How To Build a Bridge Like the Incas

Written on by Mindy Haas

My husband and I love learning about culture and history, so we enjoy ambling our way around museums and stumbling on interesting new facts.  On a recent trip to Washington D.C., we stopped in the National Museum of the American Indian.  After a few hours of wandering around a maze of exhibits learning about various Native American cultures, our aching feet and weary eyes begged us for a rest.  Yet, we found ourselves getting sucked into exhibit after exhibit.

One such display was about the Q’eswachaka Bridge, located in Peru, which stopped us in our tracks.    Made entirely of grass (yes, grass!)  this 90 foot suspension bridge has hung across a 60-foot high chasm for 500 years!  These suspension bridges were common during the Inca Empire, but it would be another 300 years before Europe saw any.  It’s no wonder the invading Spaniards were terrified of crossing them!  Their fear was unfounded because the bridge is strong enough to carry the weight of up to 56 people, several horses at a time, and even canons.

Naturally, a grass bridge does not last very long, so each year four nearby tribes take part in its reconstruction.  The method they use to rebuild is tried and true, handed down from generation to generation.  First they collect the blades of grass, about 2 feet in length, and pound them out to prepare them for weaving. Next, the blades of grass are twisted together to form a single cord, and then 30 cords are woven together to form a rope. Last, three ropes are braided together to form a cable the size of a man’s upper arm.

The bridge requires six cables total, 4 for the base and two for the handrails.  Once all the new cables are finished, the tribes use the old bridge to run the new cables across, and then they cut it down to be washed away in the river below.   The cables are then stretched as they are anchored to the stone abutments on either side of the canyon.

From there, two men start on either side of the bridge, weaving cords in and out of the cables to create the floor and sides. Once they meet in the middle, the bridge is officially rebuilt. The entire process takes three days, so the villagers commence with a celebration filled with traditional songs and dance.  (You can watch the whole process in this short video).

The bridge filled me with awe as I learned about the painstaking efforts to make it. I thought of our culture today, where the chasm between sides seems higher and deeper than ever.  A bridge is exactly what we need, and I believe it is possible if we’re all willing to jump in and build it.  It won’t require much of us either, just a few blades of grass:  love, forbearance, respect, and tolerance.

What if we performed a random act of kindness on someone whose opinions we are completely opposed to?

What if we bit our tongue at a negative comment geared towards our political views instead of lashing out?

What if we listened to what each had to say, without judgment and without jumping to conclusions? What if we engaged in meaningful conversations that sought to understand the other side?

What if we were able to say, “I disagree with you and that’s okay”?

Can we withstand the tests of time?
The strength of the bridge depends on the stone abutments on both sides as well as the thickness of the cables.  The stones represent our determination to build the bridge.  The cables represent our ongoing efforts to twist the tiny blades into larger ropes, and then even larger cables.

When the tension on the bridge becomes greater than ever, do we want to have something that will collapse and wash away?  Or do we want to build something lasting that withstands the pressures that face us today?

Ultimately, it’s up to us.

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 Photo 1: Samples of blades of grass, a cord of twisted grass, and a cable of three braided ropes. 

Photo 2:  Entryway onto the bridge. Would you cross it? 


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