Updated February 6th, 2020.
Inga Pirca = Inka Pirka (Meaning Inca Wall in Quechua)
When most of us think about the Incas, the image that springs to mind is always that of rolling mist, towering mountains and the vast archaeological complex of Machu Picchu.
Whilst Peru’s most famous landmark may be the most well-known symbol of Incan civilisation, it is certainly not the only one in South America. What many people don’t know is that there are some very impressive alternatives all over the continent, with just a fraction of the crowds!
Ingapirca – Ecuador’s Largest Incan Ruins
Ingapirca is the largest archaeological Inca site in Ecuador and the Temple of the Sun, the most prominent building that remains, is only elliptical Incan temple in the whole of South America. Located around an hour and a half outside of popular expat city of Cuenca, it is easy to arrange a visit to the ruins.
We organised our trip to Ingapirca through highly rated local tour agency Cuenca Bestours. Their one day trip consisted of a church visit and a trip to a local market to learn about the indigenous culture before arriving at the Ingapirca ruins complex. After exploring the site, there was the opportunity to sample some traditional cuisine in a local restaurant before returning to Cuenca.
The Sanctuary of Morning Dew, Biblián
After we were picked up from the Cuenca Bestours office, Tim and I were introduced to our tour guide for the day, Sebastian. As we began our journey to Ingapirca, he explained our itinerary and a little about the parts of Cuenca that we were passing through.
Cuenca has a huge expat population and therefore the city is rapidly expanding to fulfil demand. There is now a whole section to the outside of the city dubbed by locals as Gringolandia. The vast majority of the district’s inhabitants are expats from the United States and Canada. (You can read more about Cuenca in our guide here.)
As the journey to Ingapirca is quite lengthy, Sebastian informed us that we would be making a stop at the town Biblián, in Cañar Province. As you weave your way through the town’s streets it becomes quickly apparent what the main focal point is as it looms above you.
The church located here, known as The Sanctuary of the Morning Dew, is distinctly gothic in style and dates back to the late 19th century. The church, which was designed by a German architect, is built into the rock behind, which makes it quite the spectacle. The exit of the building also offers some stunning views of the town below and the surrounding Andes mountain range.
Our second stop was Cañar Market. As Sebastian took us around the area, he showed us where the indigenous people buy their traditional clothes. The skirts that are worn in the Cañare Province of Ecuador have become somewhat of a status symbol and can be as expensive as a few hundred dollars each!
Sebastian also explained that the traditional hat worn by the ladies of Cañar province also tells a story. The hat is white and has two bobbles attached. If the bobbles are worn at the back of the head, this symbolises that the woman in question is married. If they are worn at the front, this means the lady is single.
As we walked around the market, Sebastian continued to gift us with small details about the traditions of the Indigenous people which made for very interesting listening. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any photographs of the traditional dress or hats and the Indigenous belief is that having someone take your photo will result in your soul being stolen. It was definitely an enlightening visit!
Arriving at the Ingapirca Ruins
Ingapirca Entrance Fee = $2 US (Bargain!)
Upon our arrival at Ingapirca, we purchased our tickets which were just $2 US each and waited at the gate to enter. After being let through the barrier, the first thing that struck me was just how few people were there. It was a stark contrast from other archaeological sites I had visited around the world!
Another of the wonderful things about these ruins is the presence of native wildlife. There are a number of llamas roaming free within the site which serve to keep the grass trim and also draw in tourists. Seriously, who doesn’t love llamas?!
In Ecuador, llamas are actually a protected species by law and only roam free in National Parks and areas of cultural heritage. The llamas themselves were very friendly and at times it looked like there were more of them than there were visitors!
The Cañari Civilisation
Sebastian explained that the ruins are actually a mix of both Incan and Cañari structures, which I found very surprising. Originally, the Incas attempted to conquer the Cañaris but were unsuccessful and instead decided to live alongside them in relative peace.
The Cañari civilisation was the first to build on the land and a stark difference can be seen between the two different styles of architecture. Whilst the Cañari used a form of mortar to fix the rocks together, the Incas cut the blocks precisely to size so they fit together perfectly without the need for a bonding aid. There are a number of different sections to the ruins. They range from rooms in which grain and meat could be stored to aqueducts to provide water to the compound.
The Inca Temple of the Sun
Perhaps the most important and spectacular of the ruins is the elliptical ‘Temple of the Sun’. Much of this Incan structure still remains intact and is built around a large rock. The temple is positioned so that the Inca’s were able to tell the time of year through the seasons, using the sun. The temple was also used as a sacrificial point where both humans (mostly female virgins!) and many animals were lost to the Gods over the years! Thankfully this activity no longer takes place today.
It is said that the Incas chose this particular site for the temple due to the rock face nearby. The Incas believed that there was a face in the rock which would watch over them. After exploring the main ruins site, we made our way to the famed face. Upon seeing the rock, it is quickly apparent where the face is meant to be, although I am cynical about its ability to protect anyone!
Perhaps one of the most intriguing things about the ruins are the nearby houses. In Ecuador, any archaeological site that is discovered automatically belongs to the government, regardless of who owns the land. There are rumours that many of the nearby houses were constructed to conceal Incan and Cañari treasures and keep them out of state hands.
Whilst the government suspect this themselves, it is very difficult to search properties with no proof of any wrongdoing, so no-one really knows what could be hidden away from view!
After our exploration of Ingapirca was over, we headed to a local restaurant for lunch. We were given the opportunity to sample Canelazo, a traditional Ecuadorian alcoholic drink made from sugarcane. Always be careful when attempting to drink this in one this as it is served hot!
Lunch was a spread of potato soup to start, with a pork chop with rice and vegetables for main. It was delicious! Feeling well and truly content after lunch, we spent the journey back to Cuenca reflecting on the day and even caught the odd bit of shut-eye!
Ingapirca… Final Thoughts
Our visit to Ingapirca was both the perfect mix of history and nature. As someone who loves being in the company of animals, I was hugely excited to share the site with the resident llamas as we explored.
The site itself makes for a great morning of discovery as it is a place that holds many secrets and is still relatively undiscovered on a tourist scale. When you compare the volume of travellers at Ingapirca to other important archaeological sites, the numbers don’t even come close. This is great for those of us who choose to visit as it means the ruins are generally very quiet. As a result, you can see the site without big crowds and take some great photographs.
Organised Day Tour VS. Independent Trip?
Whilst I have heard it is possible to reach Ingapirca without the need of a tour, I would definitely recommend one. I have no doubt that had we not have been accompanied by our guide, Sebastian, I wouldn’t have left with the level of understanding or enjoyment that I did.
He taught us about both the Cañari and Incan history as well as pointing out the differences in the stonework. He also showed us to the Incan face in the rock, which we would have never found without him!
Whilst we took a day tour to the ruins, it is also possible to visit Ingapirca as part of a longer, multi-day trip with Cuenca Bestours. For the adventurous, there is even a 3-day walk called the Camino del Inca Hike from Cuenca that you can do independently or on a tour.
The Ingapirca ruins are home to a stretch of Inca trail which originally ran all the way to Incan capital Cuzco, now in modern Peru. Whilst most of the trail in Ecuador has been destroyed, there is still a remaining section which can be followed. It starts in the small village of Achupallas and stretches 40km before reaching Ingapirca.
Cuenca Bestours not only provided us with a hugely knowledgeable local guide but also gave us an insight into both traditional and modern Ecuador. The stops at the gothic church and the trip to the market were nice added extras which injected more variety into the day. Coupled with a tasty lunch and comfortable transport, we really couldn’t have asked for anything more!