Can you imagine a hanging bridge made by the Incas with ropes made from vegetable fibers that is renewed every year by the rural communities? Well, that bridge exists. It is called Q'eswachaka and is located in the province of Canas in Cusco.
Declared as having Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2013, this bridge, which is used to cross the Apurímac River, is considered a sacred symbol of the link between communities and nature, its history and traditions.
Q'eswachaka, which is 92 feet long and 3.9 feet wide, is the only Inca bridge that has survived for more than 500 years, maintaining its almost original state. This is thanks to the ancient tradition of renewal that has been handed down from generation to generation.
This ceremony takes place in the second week of June every year. But the Quechua communities of Huinchiri, Chaupibanda, Choccayhua and Ccollana Quehue meet from the end of May to work and stretch the ropes, or q'eswas, which are made from q'oya ichu, a type of straw from the Andean highlands that is rather resistant and is collected at an altitude of more than 13,000 feet high. They subsequently assemble at the bridge and each family gives the Quechua master their contribution, which has been made by women and children.
This festivity lasts three days, starting with payment to the Apu Quinsallallawi in an ancestral ceremony. Then, under the supervision of two construction masters, these ropes are interwoven to form the six cables that serve as the bridge's framework. The men of the communities then tie them solidly to the old stone bases on either side of the gorge.
Although it is women who braid the q'oya ropes, they cannot carry out the bridge reconstruction activities as this is the sole task of men. This is due to the inhabitants' belief that women attract the q'encha, a Quechua voice that brings bad luck, which can lead to divine "mishaps" during certain rituals.
Continuing with the ritual, two weaving masters direct and then weave the rest of the bridge rigging, advancing from the two opposite ends of the bridge. The work ends with the placement of the handrails and the floor of the bridge, a long carpet, made from branches and leaves, which they place on the four main cables.
The end of this renewal is celebrated all day with a party, at which there is no lack of music or group dances that symbolize the reconstruction of the bridge and commercial exchange between the four communities.
What if they don't renew the bridge?
According to Carmen Arróspide, a Cusco civil engineer and cultural heritage manager who has been studying the ancient suspension bridge for 12 years, there are testimonies from residents who explain that in the years it was not renewed they suffered hailstorms and droughts; that is why they believe that if the Q'eswachaka is not renewed, the climate will be adverse for their crops.
"The renewal of the bridge also means for them the world's recognition of something they do. It's the desire to not be ignored, to be recognized, to be valued," she adds.
Did you know?
The Q'eswachaka is part of the Qhapaq Ñan road network, which is more than 37,250 miles long. Also known as the "Great Inca Trail", it was registered on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2014.
Since 2015, the Patronato de Cultura Machupicchu (Machu Picchu Culture Trust) has been offering lodging services in the homes of local residents. There are also agencies offering tours that include visits to the bridge.
Sources: National Geographic/ BBC/ Unesco