Hanging across a whirling gorge at the Apurimac River is a centuries-old Incan rope suspension bridge, the world’s last rope suspension bridge. The indigenous Peruvians show no fear as they repair the bridge, an annual practice.
Every June, members of the Quechua indigenous group come together to braid thick ropes made from a type of Andean straw. They then brave the chasm without even harnesses to replace worn parts of the Q’eswachaka bridge.
According to Quechua beliefs, this is a ritual that connects communities to one another but also to their ancestors, “It is a matter of pride for us to (renovate) this bridge,” Braulio Huilca, a 34-year-old student says about his role in the annual rite.
The Incan rope bridge was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage 10 years ago. The bridge has become a key tourist attraction and source of income in the Peruvian region of Cusco. Interestingly this spot is also home to the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.
Making the bridge
The Incan rope bridge is made of fibres obtained from q’oya, a straw-like plant. The bridge was first built about 600 years ago. It is nearly 30 metres long and 1.2 metres wide and it hangs over a gorge around 28 meters deep. For several weeks every year, residents of four towns in the province of Canas gather and prepare straw for rope-making.
The women in the villages cut the q’oya and gather it in bundles. They are soaked in a well and then crushed with a stone. They then braid the ropes. Within hours, they have made thick ropes that men carry on their shoulders along winding paths and steep steps up to the bridge.
“If we don’t renew it, (god) punishes us. We could have an accident or something could happen to us,” said 54-year-old Emperatriz Arizapana Huayhua, a small-scale farmer in the region involved in rope production.
Crucial in the initial phases of the operation, women are not allowed to take part in the final steps. According to local beliefs, the mermaids of the river will be jealous if they participate.
Process of replacement
To guarantee that “no accident happens during the reconstruction,” a shaman sacrifices a lamb to the gods as part of the ritual. Then the men in chullos, colourful woollen caps with earmuffs tear down the old structure. The hanging bridge has several thick ropes that serve as a platform, with two more for holding on either side. The replacement of the old ropes of the Incan rope bridge takes three days. Some of the workers chew coca leaves for energy.
There is a narrow metal bridge next to the rope structure that communities also use for trade and transport. The work is declared to be completed when the two groups working from either side of the gorge meet in the middle.
Cries of “Haylly Q’eswachaka!” are heard in Quechua, signalling that the time has come for the celebratory festival.
This ritual happens every year.