Long ago, when men and women worshipped the sun for its warmth and life, there lived a mighty Inca Emperor. His name was Viracocha. Viracocha’s empire was large and rich.
His lands reached from the sandy beaches of the coast to the steep, tree-covered mountains deep inland. Viracocha lived in the south, in a city called Cuzco. From here, long, wide roads with floors of stone stretched far across the land. The emperor sent special relay runners along these roads, carrying his messages in quipus made of brightly colored, knotted cords. These messengers ran with the quipus tied to their belts so that their arms and legs were free. Each messenger raced from one town to the next, where he passed the quipu to another runner. In this way - after they had passed the quipu many times from runner to runner - they relayed messages across Viracocha’s empire.
Now the fastest runner in Cuzco was a young man named Hualachi. He was the Emperor’s favorite. But Hualachi had one weakness: he was too kind. Once, when Hualachi saw a small bird that had fallen to the ground from a tree, he stopped to pick up the bird. He gently cradled it in his arms, then lifted its tired wings to see if they were broken. Swiftly, he climbed the tree until he had found the bird’s nest. Then he waited until he heard the bird sing to him, saying that it was well again.
On another occasion, while Hualachi was resting by a stream to scoop up the clear water for a drink, he heard a wild cry - a small creature had become caught in an Indian hunter’s trap. Hualachi knew that the people of the forest needed food, but the animal’s pain made him too unhappy to run on. So he stopped to set the creature free.
One day, Emperor Viracocha summoned Hualachi to his palace in Cuzco. Viracocha had heard that enemies were trying to invade his empire, far away on the northern frontier. He needed to send an urgent message to his army there, and he wanted Hualachi to take it. “Run for me, Hualachi. Run faster and further than you have ever run before!”
“I shall run for you, great Emperor.”
“! want there to be no distractions! Whatever happens, you must not stop.”
“I understand, great Viracocha. I shall run like the wind.”
Hualachi set out with his quipu safely tied to his belt. It was early morning, and the dawn brought with it the first murmurings of sound from the steep slopes of the mountains. Wild birds called to each other across the ravines. A chill wind blew through the branches of the trees, dispersing the rising mists from the damp forest floor. The sky, like a huge blue bowl above the earth, grew pale as the unseen sun spread out its light. Hualachi knew the sun’s warmth would soon help him on his way, but for the moment, all he could see in the darkness was the grey stone of the road. He looked up at the tall peaks that met the widening sky. He knew that many, many miles lay between him and his quipu’s destination on the northern frontier.
He ran until a strange cry stopped him in his tracks. Hualachi shook his head. What was it? It wasn’t a bird, and yet - what else could be in the deep ravine, so early in the day? Then he heard the cry again. It was a human being! Hualachi searched about him urgently. The sun’s first rays were penetrating one side of the valley as he leapt across the rocks, stopping now and then to follow the moaning noise that filled his heart with pain and concern.
After much searching, Hualachi found a frail old woman lying on the rocks. She told him she had fallen from her home high on the mountain slope, and her leg hurt so much that she couldn’t move it. Hualachi guessed that her leg was broken. He instructed her to lean forward so that she lay over his right shoulder. With one arm, he held her weight, and with the other, he balanced himself as he stood up. In this way, he carried the old lady back to her home.
Hualachi stayed with the old lady until her leg was better. Gladly, he hunted the wooded mountain slopes and fished in the deep reaches of the stream, to find her food. He cooked, and he tidied, and he cared for her. Every evening, as the old lady grew stronger, he told her of Emperor Viracocha and his splendid court and his job as a runner, until one night...
“The quipu!” Hualachi gasped. “I have forgotten the quipu!”
Fortunately, it was still safe. But the old lady was ashamed to have caused his delay and afraid that he might be punished.
“You must go!” she said. “Leave me. My leg is better now.” So once again, Hualachi set out. This time, he did not stop.
On and on he ran. But before he reached the next town, he saw another runner coming towards him. “Are you Hualachi?” the runner asked, panting.
“I am. Why do you ask?”
“Because news reached the frontier that you might be late. Emperor Viracocha sent another messenger behind you...”
“And - and have we lost?”
“No, no! We are victorious. I carry the good news to our Emperor.”
“Let me take it to him!” Hualachi raced back to Cuzco, carrying the message from the frontier army. But although he was pleased to be its bearer, he hung his head in shame before Emperor Viracocha. Once again, he had failed to fulfil his task. “Forgive me,” he said.
“In my heart, I forgive you,” said Viracocha, almost in a whisper. Then he raised his voice. “But I cannot have messengers who spend weeks beside the road. I declare Hualachi banished from the city of Cuzco!”
So poor Hualachi left, no longer caring where his feet took him. He watched no roads; he ran no miles. Many months went by. Hualachi hardly knew where he was. Then one day, suddenly, he saw an extraordinary blaze of light. The sun’s rays shone before him like a brilliant curtain. In front of him stood a building, radiant in the sunlight. Dazzling brightness bounced into his eyes, revealing a magnificent temple. Its huge, high walls and big, square entrance seemed to draw him forward.
Slowly, Hualachi went inside. At once, he recognized he was in the temple of Pachacamac, the Creator God. He fell to the ground, crying aloud:
“How wretched I am! My life holds no worth. I have failed in my duties, betraying my Emperor and the trust of my creator!”
As he wept, he heard a clear voice answering his call. “Take heart, Hualachi! Your Emperor is as sad as you are. His heart, like yours, is warm and able to forgive. Go back to Cuzco. He will take you as his messenger once more. For although you failed as a runner, you succeeded in other ways. I have seen you do many good deeds and for this we shall reward you.”
“But how can I be sure I shall not fail again?”
“Look on the ground beside you,” said the voice.
Hualachi looked down and saw a pair of sandals.
“With these on your feet,” the voice went on, “you need only wish to be in a certain place, and you will be there, as quick as lightning. So, when you go on your journeys, you need never fear being distracted.”
Hualachi tied the sandals to his feet. He bowed his head to thank Pachacamac, then he made his first wish: “Take me to Emperor Viracocha, magic sandals!”
At once, Hualachi was back in the great Inca court, standing before his Emperor. “Viracocha,” he said, “I ask to be reinstated as your messenger. Never again will I allow my attention to wander from my mission. Never again will I disappoint you.”
It delighted Viracocha to see his favorite again, but he knew they should see him to act with reason before all his court.
“Very well,” he said at last. “We shall see if you can live up to your word. Tomorrow there will be a competition for my six fastest runners. You shall be among them.”
The next day, the runners assembled in a square where all the citizens of Cuzco could see them. High in the sky, the sun shone brightly as Viracocha held up his arms. The crowd fell silent, watching the sparkling gold of his clothes as he spoke:
“Each one of you bears a quipu, and each quipu contains a different message. Each must be delivered to my governor in Pausa (a town in Central Peru in the region Ayacucho), who will reply to the messages with answers that I already know. The first of you to return with his answer will have proved his ability. This is your test.”
The sun flooded the road with light. Each runner saw his way ahead, knowing well the great distance he must travel alone. Yet no one was afraid. The sun gave them hope and the voice of their emperor inspired them. The runners set out. Hualachi ran close behind the others for some time.
Then he stopped. He shaded the sun from his eyes and took a deep breath: “Take me to Pausa, magic sandals!” he said. Within minutes, Hualachi was on his return journey. The quipu on his waist now contained the governor’s reply to Viracocha’s question. As he ran back, he met the other runners coming towards him. It amazed them to see him returning so soon.
Once he had passed them, he stopped and made another wish: “Take me to Cuzco!” In an instant, he was back at the palace. The crowd gasped. “It’s not possible! He has not been gone two hours!” Viracocha listened and watched, and his heart swelled with joy when he saw Hualachi. But why had he returned so soon? Did he not want to join the race after all?
Hualachi laughed. His eyes gleamed in the bright midday sun. He ran up the wide palace steps to Viracocha. Then he knelt and handed him the quipu. “Here is the answer to your message, great Emperor.” Cheers resounded through Cuzco, echoing over the mountain peaks, and ringing across the sky. They declared Hualachi the fastest runner of the Incas.
Hualachi told no one of his sandals, though Emperor Viracocha guessed that some divine gift had been settled on him. Because he could run so fast with his magic sandals, Hualachi now had plenty of time to help others without fear of being delayed. He spent many hours caring for animals, for old people living in the towns and hills, and for any sick or unfortunate creatures who crossed his path.
This is how Hualachi, the Emperor’s favorite messenger, was rewarded for his kindness. Even today, he is remembered as the fastest runner ever known in the mighty empire of the Incas.
The Sapa Inca was the Emperor of the Inca Empire and ruler of the earlier Kingdom of Cuzco and the later Neo-Inca State. Origins of the position are mythical and originate from the legendary foundation of the city of Cuzco. The Sapa Inca was at the top of the social hierarchy and played a dominant role in the political and spiritual realm.