: Inca (1995 NOVA program, available on video; features the rebuilding of the keshwa chaca) Squier, E. George, 1877, PERU: Incidents of Travel and Exploration in the Land of the Incas: New York, Henry Holt and Co., 599 p. [A classic 19th-century travel work by an archeologist and diplomat; originals scarce, but a modern reprint has been issued.] Von Hagen, Victor, 1955, Highway of the Sun: New York, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 320 p. Wilder, Thornton, 1927, The Bridge of San Luis Rey: Grosset and Dunlap, Pubs., 327 p.