The enormous Incan empire – the largest in the pre-Colombian Americas – didn't stop at Peru’s magnificent Machu Picchu. The Incas reached far into Ecuador, too. If you're visiting, stop by the southern corner of the country, north of Cuenca, Ingapirca. (In the local Andean dialect, Quechua means "Inca wall".) Here you'll find the largest and most important Incan archaeological site in Ecuador.
This multipurpose complex houses harmonious architecture that is believed to have been a sacred site for not one, but two cultures - a mix of Cañari (the original indigenous settlers, who were moon worshipers) and Inca (who conquered the site in the 15th century, and were sun worshipers).
Things to See:
Ingapirca's most dominant structure is the elliptical Temple of the Sun, also known as "the Castle," which is perched atop a rocky hill. Mostly intact, it bears the trademarks of Incan stonework mastery, with trapezoidal doorways and chiseled stones matched so precisely that no mortar was needed in construction. From above, guards protected the site and perhaps developed military strategy (some archaeologists believe the site doubled as a military fortress). Today, visitors can enjoy sweeping panoramas over the countryside.
A tribute to the Inca’s superlative solar knowledge, the temple was designed so that sunlight would illuminate a niche in its upper doorway during the summer and winter solstices. We visited the site on June 21, the summer solstice and kickoff to the ancient Andean Incan festival of Inti Raymi, or Festival of the Sun, held in hopes of good harvests ahead. The tradition – rife with ritual – continues through to this day, with colorfully costumed performers brought in from throughout Ecuador and Latin America.
What to Know:
Tickets to Ingapirca cost $6/adults ($3/kids), including English-speaking guided tours, lasting around one hour. A small museum of artifacts near the entrance is currently closed for renovations (our guide anticipated it would reopen in June, 2014). A five-minute walk away (on a pathway with great vistas of the temple), be sure to check out La Cara del Inca, a massive rock formation that resembles the face of an Incan chief.
Where to Stay:
Less than a 10-minute walk uphill from the ruins, the Posada Ingapirca gets points for convenience – you can even overlook the Temple of the Sun from several spots on the property's well-manicured grounds, including a charming "tree house" perch. The 23 rooms in this historic farmhouse are rustic and fairly no-frills, with exposed beam ceilings, regional handicrafts, and space heaters and hot water bottles for chilly nights; all rooms have a private bath (though water was tepid at best for us). The Ecuadorian restaurant serves fixed-price dinners nightly ($22) around a central fireplace; a guest TV lounge with a pool table round out the offerings. Bring cash for payment: The machines were down during our visit. Rates from $105/night, including breakfast and Wi-Fi.