Rope Bridge

Travel and Trade                                                                                                                                        Español

Travel and Trade

There was no form of wheeled transportation in the Inca empire, because the Incas had not invented the wheel. They did not have horses either, so most people had to go by foot. They traveled on the spectacular roads that stretched over 15,000 miles through the Inca lands. This amazing road system was one of the major reasons for the success of the Inca empire.


Inca roads were the veins and arteries of the empire. The Inca armies marched along them as they moved to repel invading tribes or to conquer new lands. The roads were important supply routes for llama trains carrying goods from one part of the empire to another. They were also a vital communication network along which traveled the messengers and officials who were the eyes, ears, and voice of the Sapa Inca.

Inca Road
The Inca's engineering of roadways and
agricultural terraces in mountainous terrain
was one key to the expansion of the empire.


Many Inca roads crossed high mountains. On steep slopes Inca engineers built stone steps that looked like giant flights of stairs. These steps were no obstacle to travelers on foot or to the sure-footed llamas and guanacos used as pack animals. The Incas also built special jungle roads, wide military roads, gold roads, and royal roads. The Andean royal road, which was over 3,500 miles long, was longer than the longest Roman road. Inca engineers developed special techniques to deal with particular problems. They built low walls alongside roads in desert areas to keep the sand from drifting over the road's surface. In swamps they raised roads on stone causeways.


When roads had to cross steep valleys or ravines, Inca engineers built bridges. They used reed boats as pontoons to bridge wide, slow-flowing rivers. These were common around Lakc Titicaca where reeds were plentiful. The Incas also built simple cantilever bridges to cross narrow streams. However, their most spectacular bridges were suspension bridges built across deep ravines.


The main Inca highway was known as Capac-nan, the "Royal Road." It ran from Cuzco to Quito and was over 1,400 miles long. Built from dovetailed blocks of stone, the road was arrow-straight for most of its length and a uniform 26 feet wide. As with many Inca roads, trees were planted alongside the Royal Road to give travelers shade. A ditch ran parallel to the road, carrying a stream of fresh water so travelers could quench their thirst and water their animals. Every 15 to 30 miles there were tambos (rest houses) where messengers and travelers could stay the night.


Many of the people traveling on the Inca roads were traders. However, trade was very limited. Only those goods not set aside for the Sapa Inca or the Sun God could he traded. There was little trade with people outside the empire.

Trade took place at local markets called catus. The Incas had no money so they used a barter system to exchange goods. People from the highlands swapped llama wool, chuñs, and charki (dried meat) for lowland products such as salt, shells, fish, corn, cotton, fruits, and beans. Jungle people brought feathers, iron-hard palm chonta wood, birds, dyes, rubber, tobacco, and herbal medicines. Everyone traded for manufactured goods such as cloth and pottery. Exchange was busiest in the harvest season.

Gold Llama
Llamas were the primary
transportation source for the
empire, which had a vast mountain
road system but no wheels.


The Sapa Inca kept in touch with all the corners of the empire through a network of messeengers. Messeages were memorized or recorded on quipus. Inca messengers were known as chasquis. They were chosen form the fittest and fastest young men. Four to six chasquis lived in cabins built along the main roads. Two of the chasquis were posted as look-outs--keeping watch in both direction.


Messengers were easily recognized by the large white-feathered headdresses they wore. As soon as a messenger was spotted in the distance, one of the chasquis would race to meet him. The chasquis ran beside the incoming messenger, listening while the message was repeated to him. If the messenger carried a quipa, the chasquis would take it from him.

Once he was sure he had the message perfectly memorized, the chasquis ran on towards the next relay station leaving the tired messenger behind to rest in the cabin. In this way messengers could travel over 250 miles in a single day.


If a message brought news of an emergency, such as an invasion or a rebellion, a warning signal could be sent by a chain of bonfires. As each group of chasquis saw smoke or flames rising from the next relay station, they lit a bonfire of their own. In this way news of the peril reached Cuzco more rapidly than the fastest runner. The Sapa Inca could order his army to set out at once, marching toward the bonfires before the actual cause of the alarm was known. The general marching with the army would eventually meet one of the messengers on the route and learn from him the exact nature of the emergency.