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Peru's Q’eswachaka Rope Bridge: Testament of a Millennial Practice and Sustainable Survival Strategy

An overhead view of the Q'eswachaka Bridge in Peru.
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A collaboration between Link TV and TAL, "Big Cities" showcases community-driven solutions for global urban challenges. Watch this and many other stories in our full episodes on "Big Cities,"  exclusively on Link TV.

The Q’eswachaka Bridge in the village of Quehue, Cuzco, Peru is the only surviving suspension bridge of pre-Hispanic design in the Andes. The bridge, made from vegetable fibers, was one of many that formed a network of roads in ancient Peru and which had its utmost importance in the times of the Inca [1340-1533] but whose origins were in even more remote times.

The Q’eswachaka Bridge crosses the Apurimac River over its most difficult stretch. There, the ancient road had various bridges which connected the Amazonian basin with Cuzco, Arequipa, and Apurimac.[1]

The district of Q’eswachaka stretches at an altitude ranging from 3,700 to 4,050 meters above sea level through diverse ecological areas, which people have exploited for hundreds of years. The region has an outstanding natural biodiversity where farmers have domesticated high altitude plants and animals.[2]

A group of women carry the native straw used to build the Q'eswachaka rope bridge in Peru.
A group of women carry the native straw used to build the Q'eswachaka rope bridge in Peru.  | Courtesy of Geraint Rowland

Quehue has a population of 3,593 grouped into four communities — Ccollana Quehue, Huinchiri, Chaupibanda and Choccayhua — which are the most characteristic organization of the region.[3] It is an area of extreme poverty where basic services of water, electricity and drainage are very limited. Quehue has very high levels of undernourishment and illiteracy. The most important economic activity is raising livestock, mostly sheep and goats. The water in lakes and peat bogs at the high altitudes are used to grow oats, potatoes and alfalfa.[4] Seeds are preserved by women who pass them from generation to generation.[5] The weekly fair in Quehue is the local site for trading and bartering.[6]

The Q’eswachaka Bridge, although still hanging in 1970, had been abandoned because a metal beam bridge had been built a few yards away on the new highway.[7] In 1973, the four communities of Quehue revived the yearly reconstruction of the bridge of Q’eswachaka.[8]

In 2002, the date of the yearly bridge reconstruction was changed from the date of the ritual battle of the chiaraje in January to the second week in June. The reason, according to the community, was to avoid the risk to the builders from the intense rains, electrical storms, and the high level of the river.[9] The new date also facilitates the arrival of visitors to participate in the event.

The Annual Renovation

The communities of Quehue participate equally in the reconstruction of the bridge, although the community of Huinchiri, which is closest to the bridge, predominates because it provides the two traditional engineers and the Andean priest.

For the construction of the new bridge each family braids cords measuring 40 brazadas, or about 70 meters, from the wild grasses called qoya or chillihua, which grow in humid, high altitude areas. This collective work is a community obligation known in the Andes as mink’a. After traveling great distances in search of these wild grasses, the community gets together to chacchar, or chew, the dry coca leaves before harvesting the grasses and taking them home. Then, for several days, the families prepare and braid the grasses into cords.

Big Cities: Q’eswachaka
Victoriano Arizapana Huayhuam one of two traditional engineers leading the renovation of the Q’eswachaka Bridge every year in Quehue, Peru.    |  ​TV Peru

In the second week of June, about 1,000 people meet at the foot of the bridge. During the following three days they dedicate themselves to the construction of a completely new bridge identical to the previous one. The result is a bridge measuring 28m long and 1.20m wide, with two great stone pillars to anchor it at each end. Before starting the building of the bridge, the paqo (ritual specialist) makes an offering to pachamama (Mother Earth) and to the local apus (sacred tutelary mountains) to ask for permission and for protection of the participants in the faena (labor). Victoriano Arizapana Huayhua and Eleuterio Callo Tapia are the traditional engineers who have been directing the work for two decades and who are bearers of this ancestral knowledge.

The first step of the job is made by a community member who crosses the bridge carrying a rope that will be used to pull supplies across the chasm. Then, the old bridge is cut and allowed to fall into the Apurimac River, some 15 meters below. Community members begin braiding the cords brought by the families to produce ropes of different thicknesses that will form the structures, floor, railings, and sides of the bridge. Finally, they weave a carpet of branches that serves as the floor of the bridge.

The project ends ceremoniously when the two traditional engineers who have been weaving the bridge from opposite ends meet in the middle. The new bridge of Q’eswachaka is ready for the inaugural crossing by the authorities and prominent people.[10

A baby plays alongside a woman braiding rope for the Q'eswachaka Bridge reconstruction. (small)
A baby plays alongside a woman braiding rope for the Q'eswachaka Bridge reconstruction. | Courtesy of Geraint Rowland

The Prophecy of Sustainability

Great climatic variability and uncertainty characterize the Central Andes.[11] In this context, glaciers in the high mountains play a fundamental role for the communities and their ecosystems because they serve as regulators of surface and subsoil water. Also, glaciers represent cultural and spiritual values to the local communities.[12] The glaciers in this area have suffered severe reductions in recent years and many could disappear entirely.[13]

Recent studies indicate that temperatures have increased in the tropical Andes, although this change has slowed in the last decades. Rainfall does not show a clear pattern but there was a slight reduction in the last decades along the mountain chain of Vilcanota, next to Quehue.[14] Some specialists, however, doubt accuracy of long term measurements of rain and temperature in this area due to methodological considerations.[15]

Perception of Climate Change

Climate change or, more precisely, a change in rain and temperature patterns, does not seem to preoccupy the community and it is not discussed in their assemblies. When the community refers to changes in the climate, they talk about alterations of their usual conditions, which they have observed in recent years, explaining them as responses to local situations. Huayhua, one of the chakaruwaq, or traditional engineers, said that climate disorders that coincided with the bridge abandonment included “a rain of fire, hail, lightning and thunder” and that “there was no food to eat, neither barley nor oats” because “we did not maintain the bridge”.[16]

An anthropologist explains that when the people of the Andes consider long-term climatic changes, they question our conventional ideas. They talk about a world inhabited simultaneously by all living things, humans and non-humans; a world which can only be understood by giving voice to both.[17]  Despite this, there are signs in Quehue that could be pointing to long-term climatic changes in the flora and fauna of the lower areas, which are beginning to appear at higher altitudes.[18]

The communities of the Q’eswachaka Bridge are expected to continue responding to climatic conditions as local events and not as global phenomena. The variation in water flow should be regulated with new dams and management of the new lagoons now forming in the high altitudes. They are likely to move their crops to higher levels.[19] Community members will continue migrating, temporarily or permanently, as they did since Pre-Incan times.  Many people from Quehue migrate to study or work and many return to participate in the annual reconstruction of the bridge. There are now new income opportunities presented by visitors and tourists who come to see the bridge, and who will pay for housing, handicrafts, food and other services.

As for the raw bridge materials, if the qoya (grass) is scarce, it can be replaced by paqpa, or maguey fibers, which have been used since antique times on down-river bridges.[20] The bridge plays a major role as an organizing center and connector of areas for the Quehue communities.[21] Despite the community’s long-term survival strategy, one cannot estimate the impact of climate challenges, nor what the limits to adaptation will be.

More On Climate Resilience

The importance of the bridge and of the Apu Q’eswachaka has been strengthened within the community: “If before they did not feel the bridge Q’eswachaka was theirs, now they will because it is a constant motivation and can give them further growth...”[22]

The communities have remained in their mountains with their Q’eswachaka Bridge, their families, herding their cattle, cultivating their land, and being the custodians of their seeds and water, most of which are highly valued in their millennial survival strategy. Having suffered great climatic, social, and political changes throughout the centuries, they have learned how to face these changes armed only with their ancestral knowledge and strategies for adapting to change. Changes are not new to them. They are always exploring ways to exist that in time become realities despite their scant opportunities and resources.

And at the center of all this, they look to their hanging bridge, the bridge of the Apu Q’eswachaka.

An overhead view of the Q'eswachaka Bridge in Peru.
An overhead view of the Q'eswachaka Bridge in Peru. | Courtesy of Geraint Rowland

[1] Pedro Roel Mendizábal, Miguel Ángel Hernández Macedo and Ingrid Huamaní Rodríguez. El Q'eswachaka de Canas. Ingeniería y tradición en las comunidades de Quehue. Lima: Ministerio de Cultura, 2015, p. 37.

[2] A. J. Chepstow-Lusty, K. D. Bennett, J. Fjeldså, A. Kendall, W. Galiano and A.Tupayachi Herrera, "Tracing 4,000 years of environmental history in the Cuzco area, Peru, from the pollen record", Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 18, No. 2 (May, 1998), pp. 159-172.

[3] INEI, población total proyectada al 2014; Roel Mendizábal et al. El Q'eswachaka de Canas, p. 64 and 72.

[4] Roel Mendizábal et al. El Q'eswachaka de Canas, p. 55, 57 y 59-60.

[5] Pers. comm., Ingrid Huamaní, 17 May and 7 June 2017.

[6] Roel Mendizábal et al. El Q'eswachaka de Canas, p. 58.

[7] Alberto Regal. Los puentes del Inca en el antiguo Perú. Lima: Imp. Gráfica Industrial, 1972, p.130; Daniel W. Gade, "Bridge Types in the Central Andes", Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 62, No. 1 (Mar., 1972), pp. 94-109.

[8] Roel Mendizábal et al. El Q'eswachaka de Canas, p. 154.

[9] Chakaruwaq Victoriano Arizapana, community of Huinchiri, 6 June 2012 in Roel Mendizábal et al. El Q'eswachaka de Canas, p. 154, 156.

[10] Roel Mendizábal et al. El Q'eswachaka de Canas,  p. 175-185.

[11] John Earls, "Organización social y tecnológica de la agricultura andina para la adaptación al cambio climático en cuencas hidrográficas", Tecnología y Sociedad, Año 16, No. 8, July 2009, 13-32.

[12] Fabian Drenkhan, Mark Carey, Christian Huggel, Jochen Seidel and María Teresa Oré, "The changing water cycle: climatic and socioeconomic drivers of water-related changes in the Andes of Peru," WIREs Water 2015, 2:715–733, 715, y 717-718.

[13] Drenkhan el al, "The changing water cycle," p. 718.

[14] Drenkhan et al, "The changing water cycle"; SENAMHI 2012. “Caracterización climática de las regiones Apurímac y Cusco”. Serie de investigación regional # 1. Programa de Adaptación al Cambio Climático PACC – Perú, pp. 109-110.

[15] Pers. comm., Abraham Levy, 18 May 2017.

[16] Chakaruwaq Victoriano Arizapana, community of Huinchiri, 6 June 2012, in Roel Mendizábal et al. El Q'eswachaka de Canas, p. 155.

[17] Karsten Paerregaard, “Bare Rocks and Fallen Angels: Environmental Change, Climate Perceptions and Ritual Practice in the Peruvian Andes”, Religions, 2013, 4, 290–305.

[18] Pers. comm. Roger Valencia, 18 May 2017.

[19] Hilda Araujo, «Estrategias de adaptación ante el cambio climático en las comunidades campesinas de la parte alta de la cuenca del río Suches». In: Tecnología y Sociedad, Año 16, n° 8, 65-81. Lima: Soluciones Prácticas, 2009, p. 69.

[20] Pers. comm., Roger Valencia, 18 May 2017.

[21] Pers. comm., Roger Valencia, 18 May 2017.

[22] Pers. comm., Ingrid Huamaní Rodríguez, 17 May and 18 June 2017.

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