An Introduction to the Incas

Garcilaso de la Vega was known as "El Inca," thanks to his contributions to Inca history.
Writer Garcilaso de la Vega was known as “El Inca.”

That we know anything at all about the Inca Empire is utterly ironic.

Because they passed down their wisdom and traditions orally, myths about the Incas abound, and relatively little is known about the lives of this ancient people. But unlike the cultures who preceded them, whose histories were wiped out almost entirely by conquering forces, details of the Incan empire remain partially intact today thanks to the very people that destroyed their culture: the Spanish.

Even when the Spanish conquered places, they made significant efforts to chronicle the existing cultures. Some of the most famous chroniclers of this period include Bernabé Cobo, Garcilaso de la Vega and Luis Miguel Glave.

An Inca By Any Other Name

Quecha Society and Status

The Quechua word “Inca” is used to describe one person only—the ruling emperor himself—though we could broadly interpret it to include the ruling elite. It’s actually incorrect to use it to describe the Quechua people under the Inca rule, though we do so for simplicity’s sake.

Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor before the Spanish conquest.
Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor before the Spanish conquest.

The Inca, who was considered to be a direct descendant of the Sun, was the head of state and religion, the icon for the empire. It was a strongly hierarchical society: after the Inca came the nobles, who were referred to as the orejones because of their elongated earlobes—an indication of their rank. Below them were the commoners, referred to as the ayllus.

The ayllus were responsible for the construction of the perfectly built temples and fortresses of the time. They worked not as slaves, but rather in lieu of payment of their taxes.

At its zenith, the Incan empire spread from what is today the northern part of Chile all the way to Ecuador, spanning 5,500 km (3,400 miles) in length. It was ruled from the central pulpit of Cuzco, from where the roads were said to span out to all four corners of the empire.

We Go Slow. Inca Trail Passes Go Fast.

We don’t make exceptions to the whole “Slow Down to See the World” thing lightly, so believe us when we say: this one’s worth it. Inca Trail passes are limited, so book our Peru Walking trip early in order to commune with this ancient and fascinating culture in person.

The Road System

Inca_roads The road system that linked the empire together was quite impressive in itself. It is said that the empire encompassed over 30,000 km (20,000 mi.) of roads! This oft-traversed road system still exists and winds through the countries of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Argentina linking them together in antiquity. In 2014, the road system was named a UNESCO heritage site, raising awareness to the complexity of its design and how it functioned as the life force behind the Inca empire.

Today certain sections of the road system have been paved over for modern transportation while other parts are still well trodden by campesinos, donkeys, horses and pedestrians—only slightly different from the traders, soldiers and runners of days past.

The Inca god Viracocha.
The Inca god Viracocha.
Gods and Deities

The Inca worshipped a variety of gods who represented different elements of nature. The main deities were the Viracocha (the sun and creator), Pachamama (the earth mother), thunder, lightning, the rainbow and the Pleiades.

Even to this day, campesinos will drip a few drops of the beverage they are drinking onto the ground for Pachamama.

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  1. Hi Veronika, I just want to clarify that the Peruvian chronicler ” Inca Garcilaso de la Vega” ( not to be confused with the Spanish poet ) was known as ” Inca” because was the son of Princess Chimpu Ocllo , granddaughter of the Inca Tupac Yupanqui and the Spanish captain Sebastián Garcilaso De La Vega.

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