The ruins of Ingapirca, located approximately two and a half-hours from Cuenca, are the most important Incan ruins in Ecuador. Ingapirca is set on a picturesque hillside and overlooks a small village of the same name. The area surrounding the ruins is used primarily for agriculture and raising cattle, with traditional methods (hand and animal power) still used by the majority of farmers.
The main structure, the so-called Temple of the Sun, demonstrates some of the Incas’ finest mortar-less stonework, and is surrounded by seemingly less important ruins thought to be residences and storehouses. There is still debate over the use of the ruins, and archaeologists have at times referred to the ruins as a temple, fortress or as a royal stopover for imperial runners between Quito and Tomebamba (Cuenca).
Declared a national recreation area in 1977 and a national park in 1996, “El Cajas” (“boxes”) covers an area of 29,000 hectares (72,000 acres) of mountainous terrain between 9,700-13,500 feet. The park is situated on the western cordillera at the continental divide, about 30 km. West of Cuenca. A once glaciated region (note “U”-shaped valleys and rigid peaks) over 400 lakes and lagoons formed after the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago. Today, the park is littered with these paternoster lakes, all interconnected by visible and subterranean rivers and waterfalls. High altitude and moisture are the dominant climactic variables in El Cajas, forming two interesting ecosystems: Montaine cloud forest and Andean páramo, or shrubby high altitude grassland.
More contemporary Cajas popular history dates to 1989 when an upper-middle class teenage girl claimed to have been visited by the Virgen Mary while camping in the park. Monthly pilgrimages to the sanctuary are still made by people from all over Ecuador and from all different backgrounds. In the last decade the young girl’s story has been discredited by the Ecuadorian media, which reflects popular discourse on the topic today. Nevertheless the site is still of religious and spiritual importance for many Cuencanos.
Cajas is also unique in that it is run by ETAPA, the local municipality of Cuenca. It is the only park in Ecuador to be run at the local level (though still funded nationally), and many of the employees of the park have a long family history with the area. This was done in part because Cajas provides most of Cuenca’s drinking water (+60%), which is managed by ETAPA. It’s elevation and climate means it can get very cold, especially at night. Heavy fog can reduce visibility to just a few feet, making a knowledge of the area and a compass very important.
Climate: During the day, the weather in El Cajas can vary depending on whether or not the sun is out. If the sun is out, temperatures can reach the 80s and most folks will want to hike in shorts and a t-shirt. On the other hand, if it is overcast and rainy, cold temperatures will require that you come prepared for harsh conditions. The key to staying happy is staying dry, and the best way to dress (for any outdoor trip) is in layers. The “what to bring” list below is meant to help you prepare for our overnight stay in El Cajas.
What To Bring to El Cajas
The small town of Gualaceo hosts the largest indigenous market in the area, where one can purchase fruits, vegetables, meat, spices, etc. There is both an indoor and an outdoor market. You can see indigenous vendors dressed in their colorful traditional clothing. Every Sunday campesinos and tourists come to buy goods. You can find fine woven and embroidered goods and if you get there early enough a very large selection of wool sweaters. In addition, a trip to the animal market could be an unforgettable experience. You may also want to take a walk along the river and visit the town church and plaza. Up the hill is the town of Chordeleg, which is famous for its jewelry and handicrafts museum.
What To Bring to Gualaceo
Girón is located about 44km southwest of Cuenca and is part of a particular region with great importance to the history of Ecuador. It is in this region where the Battle of Tarquí was fought in 1829 and was a key victory leading to the independence of Ecuador (then called Gran Colombia). Girón is located in the Yunguilla Valley which, with its warm weather, is a favorite weekend haunt of Cuencanos. During the drive you can experience the beauty of this part of Ecuador. There you will be able to hike to three incredible waterfalls, called chorreras, and pass rivers teeming with trout. From the waterfalls you can see the town of Girón in the valley below on a clear day.
What To Bring to Girón
Like the people of Salasaca, the Saraguros were originally sent to their current location an hour north of the city of Loja – it is thought from Bolivia – by the Incas under their system called “Mitimae,” a way of controlling “troublesome” groups. Perhaps for this reason the culture of the Saraguros has remained defiantly strong. Some say that their distinctive black clothing is due to them remaining in mourning for their old home, but a more practical explanation is that it keeps them warm in an area with an extremely varied climate. The traditional Saraguro dress is: the men sport ponytails, hats, black ponchos and knee-length black trousers; the women wear pleated black skirts, shawls fixed with a pin, and the famous wide-brimmed while hats decorated with black spots under the brim. A high-quality Saraguro poncho retails for up to $400!
The area itself is also fascinating. The town center is of the colonial era, with many old mud buildings in the main plaza and streets around it. On Sundays people come from all over the country to buy and sell produce at the Saraguro market, creating a buzz in the normally sleepy town. In the villages that surround Saraguro – such as Gera, Oñakapak and Lagunas – there are great opportunities for hiking and camping.
What To Bring to Saraguro
3. Volcán Cotopaxi
On a clear day from Quito or on the road north you can see the snow-covered peak of Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second-highest mountain and a dangerously active volcano. Cotopaxi is said to erupt on average once every 125 years.
4. Cerro El Panecillo
This hill is located to one side of the historical center at about 9,895 ft. It is known as El Panecillo due to the resemblance that the Spaniards noticed between the hill and a type of small bread (panecillo). The Spanish conquistadors built a small fortress from 1812 to 1815, as well as a water tank at the top in order to provide their soldiers with the precious liquid. The focal point of the peak is the Virgen de Legarda, an impressive sculpture that can be seen from any point of the city. It is better known as La Virgen del Panecillo.
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