Ecuador is famous for its outstanding trekking opportunities throughout the Andes mountains. We recommend starting your trip in Quito, where you can connect with trekking outfitters, guides, and travel companions. Use our packing list to ensure you have the appropriate equipment for your trekking experience. A particularly spectacular trek is the Inca Road to Ingapirca, detailed below. Text written by Mark Thurber, author of Climbing and Hiking in Ecuador (Viva Travel Guides, 2008).
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At the height of its power, the Inca Empire extended from northern Ecuador to central Chile. This huge area was linked by a complex system of well-made and maintained roads, the longest of which stretched over 5,000 kilometers from Quito to Talca, south of Santiago in Chile. This was the greatest communication system the world had known, greater even than the roads of the Roman Empire. Although today the road is in a state of disrepair (and in many areas the route has been lost or forgotten), it is still possible to find and walk along some remnants of this marvellous road system. There is a popular segment of this trail system at the southern end of the Central Valley, which leads to Ingapirca, the most important Inca ruin in Ecuador. This two- to three-day hike is a fascinating glimpse of Andean rural life, which has changed little in hundreds of years.
The nearest major town to the beginning of the hike is Alausí, where there are several cheap hotels. One recommended hostel is El Ingañan (593 85075012) run by the friendly and helpful Isaura Inés Zea. She can also arrange guides and mules for the trek. It is situated just off the Pan-American Highway, 290 kilometers south of Quito. Buses go there from Terminal Terrestre in Quito, but it may be easier first to go to Riobamba and then change to an Alausí bus at Riobamba’s Terminal Terrestre. From Alausí you can get an early start, take any southbound bus on the Pan-American Highway and ask to be let off at La Moya, about 10 kilometers from Alausí. (You can camp in La Moya by the swimming pool, with a nearby spring for clean drinking water.) When you reach La Moya, stand by the left fork of the road junction just past the bridge to hitch a ride up a steep and spectacular mountain road to the village of Achupallas, some 12 kilometers away. There are also several trucks a day that leave Alausí at around noon bound for Achupallas. Either way you should be able to get from Alausí to Achupallas in a few hours. A more direct, yet more expensive, alternative is to hire a truck in Alausí (near the Hostal Tekendama) to take you to Achupallas. This takes about one to 1.5 hours and drivers charge between $5 and $7 per person for the trip.
In Achupallas, head for the white arch below the plaza; take the track left (to the south) of the arch and soon pass the cemetery on your right. There are two options: follow the low road along the river, or the high road below cliffs on the right side of the Río Cadrul valley. To take the high road, after you cross the river on a bridge, switchback up the hillside on the road. Eventually the road/track heads up the valley. The other option is to follow footpaths on the other side of the bridge (there are several options—it is best to ask locally) along the west side of the Río Cadrul. Some 30 to 40 minutes out of town you re-cross the river on another footbridge and then follow the east bank of the Río Cadrul (marked as Quebrada Gadrui on some maps). You are headed for a rocky narrow in the stream between a pyramidal hill to your left (Cerro Mapahuiña, 4,365m) and a flat-topped hill to your right (Cerro Callana Pucará).
As you get closer to this narrow you will see a well-defined notch, which you will have to climb. This is interesting as the trail goes up through a hole in the rock: it is a very tight squeeze and it can be difficult to pass your pack through. Soon after the notch you should cross the river (it can be jumped in dry season) to climb to the upper trail on the far side. The Inca road contours along the west side of the Cadrul valley as it becomes more U-shaped and open. At 3,900m you reach the foundations of an Inca town. Within several kilometers you reach the Laguna Las Tres Cruces (by now you are on the Juncal 1:50,000 map). To get to this lake takes about six hours of steady hiking from Achupallas, but you can find flat spots near the stream to camp earlier if you wish. The area around the lake is boggy, so it is best to camp on the bluffs next to the inlet or outlet streams.
The following day you follow the trail up beyond the lake and across a pass to the southwest. There is a shallow seasonal pond near the pass and a pile of stones marking the way (probably Incan). There are two paths beyond the pass—an upper road along the Cuchilla Tres Cruces or a boggier route in the valley of Quebrada Espíndola. For the upper Inca road, contour up the ridge crossing some worn rocks. Much of the road is deeply eroded and seems like a streambed in places. Below is the valley of the Quebrada Espíndola, and the lower road is plainly visible. Walk along the top of this ridge and admire the wonderful views as you follow it to its final peak, Quillo Loma. To your left is wild trackless countryside with many lakes, the largest of which is the Laguna Sontzahuín. This area would without a doubt provide several days of excellent camping off the beaten track.
The trail becomes quite distinct again at the top of the ridge and then descends as a rocky path to the left of Quillo Loma to the lush and boggy valley bottom beyond where it meets the lower trail. You can quite clearly make out the remains of the old Inca road as a straight line in the grass at the bottom of the valley. At the point where the road crosses the stream you will find the remains of the foundations of an Inca bridge. This stream has to be crossed; it is best to take off your boots and wade across. There is an obvious trail on the left-hand side of the Quebrada Espíndola which leads you past the southeastern shores of the Laguna Culebrillas and to some Inca ruins known as Paredones (ruined walls) on a bluff above the lake. Although it is only an easy half-day from the Laguna Las Tres Cruces to Paredones, this is an excellent place to camp, relax and enjoy the countryside. To preserve the area, campsites should be set up near the ruins rather than in them, and you should make an effort to carry out trash you find around the ruins.
The ruins themselves consist of a large main structure whose walls are still more or less standing; there are three main rooms and two smaller ones. The stonework is crude compared to Ingapirca and the famous Peruvian ruins, and there is no evidence of typical Inca features such as trapezoidal niches. Around this main structure are the tumbled remains of several smaller buildings. Animal life is rather limited; there are caracara hawks and cinclodes. Flowers are prolific, however, and you can expect to see gentians, lupins and daisies, among others. The final day brings you to the ruins of Ingapirca.
The walk will take you about four to five hours, which leaves enough time to explore the ruins and then reach a town to spend the night.
From Paredones head southwest on the Inca road, which here is at its full width of about seven meters. The trail soon swings south and continues straight across the countryside, but it is extremely boggy. The scenery is rather eerie, with huge boulders strewn around like a giant’s playthings. Frogs whistle repetitively and brooks bubble up from underground. You pass a new reservoir on your right that is not shown on any maps. After two or three hours the Inca road becomes difficult to follow. Head for the village of San José and take a right turn on a dirt track to the village of El Rodeo. From here follow the road to Ingapirca, which should now be in view. It seems closer than it is since you need to contour around several valleys. The terrain shows increasing signs of cultivation and habitation. You end up walking past fields and houses to a road, which leads to the ruins themselves.
This area was occupied by the Cañaris for some 500 years before the construction of the Inca site. In the 1490s the Inca Huayna Capac conquered the area now known as Ecuador and soon after the construction of Ingapirca (“Inca walls” in Quechua) began. Its existence has long been known about by academics, and the plan drawn by La Condamine in 1739 was accurate enough to be used as a basis for the modern excavations of the ruins, which began in the late 1960s.
Ingapirca, with its close-fitting, mortarless stonework and typical trapezoidal windows and niches, is the finest example of imperial Inca construction in the country, and was evidently built by stone masons trained in Cuzco. The precise functions of the site can only be guessed at, but archaeologists think that the most evident and well-preserved structure, an elliptical building known as the temple of the sun, had religious or ceremonial purposes. The less well-preserved buildings were probably granaries or store houses, and part of the complex was almost certainly used as a tambo, or stopping place, for the runners taking messages along the Inca road from Quito to Tomebamba (present-day Cuenca).
Ingapirca is 3,160 meters above sea level. An entrance fee of about $4 is charged. There is a new visitors’ hut and entrance station, along with an excellent site museum. It is funded by the Banco Central and is well laid out, with many interesting maps and exhibits. A brochure in English is also available for a dollar, with decent photos and text. The nearby village of Ingapirca has several basic stores, restaurants and hostels. The Restaurant Intimicuna (593 98126563), run by Rosa Flores Ojeda, is a good place to eat near the entrance to Ingapirca. The hostel and restaurant Inti Huasi is owned by Julia Serrano, whose father has been a guide at the ruins for more than 30 years. Buses leave every three hours for the Pan-American Highway, until 4:00 p.m. A truck costs about $15 for the trip to El Tambo. There are also basic hotels in Cañar, about 17 kilometers from Ingapirca and on the Pan-American Highway.
Distance: Approximately 38 kilometers
Time: 3 days
Best Weather: June to December
Maps: IGM 1:50,000 Alausí, Juncal, and Cañar, or you can get by with IGM 1:100,000 Cañar
Special Interest: Páramo, Inca Road, Inca Ruins, Lakes, Bird Watching
Other Ecuador treks described in VIVA Travel Guides Climbing and Hiking in Ecuador:
Yanaurcu Trek (Piñan Lakes)
Saraguro to Yacuambi Trek
Trek de Condor: Antisana to Cotopaxi
Trek de Condor: El Tambo to Antisana
The Inca Road to Ingapirca
Recommended Trekking Outfitters:
Cumbre Tours is lead by Karl Egloff. Karl is best known though for having the world record for speed climbing up and down Cotopaxi, Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua. If you’re lucky and request Karl as a guide, you may get to climb with this legend.