[HimalAndes Focused Conversation] Case 6 by G.Castro: "The role of water sources in the Inca Road System and its successfull management, in Cajamarca, Peru"

The role of water sources in the Inca Road System (Qhapaq Ñan) and its successful management, in the region of Cajamarca, Peru, since pre-Hispanic times


By Guillermo Castro Escudero



     The ancient pre-Hispanic Andean road system, known as Qhapaq Ñan, was the backbone and the main instrument of the Inca expansion and domination in South America (covering in what today are six neighboring countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru). All along the way over its stone paved pathways and trails traveled the Inca ruler and his subjects connecting the different ecosystems of the Tawantinsuyo (the four regions of the Inca Empire). It represented the symbolic presence of the power and authority of the Inca State, where there were different hierarchies of officials who were responsible for the maintenance and control of the road and trails along thousands of kilometers. It resembles how it was in ancient times the network of routes of the Great Himalaya Trail on the Asian continent, uniting and integrating peoples from different regions of the South American Andes.

   With regards to the above mentioned central Asian network of ancient paths and trails of the Great Himalaya Trail, over 4500 kilometers the road linked the region of Nanga Parbat in Pakistan with Namche Barwa in Tibet (passing through Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, in China): This spectacular route also connected and integrated remote communities of the Himalayan and Karakorum ranges crossing through areas of great scenic beauty, where you can appreciate the highest mountains on the planet, beautiful green and lush valleys, as well as barren high altitude plateaus.

    In the specific case of the Incan Qhapaq Ñan, this road system was closely linked to places where there were natural springs of fresh and crystal-clear water for the consumption of travellers (called "puquios"); large reservoirs to supply cities, as well as thermal and medicinal baths, which were always near or in the vicinity of many of the "Tambos" (Tampu in Quechua), places for rest for travelers built and installed along the route in ancient times.

   One of the most representative places of the Qhapaq Ñan facilities in Peru is San Antonio de Cajamarca (2,720 m.a.s.l.), an ancient pre-Hispanic city which is a Cultural Heritage of the Americas. It was known as "The Thermal Village of the Incas". In the year 1532, emperor Inca Atahualpa was captured here by Francisco Pizarro and his Spanish soldiers, in this same city, during the barbaric conquest of Peru. The historical center of Cajamarca still preserves diverse buildings, such as churches of Baroque style, monasteries, convents, squares and streets of the Spanish colonial era (1532 - 1821), as well as the famous "Room of the Ransom” (Cuarto del Rescate), a large chamber which was filled once with gold and twice with silver by the Inca Atahualpa trying to secure his release (which failed to get, assassinated by the conquerors). It is the unique Inca building that still stands in the city, presently on the list to be declared World Heritage Site by Unesco.

   Nearby from a bucolic Andean valley and the city of Cajamarca, standing in a beautiful rural countryside is located Cumbemayo (Kumbe Mayu in Quechua), an enigmatic "Stone Forest", of volcanic origin, also known as "Los Fraylones" (or the monks of rock), by its whimsical stone shapes, one of the most significant places that tourism offers in Cajamarca. The word Cumbemayo derives from the Quechua words "kumpi" "mayu", which possibly means "well-built water channel", or "humpi" "mayu, "Narrow River".

   Cumbemayo archaeological complex consists in a sophisticated system of channels serving as for water supply for Cajamarca, efficiently controlling the speed and precision of the water flow. This aqueduct, carved in rock more than 3000 years ago, functions simultaneously as an irrigation canal, a most notable work of hydraulic engineering still intact and in use today.

   For some researchers and historians, the city of Cajamarca had always an abundant water supply, and therefore the channels were neither necessary nor indispensable. They argue that the water channeling system may have had a religious or ceremonial function. Cumbemayo would not had been an irrigation aqueduct, but perhaps a center for ceremonial worship dedicated to the water, such as Tipon, in Cusco and Saywite, in Apurímac, both in Southern Peru.

   The channels and aqueducts of Cumbemayo date from the pre-Inca period (1000 B.C.) and they might have been in use for many centuries. This channel system was likely associated to a shrine carved in the rock. Also, the archaeological remains found inside the caves of Cerro Cumbe show the presence of a very old and significant lithic culture, quite different from the others in the region. In the interior of the caves, petroglyphs on the walls reveal the influenced of the Chavin Culture (800 - 200 B.C.), considered as the "Mother Culture in Peru".

  Ancient Peruvians knew very well the importance of health resorts or thermal healing properties, in order to maintain or improve health and the body´s energy balance. The qualities and virtues of thermal waters were well known since immemorial times in the Andes.

  Thermalism comes from the latin "Terma", the way Roman baths were called. Hot springs have become today, great “health resorts” that offer wellbeing and leisure locals and visitors. It is in some Asian countries, especially in Japan, where the industry of hot spring resorts is more advanced and sophisticated.

   According to its composition, Andean hot springs are classified: sulphurous waters rich in sulfur; rich in chloride or sodium or salt; alkaline, rich in oxygen; bicarbonated, bicarbonate-rich and ferruginous. The shrewd inhabitants of the Andean countries know the health benefits and healing properties of each of these different kinds of hot springs and continue using them to maintain or regain health up to our days.

   One of the major concerns about the future of the thermal waters nowadays is whether thermal water flow is kept stable in the context of environmental, anthropic and natural changes and, in particular, faced with the threat of the feared climate change. Information obtained from internet and published by the Instituto Geológico Minero y Metalúrgico - INGEMMET about thermal sources in Peru, is documented with the following contributions: "springs in the Peru map shows the existence of 537 sources, most of them located in the Andean region, due to the greater volcanic activity". Is also reported: "The pluvial precipitation regime to pluvio-nival, contributes decisively to generate effective mechanisms of recharge from meteoric water necessary to keep active the almost the majority of thermal sources". Even so, becomes increasingly necessary to study the implications of climatic change in the thermal resources that may be affected qualitatively and quantitatively in terms of the hidromineral availability, as well as alterations in the recharge of the aquifers that could eventually jeopardize the existing demand from visitors.

   As regards to the Qhapaq Ñan, many are the examples of "tambos" or places for rest on the route with hot springs facilities. These served travelers as lodges in which could rest after a long walk and enjoy the hot and medicinal waters to revitalize and rebalance their bodies, as well as to recover energy.

   Indeed, in pre-Hispanic times all the Andean roads were lined up and organized as a network of sites (tambos) for rest and relaxation, built for the accommodation of the Inca while travelling, as well as of armies in campaign; administrators of the Empire; travelers in general; pilgrims on their way to sacred places, and Inca messengers called "Chasquis" which roamed throughout the territory of the Tawantinsuyo. The "tambos" also had warehouses to store food, seeds, wood, firewood, fodder for the South American camelids, the llama and alpaca, and other products absolutely necessary to make the State administrative management work efficiently. Some of these places are intimately linked to the thermal and medicinal baths.

   The "tambos" had their Cancha” (Courtyard or Esplanade) surrounded by stone enclosures serving as rooms, deposits, livestocks pens, etc., as well as for other various functional environments such as lodgings, Some of these tambos can still be seen today such as Tarmatambo, Limatambo, Paucartambo, Paccaritampu and other similar places along the Inca road system.

   The great German explorer and scientist Alexander Von Humboldt, who visited Peru in the year 1802, wrote: "The austere impression that gives the complexity of the cordillera, is unexpectedly increased by the fact that notable remains of the Inca road there have been preserved, of this gigantic work which at a distance length of 2500 geographical miles all the provinces were linked. At intervals, usually in equal distances, we find homes built of blocks, a sort of caravan, called tambos and also Ingapilca (pirca, wall). Some by way of bastions, others transformed into a health resort by conduction of thermal water; the largest are intended for the family of the monarch".

   One of the most emblematic places for resting and leisure in pre-Hispanic times was Baños del Inca, just six kilometers away from Cajamarca, the first tourism health resort in Peru that recently has been declared as a "Monument to Water". The ancient name of this "Inca Spa" was Pultumarka.

   Inca Pachacutec, the Inca Tupac Yupanqui and his sons Huascar and Atahualpa relaxed in this hot springs complex. Recent excavations have revealed structures of more than 2,500 years making evident that geo-thermal waters are very ancient in this place. The healing properties of this thermal water are considered as the most important in the South American continent. Thermo-medicinal waters emerge to the surface in the so-called "Perolitos" or natural springs of warm waters. The temperature of the water can reach up to 79 ° C in some areas.

   At Baños del Inca the thermo-medicinal waters surge from a geological fault. Thanks to their chemical composition they are beneficial for therapies and the healing of several diseases, so they are frequently used by local residents. The quality of life and the index of human development achieved in this town are far superior as compared to other cities in the region. Today, the modern tourist complex of Baños del Inca provides suitable services for foreign and national tourists and has a great potential for tourism, which can generate significant income to the inhabitants of this part of the Andes of Northern Peru, which is cross-cut by the Qhapaq Ñan.


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