Every June, one of the last known traditional grass bridges built by the Inca is rebuilt by Incan descendants in the villages around Quehue, Peru. The event is called the Q’eswachaka Festival and, as we saw for ourselves, this Incan rope bridge festival celebrates Incan culture past and present.The word Q’eswachaka (pronounced kes-wah-CHA-ka) means braided rope bridge in the Quechua language (q’eswa means braided rope and chaka means bridge). The q’eswachaka in the village of Queue was built by the Inca in the 1500s. The bridge has been rebuilt ever since and a modern 4-day festival to rebuild the bridge has been going on annually since 1992.
A paved road was built into the area and a new modern bridge was put in over the Apurimac River in the 1980s. However, locals prefer the traditional bridge and they use it with pride. Many also believe that rebuilding the bridge is a way of ensuring good agricultural conditions so that farmers, who grow potatoes, beans, wheat, and other staples, have a good harvest.
There are other Incan rope bridges in Peru, but the q’eswachaka (sometimes spelled queshuachaca or keshwa chaca) in Quehue is considered the last of the Incan rope bridges that are rebuilt traditionally and are still in regular use.The bridge in Quehue is 100 feet (30 meters) long and spans the Apurimac where the river passes through a steep rocky canyon. It also spans the past and present and is a link between villagers living in four rural communities around Quehue.
Participation in the annual bridge rebuilding is expected and hundreds of local villagers participate–young and old, male and female. Everyone has a part to play from harvesting the grass used to make the ropes to twisting rope to constructing the actual bridge. We were told that each family is expected to contribute 230 feet (70 meters) of rope and fines can be levied against villagers who don’t do their part.Locals are also expected to wear traditional homemade clothing during the festival. For men, this means cream-colored wool pants and a cream-colored long sleeve wool shirt jacket, a bright woven wrap-around cummerbund-style belt, and a cowboy-style hat. Women and girls, their hair in long shiny braids, wear technicolor embroidered skirts and blouses and their own jaunty hats. Many villagers wear this traditional clothing all year, but it’s certainly the thing to do during the Incan rope bridge festival.
Day by day at the Q’eswachaka Incan rope bridge festival
Day 1: Out with the old
During the first day of the festival, people from four area communities assembled near the bridge in the morning to begin producing the large braided ropes needed to replace the floor and handrails of the bridge.
Victoriano Arizapana, the bridge master (a position passed down through the Arizapana family for generations), is the man in charge of the annual rebuilding which begins when he and able-bodied men from the villages cut down the old bridge which bobs in the green water of the Apurimac.Victoriano and his team then began overseeing the production of the ropes needed to create a new q’eswachaka.
The first step in the rope-making process involves beating Andean grass, called q’oya in the Quechua language, with stones to make the grass supple. This work is done by women and we were told that you must be 18 or older to do this work. Many young girls sat and watched as older girls and women went about their tasks.The women then twisted and braided the q’oya grass into ropes about the diameter of a pencil. These small braided ropes are combined and twisted again and again to create medium-sized ropes called q’eswaskas which are, in turn, braided and twisted together in groups of three to create a large rope about the diameter of a human thigh. These are called duros. The large duros were reinforced and elongated in an intense tug-of-war between groups of men. Then the men carried the long and heavy ropes down to the stone anchor points on both sides of the bridge where Victoriano and more workers were waiting to install them. By the end of the first day of the festival, workers were nearly done installing four enormous twisted and braided duros, each slung across the river before being tightened by hand to create the new bridge’s floor. Two more large diameter ropes called makis were yet to be put in place to serve as handrails.
Day 2: A great gathering
The second day of the festival started with offerings to mountain spirits (called apus) and to Mother Earth led by a local healer named Cayetano Canahuire.
Around 9 am, the names of local villagers were called as residents flowed over the hillsides from their homes to the bridge site. Latecomers rushed. The women’s clothing flashed with color against a bright blue sky above the Andes.When we arrived at the bridge site around 1 pm, we could see that three of the four duros used to construct the floor of the bridge were in place and workers were pulling the final rope into place. Men continued their tug of war to tighten and strengthen more large ropes, called makis, to be installed as handrails.
Many women continued their work beating grass and beginning the twisting and braiding process to create more small diameter twisted ropes to be used to construct the sides of the bridge connecting the handrail ropes to the floor ropes.As people worked, vendors passed by selling drinks, cuy (guinea pig), bread, and plastic cups filled with technicolor layers of Jell-O. We also saw people distributing coca leaves to workers from small, colorful, woven bags (like the ones seen above). Others passed by with a fermented corn drink called chicha. By the end of the second day of the festival, all six ropes for the floor and handrails of the bridge were up but not fully tightened. However, the bridge was coming together and we could also see that the bridge and this annual communal rebuilding bring local communities together literally and figuratively. The process of transforming a single small rope into massive durable building blocks is a kind of parable for the strength of these communities which lies in its individuals.
Day 3: Teamwork
The festival’s third day was devoted to tightening the floor and handrail ropes and completing the rest of the construction of the bridge. After morning offerings to the apus and Mother Earth, Victoriano and a swarm of workers focused on the task of finishing the bridge. This day also held one of the most dramatic moments of the festival.After a break in the afternoon, Victoriano walked across the partially rebuilt bridge, navigating carefully with just the floor ropes and handrail ropes in place (see this daring feat at the 4:00 mark in our video below). When Victoriano reached the middle of the wobbling and swaying span, he paused and shouted something in Quechua. It was a badass move that elicited shouts and whoops from those watching. Once Victoriano safely reached the other side of the bridge, he and a few specialized workers began putting in the small ropes that form the sides of the bridge. Workers started on each side of the bridge and worked their way carefully toward the middle, attaching the remaining ropes to complete the sides of the bridge as they went. The slow, careful progression of the workers was mesmerizing. After about 3.5 hours, the workers met in the middle of the bridge and the sides were in place. With all ropes in place, it was time for workers to unfurl a series of rolls of intertwined sticks and leaves as a kind of carpet to cover the floor of the bridge. As these finishing touches were put in place, villagers clapped and pulled out cell phones to snap pictures. Near one side of the bridge, ears of corn, coca leaves, drops of alcohol, and the bodies birds were placed in a nearby fire (we never got a clear explanation of this ritual). By 5 pm, the bridge was deemed to be complete and local leaders crossed the bridge which remained closed to the public until the next day. Workers and onlookers began celebrating with chicha, bottles of clear alcohol, and bottles of Cusqueña beer–always offering a few drops on the ground for Mother Earth.
Day 4: Open for business
During the previous days of the bridge rebuilding, women were not allowed near the bridge. However, around midday on the fourth and final day of the festival, the bridge was officially opened and everyone was allowed to cross, including us.We were among the first people to cross the new bridge which seemed to welcome everyone with a gentle sway. Slowly, the soundtrack of this festival–the pounding of the reeds, the murmurs of the workers–subsided, leaving just the sound of rushing water as the Apurimac River carried on.
Don’t miss our photo essay from the final day of this festival when dancers perform traditional dances in traditional clothing to celebrate the rebuilding of the bridge.
We loved this festival so much that we convinced our editor at American Way (the in-flight magazine for American Airlines) to commission a small piece about the event. Check out our story about the Q’eswachaka Incan rope bridge festival for American Way magazine.
See more of this festival in Peru in our travel video, below.
How to see the Q’eswachaka Incan Rope Bridge Festival
Tour companies offer very long day trips and multi-day trips to Quehue from Cuzco for travelers who want to see all or part of this Incan rope bridge festival.
Where to stay
A network of basic rural homestays (called casas habitantes) offers around 90 rooms in about a dozen homes in communities close to the bridge. In general, these homestays include a warm bed, electricity, outdoor shared bathrooms, and simple meals for purchase (or be prepared to be totally self-sufficient when it comes to food). Reserve early by visiting Turismo Rural. When we attended this festival, camping was also permitted on specific plots of land though it seemed like tour company groups had filled up most camping areas.
Getting to Quehue, Peru
Public transportation in this part of Peru is limited. Those with a vehicle or who’ve signed up for a tour company trip can expect a very scenic high-altitude drive of about 4.5 hours each way from Cuzco including three hours to the town of Combapata followed by another 30 minutes to the town of Yanaoca and then 40 minutes to Quehue. Remember that this festival takes place at 12,440 feet (3,792 meters), so pack layers, sun hats, comfortable shoes, and sunscreen and be ready for changeable weather.
Here’s more about travel in Peru
Here’s more about Festivals & Celebrations in the Americas
Here’s more about Cultural Travel in the Americas
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