The Qhapaq Ñan — or Andean Road System — was the backbone of the Incan Empire’s political and economic power, serving as a network for communication, trade and defense.
Constructed by pre-Hispanic Andean communities over several centuries and stretching more than 30,000 kilometers across mountains, tropical lowlands, rivers and deserts while winding its way through six countries (Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina and Colombia), the road system is embraced by the region’s indigenous peoples as part of their patrimony.
The Washington-based Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian now has mounted an exhibition about the network’s construction and enduring utility, and UNESCO has named the Qhapaq Ñan to its World Heritage List.
Unfortunately, in recent years some Qhapaq Ñan areas have been degraded. That’s why U.S. embassies in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador obtained grants through the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation to ensure that generations to come will be able to enjoy them. (Through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, the U.S. Department of State has supported 1,000 such projects in 133 countries since 2001.)
Here are projects that will support restoration of sites along the Qhapaq Ñan:
The Incan road network enabled a thriving trade across a vast region, and conservationists hope to preserve utilitarian and artistic items that were commonly traded along the route at the peak of the Incan Empire.
In 2014, an $82,400 project for the conservation and restoration of the exhibits at the Museo Arqueológico Samuel Humberto Espinoza Lozano in Huaytará, in the Andean region of Huancavelica, began to conserve hundreds of artifacts — including textiles, metal objects and mixed-media feather items.
The project also made the exhibition space more accessible to the public. It funded the mounting of artifacts and provided new equipment to properly store the collection.
Local professionals did conservation work and indigenous stakeholders wrote the exhibition’s supporting text. The museum’s workshops on textile techniques encouraged locals to use iconography from the museum to produce arts and crafts.
A 2018 project helped to conserve the Inca temple at the archaeological site of Huánuco Pampa. The site was one of the most important administrative centers of the Incan Empire, with 4,000 structures built between 1460 and 1539.
The $100,000 project desalinated temple walls, removed graffiti and rebuilt walls using the temple’s original stones. Specialists from Peru’s Ministry of Culture are carrying out the work, and local workers have been hired for some of the labor.
In September 2020, a $116,500 Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation project helped six community museums in the Desaguadero-Viacha region in La Paz — all linked by the Qhapaq Ñan — to catalog and conserve objects, increase educational and technical capacities and promote tourism.
The funding brings architects, archaeologists and museum-design experts to train local museum staffers in the care of cultural objects. The program thus promotes long-term tourism to the sites and equips local educators to teach community members about the value of their cultural heritage.
The archaeological complex of Ingapirca, the largest Inca site in Ecuador, has suffered severe environmental damage over the years. In 2020, the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation made a $198,000 grant to Ecuador’s National Institute of Cultural Heritage to help correct a malfunctioning drainage system at the site and conserve its ellipse, which was once an important religious site surrounded by burial places and agricultural terraces.
In 2019, the Ingapirca complex attracted 130,000 visitors from Ecuador and abroad. The site’s restoration is expected to increase tourism and boost the local economy.
When the U.S. ambassador, Ecuador’s minister of culture and the head of the National Institute of Cultural Heritage announced the project, it caught the eye of a 20-year-old indigenous “YouTuber,” who recorded a video about the Ingapirca project and shared it with more than 100,000 followers.
In 2021, grant applications to the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation have quadrupled, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Quito. “Ecuadorians have realized that the United States is serious about helping Ecuador with its unique cultural heritage,” she said.