top of page

Inca Roads, Runners, and Quipu

The Inca road system was the most extensive and advanced in pre-Columbian South America. The network included two north-south roads with numerous branches. The best known portion is the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Part of the network was built by cultures that preceded the Inca Empire, notably the Wari.

The Inca Trail system was an essential part of the success of the Inca Empire. Including an estimated 40,000 kilometers, the road was built for use in all kinds of climate, moving people and goods -- and armies when needed -- across the length and breadth of the empire.

Two main roads made up the Inca Trail system, one along the coastline of South America between Tumbes (Peru) and Talca (Chile), and one through the Andes highlands between Quito (Ecuador) and Mendoza (Argentina). Many other short routes led to different Inca provincial centers.

This monumental road could reach 65 feet in width, connected populated areas, administrative centers, agricultural and mining zones, as well as ceremonial centres and sacred spaces. These roads provided easy, reliable, and quick routes for the Empire's civilian and military communications, personnel movement, and logistical support. The prime users were imperial soldiers, porters, and llama
caravans, along with the nobility and individuals on official duty.

The Inca put together a Bronze Age internet, a system of messenger posts along major roads. They used runners -- people trained to run long distances in short times -- to carry communication throughout the empire. These runners could travel as far as 250 miles a day and 1,250 miles in 5 days.

Romans thought running 100 miles a day was good, so 250 miles is amazing!

Runners were dispatched along thousands of miles, taking advantage of the vast Inca system of purpose-built roads and rope bridges in the Andes of Peru and Ecuador. On the coast of what is now Peru, the route ran from Nazca to Tumbes. Chasqui routes also extended into further reaches of the empire into parts of what are now Colombia, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile.

Chasqui Runners

Chasqui runners delivered messages, letters, gifts, royal delicacies such as fish and other objects throughout the Inca Empire, principally in the service of the Sapa Inca. The Chasqui were trained at a young age through a series of races.

The Chasqui were the best of the best without whom the empire would have collapsed. If the Inca were under attack, the Chasqui would run to the capital to advise the emperor to send more troops. Roads were built just for the Chasqui, with places where they could rest, eat, and drink water.

Tambos, or relay stations, were constructed at key points along the road system, often consisting of a small shelter with food and water. Chasquis would start at one tambo and run to the next tambo where a rested chasqui was waiting to carry the message to the next tambo. Through the Chasqui system, a message could be delivered from Cusco to Quito in a week.


The tambos were roadside lodgings at a day's walk apart, approximately one every 20 kilometers of the roadway. These facilities were maintained by local communities, with storage facilities to keep food, fodder, firewood, and other useful commodities nearby. The tambos ranged in size from one or a collection of several separate structures, to whole villages.

The Chasqui carried a Qipi to store objects, a Quipu to store information, and a Pututu (a trumpet to signal the next runner to get ready when the object was passed in a relay system). Runners chewed cocoa leaves to to make them more resistant to the cold, hunger, tiredness, thirst, and effects of the high altitude. They ran over rocky roads -- and one mistake running up a mountain would plummet the runner.

Quipu (Khipu)

The Inca Empire, known to its inhabitants as Tawantinsuyu, stretched the length of South America and the breadth of the Andes. It encompassed elaborately planned cities linked by a complex network of roads and messengers. The Inca created astonishing works of architecture and artistry, as well as compelling mythology -- all without a graphic writing system.

Instead, the Incas' records consisted of devices made of knotted and dyed strings-- called quipu -- on which they recorded information pertaining to the organization and history of their empire. Despite more than a century of research on these remarkable devices, the quipu remain largely undeciphered.


Quipu is the only known pre-Columbian writing system in South America. Well, perhaps writing system isn't quite the correct phrase, but quipus were clearly an information transmittal system. A quipu is a group of wool and cotton strings  dyed in many different colors, joined together in many different manners with a wide variety and number of knots. The type of wool, colors, knots, and joins hold information that was once readable by several South American societies.


Quipus predate the Inca, and are known from the Chimú state. They may have been used by the Moche and Tiwanaku civilizations. The oldest known quipu dates to about 4,600 years ago.

One type of tambo, roadside lodging for the Chasqui runners maintained by the local communities.

bottom of page