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LATACUNGA, Ecuador -- The Royal Inca Road has needed repairs for most of the last 450 years, ever since the Spanish conquest of the Incan empire. This 3,250-mile highway, once an engineering marvel that ran from Argentina to Colombia, has been reduced mainly to legend -- a discontinuous series of fragments that are hard to find or paved over by the Pan American Highway or forever lost.

But bits and pieces have survived, such as the well-traveled trail near Ecuador's main Incan ruin, Ingapirca.

For Eduardo Cassola, the 54-year-old administrator of the Roman Catholic diocese office in the Central Highlands, the road remains a treasure.

At twilight, he walks in the village called Tandalavi, population a few hundred. He is on a quiet, two-lane road 55 miles south of Quito, 10,000 feet above the sea. It is a setting worthy of grand opera.

Farms and trees line one side of the road, and agave plants with 8-foot-long prickly leaves border the other. The sky is a deep blue. A breeze whispers down from the Andes. Behind Cassola, the sun turns into alabaster the glaciers of the mammoth volcano Cotopaxi, 19,650 feet high, three times the destroyer of the city called Latacunga. The light fades, the curtain falls on the day.

"My father, Caesar, was the president of the Provincial Council of Cotopaxi years ago, and he was responsible for this and other roads," Cassola says. "When I was a little boy, he took me to a bridge he had built on this road to Mulalo and said,'This is important this was Camino Real the Royal Inca Road.'

"Two years ago this was paved over because it leads to the airport, and they thought the airport would be a big passenger hub. It didn't work out."

Edward Whymper, an eccentric 19th-century English mountain climber who felt no peak was worth his trouble unless he was first on top, called the land around this stretch of highway -- the 25 miles or so from Latacunga to Mulalo -- the heart of the northern Incan land.

Whymper was an artist, writer, argumentative loner and fearless climber, and did much to awaken the outside world to the Ecuadorean Andes.

Traveling roads that followed the Incan highway, he reached peaks and made eight first ascents on major Ecuadorean volcanoes including the highest, Chimborazo, at 20,561 feet.

In his 1891 book of adventures "Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator," Whymper wrote of this stretch of the Incan road: "I took the old road that goes through Mulalo on the left bank of the Cutuchi [River], and I visited the so-called House of the Inca. The little that remained of the original structure had been converted into a modern farmhouse."

The Incas finished the basic 1,250-mile Royal Road in the mountains in the late 1400s to tie their southern capital, Cuzco, now in Peru, to their northern capital, Quito. That section connected the main seats of power and ran through the homelands of many of the tribes more or less united in the Incan empire.

Later extensions took the road north into Colombia and south into Argentina, making a 3,250-mile route over deserts and snowy passes. It was more varied than Roman roads -- steps cut into near-vertical cliffs, stones laid out in swamps and scores of bridges over deep chasms.

The highway was built in duplicate, for there were two parallel roads, one in the highlands, the other along the Peruvian coast, connected by lateral routes. That way, the Incas kept track of their empire of 6 million people in almost 100 conquered tribes living over an area of 1.25 million square miles. They called the empire Tahuantinsuyu, "the Four Quarters of the World."

The Incas created and sustained their empire in one century, beginning in 1438 when Incan warriors left Cuzco and began their tribal conquests. The Incas had no written alphabet, no iron and were without the wheel. But they imposed their laws, their language called Quechua, a religion that included the sacrifice of young people on Andean summits, a message system of knotted strings called quipus and their roads.

The Incas also had gold, but it helped bring about their downfall. In 1526 the head of the royal family died. He left his empire not to one son but to two, thus dividing the empire into Peruvian and Ecuadorean halves.

The sons fought. The Ecuadorean son, Atahualpa, won. Then the Spanish soldiers of Francisco Pizarro entered the weakened empire seeking gold.

On Nov. 16, 1532, the Spanish ambushed some of Atahualpa's entourage, and a year later they executed Atahualpa. The Spanish would rule until the army of Simon Bolivar defeated them near Quito, on May 24, 1822.

The Royal Inca Road was one for human feet, not vehicles. Long-distance runners called chasqui were organized into a vast postal and messenger system, with runners carrying messages in the form of quipu strings. Historians suggest that the runners were sometimes executed or otherwise severely punished for arriving late, or for failing to finish relay legs.

Incan lords learned of uprisings and other news from the runners and also used them as long-distance waiters: If an Incan lord wanted sea bass or trout, runners would ascend 10,000 feet along lateral trails with the day's Pacific Ocean catch.

Highland portions were 5 to 18 feet wide, many 17,500 feet in elevation. The Pacific route was about 24 feet wide.

Two Englishmen -- Christopher Portway and David Tayler -- walked and rode south to north along the entire trail for four months in the early 1980s. The hardest part was finding it.

In his 1984 book "Journey Along the Spine of the Andes," Portway notes that the Incas were proficient at working silver, gold and precious stones, farming land with irrigation systems and guano fertilizers, and developing many other skills. "But it was their building and road-making in which they really excelled.

"Their highways are the greatest memorials to the Incas, the one supreme accomplishment for which the world will always remember them."

Alexander von Humboldt, the 19th-century German scientist and explorer, described in 1802 "the wonderful remains of the Inca Road" and its engineering marvels, as he followed the Central Highlands route that is now part of the Pan American Highway. The road literally and metaphorically reached heights of incredible beauty.

The beauty remains, even if the road is largely gone.

Juan Carena, manager of Cochasqui, a pre-Incan community being excavated as an archaeological site 29 miles north of Quito, is standing at an elevation of about 12,000 feet and looking south into a valley. Beyond it is a rampart of volcanoes rising to 15,000 feet. Cotopaxi is a distant point behind the clouds.

"Most of what's left of the Inca Road is tracks up in the mountains," Carena says. "People hand these things down through the generations."

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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