Grassroots Bridges

Transport, Superheroes, Back to Earth

Grass. How llamas are fed in the Andes.
Grass. How boats and roofs are made by the owners of those llamas in the Andes.
Grass. How bridges are built between hills by those artisans that made the boats and roofs and who own the llamas that graze in the Andes.

Yeah, grass. In Huinchiri, a small town in the province of Cuzco, Peru, residents use it to build the most amazing works of civil engineering in the world. No need for cold, generic interference by cement, aluminum, glass, steel, copper, or fiberglass, here. Once braided or woven in the right way, Andean grass, called Ooya by the earlier Incas, can withstand anything.

Local highlanders have always been experts at using natural fibers for resistant armor, for weapons, and even for a kind of tactile language similar to Morse code, which enunciates directives through knots tied at various distances. Above their town stretches nothing but sky. Below, a vacuum, pure giddiness and then a 3,900 meters drop into the Apurimac River, formerly crossed by a network of more than 200 grass suspension bridges. But today only one such bridge remains: Qeswachaka.

Qeswachaka bridge is built and destroyed by local artisans annually. Every second week of June, over 1,000 people meet on facing sides of the mountains, crowding together to create a new horizontal scaffolding: they weave grass fibers into four thick strings like those gigantic ropes for ocean liners, and then place mat shingles between them to form the catwalk. An incredible length of braided grass serves as the handrail, and then artisans leap over the ropes to lean into the empty air and knot small cords between handrail and rope to keep it all together.

Each edition of Qeswachaka can support the weight of more than 50 people at a time. But its splendor and function are cut short after the days of celebration, when its makers sever their bridge at both ends, and let the fibers and dry roots falling into the Apurimac. So grows, lives for an instant, and dies again an artifact, a memory of the Incan civilization that once tried to avoid eradication by cutting their bridges so that greedy foreigners, armed with unknown materials and elements, could not cross.


Image by Carlos Diaz