Twelve thousand feet above sea level in the mountainous Canas province of southern Peru, Quechua women with long braids, ribbon-decked hats, and technicolor skirts cluster cross-legged on the ground, chatting as they twist dry grass between their palms and shape it into long, thin plaits called q'eswa. Every year for the past six centuries, each of their families has contributed 40 human wingspans, approximately 210 feet, of q’eswa to build the Q’eswachaka, the only surviving rope bridge of the 200 or more that once connected the Inca Empire. It is now the last day of the bridge’s annual rebuilding, however, and the rope needed to create the Q’eswachaka mostly either crosses over the Apurímac River in cables or lies coiled at the foot of one of the bridge’s stone foundations. Much of what these women are producing is destined to become idle strands, bracelets, and even mini bridges in the daypacks of the tourists whose numbers have been mounting since the declaration of the structure as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.
At approximately 100 feet, the Q’eswachaka stretches across the edges of two cliffs overlooking the Apurímac River. It is rebuilt yearly by four Quechua communities—the Choccayhua, Chaupibanda, Ccollana Quehue, and Huinchiri—who come together every second week of June to spend three days building the bridge and a fourth celebrating its completion. Before the work can begin, the paqo, or “Andean priest,” asks for protection and permission. Throughout the days following, he keeps a fire burning at one of the bridge’s extremes, the smoke of which, it is believed, carries offerings to the mountains.
To the people who have been gathering to take down, rebuild, and honor this structure for the past 600 years, the bridge is an apu, a god, and the Apurímac River flowing beneath it houses a siren, who controls the fates of those who cross it. To erect the new Q’eswachaka, one of the builders ties a cable around his waist and edges his way across last year’s structure. Once this connection is secure and ready to transport supplies and other cables, the old bridge is cut loose and released as an offering to the siren.
This rope bridge is the last vestige of many such links in the 20,000-mile network of pathways that connected the Inca across Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. In the words of MIT professor John Ochsendorf, a structural engineer and historian of construction, who coordinated the building of a Q’eswachaka across the National Mall for the 2015 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, “you have native hands, speaking native voices, using native materials on the site, and native techniques, and so this is, I believe, unique in the Americas in terms of cultural continuity.”
Despite its recent acclaim, the bridge may not survive the next generation. In large part, that’s because the language in which it is constructed and venerated is quickly disappearing.
“There used to be coins of silver and gold,” says Mario Marquere Alata, a conservator with Peru's Ministry of Culture, speaking of the costly gifts that the community used to pay in tribute to the Q’eswachaka. “But now there’s nothing like that.” Now that the new generation is losing touch with older traditions, he says, they give little chocolates or trinkets instead of coins. This devaluing of the tradition, as he calls it, goes hand in hand with the loss of the language in which the bridge’s construction and rites are conducted. Only 40 percent of the younger generation speak the language of their Inca ancestors. Since the ancestral language is integral to the rites associated with the Q’eswachaka, the decline of speakers will make it difficult for the tradition to continue. This loss poses a serious threat to a culture where spirituality is so intrinsic that there is no language to describe it.
"Quechuas don’t have a concept of ‘sacred’ and don’t have a concept of ‘spirituality,’” says Bruce Mannheim, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and author of The Language of the Inka since the European Invasion. “It’s a different way of thinking about the world. There is no division between the sacred and the profane, so you could say they’re always living in a sacred world or you can say they’re always living in a profane world. Neither statement makes sense in Quechua. Neither statement really does justice to what they are doing.”