After many hours of a treacherous dirt road, impressive landscapes and steep cliffs we were finally close.
We left Cusco before dawn and it was afternoon by the time we got there. It was obvious that visitors were rare here in “Quehue”, which is the name of the town, located in the south eastern part of “Cusco” 140 km from Cusco city, in the Province of Canas.
Standing at the main plaza in the middle of the little town, we were approached by a friendly local, who turned out to be the mayor of the town. He was happy to see some visitors for a change, who have come to witness the celebration of their culture, traditions, ancient knowledge and also their way of thanking the gods of the mountains.
My two buddies and I went to rest early as we had another early start the following day.
We did not get much sleep the night before as we had been so excited finally to get some days off and get out of town for a few days to enjoy the fantastic outdoor life around Cusco.
We woke up with the sun, packed our things and thanked the major for his hospitality before we continued. There were still a few kilometres to go before we arrived to the “Qeshwachaka” bridge, the name comes from two Quechan words “Qeshwa” which means webbed from natural fibres and “chaka” which means bridge. For the next 4 days we were going to witness the enigmatic construction of this incredible bridge.
More than 1000 natives form 4 isolated local farming communities started to arrive, from all directions, each had the task to select and bring an amount of “Ichu”, a native golden grass that grows and prospers in the Andean altitudes. The resistant grass is hand woven into thick ropes that serves as the main structure of the bridge, following 5-century old techniques, originally developed by their ancestors, the Incas, a living example of the ancient technologies and knowledge.
We were still amused by the whole scene, when the sound of the “Pututus”, a shell that when blown produce a low and loud tone, announced the beginning of the festivity.
Before cutting the old bridge, a ceremonial offering takes place to honour the Apus, (mountain gods ), Pachamama ( mother earth ) and the mighty “Apurimac” river . This ritual is an important part of their life style and proofs the reciprocal relation and respect they have for mother earth and its elements, which for them is a live being; they perform favours in its name and ask for permission before any main event. The ceremony was conducted by the main shaman, he asks for a good year, a pleasant festivity, with no incidents and most important no accidents.
With the blessing of mother earth, the work continues, a very emotive moment occurs, when they are about to cut the old bridge. The chants and cries they sing in honour of the old bridge are full of emotion and feelings. For them is not a simple bridge, it’s a representation of their culture. It contains their beliefs and marks the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new one.
The new bridge fills them with optimism and joy as skilful hands start to weave the grass into ropes as thick as a leg and 40 armful longs all carefully laid and measured. This concludes the activities for the first day.
This first day was overwhelming; we didn’t expect so many impressions in just one day, the whole scene, the warm and true feelings of the people. It seemed we had taken a trip to the past, for moments there was nothing that reminded us that we were in the 21st century. Late in the evening we returned to “Qehue”. For us it was a profound and true experience, not much was spoken words were not necessary, we knew we were lucky to be a part of this.
The second day came and with the first sun rays we were already on our way. It seemed as if every step was a step back in time. We were moving closer to the point were history and time seemed to detaine and we felt in harmonie with our surroundings.
They were now finishing the thick ropes, before passing them to the other side where the awaiting community received them with joy. The ropes will be anchored to ancient stone pillars at each side, which are 500 year old constructions and have served as the foundations supporting the intire bridge and many other briges before that.
We noticed something unusual, the women didn’t followed the men all the way down to the working area. According to old believes it will upset the gods and probably be a bad sign meening bad luck for the festivity and community. From a high point they will patiently await their turn to come down, in the mean while they continue to weave, chant and contribute to the festivity. In this festivity everybody participate, they work with joy, one can tell just by looking.
Several ceremonies and offerings are conducted by the shaman during the whole festivity. He is the spiritual guide of the ceremony and for the people involved in the festivity the shaman is the one that can interpret the will of the cosmic divinities.
By the end of the second day the structure of the new bridge is ready. It consist of 6 main ropes. 4 lower ropes serve as the platform or base, called the “Tumis”, and two upper ropes serve as a handrail called “Makis”. I finally realized that the first Spanish chronics about the Incas were true. They were amazed by the network of trails that with mor tha 26000km of roads connected this vast Empire. They specially point out the hanging bridges as incredible pieces of engineering, which were said to be strong enough to support a fully armoured horse with its rider on, not hard to believe after seeing this.
The final day, is the day where the work and construction relays on two very important persons, one from each side. They are the responsible of weaving and tying the whole structure together. In our side “Victoriano Arizapana”was in charge. He learned the skills from his father as the tradition dictates skills should be passed from generation to generation. Victorianos older son will assist him, one day this will be his responsibility too so he will keep a close eye on his father moves. This is the most dangerous part where they will be hanging 40m above the river for many hours, until finally the two weavers from each side get closer. They will meet in the middle of the bridge, tie the last ropes and then with emotive words and hugs they will announce that the new bridge is finally finished.
Before the festivity explodes in music and celebration, the bridge will receive the blessing of the shaman. They will conclude the festivity with a show of typical dances and music and there are many reasons to be happy and celebrate. It has been a fine year, a great festivity, ancient traditions were transmitted, their culture is alive, their prayers were accepted and their gods are satisfied.
For us this was the end of our trip. We experienced much more than we ever expected, were received like family, made many new friends and had far too many impressions to assimilate. It seemed like ages since we left Cusco, this trip sure changed something inside each of us. It showed us the true values of life and human relations and how man by working together with faith and good will can achieve unbelievable things.