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Ancient Incan Cities in Ecuador

Ecuador’s worth visiting on its own—not merely as a stopover on the way to the Galapagos Islands. After your plane touches down in Guayaquil, the nation’s business hub, my advice is to get out of town and head to Cuenca, Ecuador’s ancient center. Start your discovery of its lush Spanish colonial architecture at the archetypical central plaza, anchored with two venerable cathedrals. You can also visit the museum-cum-factory of Homero Ortega, where Panama hats originated (but that’s another story, and Homero’s folks will tell it to you).

The region surrounding Cuenca also boasts a long pre-Spanish heritage, highlighted by Ingapirca, a recently restored, little-known Incan city of majestic aura and location.

You can rent a car for the two-hour drive, of course, but I strongly recommend hiring a guide such as 30-something university graduate Juan Munoz, who, for $35 a person a day, will drive you to the site (including a stopover mentioned below), feed you a lunch that’s an experience worth the drive alone, and provide you with much more detailed (and fascinating) information than the site’s legends and plaques offer.

The ancient Incan city of Ingapirca is composed of three layers, recently excavated and clearly marked: the original Quetzcal Indian city, then the ensuing version blended with their new masters, and finally the city of the Inca rulers that succeeded. Each is divided into residential, civic, and religious buildings and includes amazing astronomical and agricultural devices. Llamas graze on the grounds, bordered by the legendary Inca Trail (on which, of course, you’re free to wander).

Plan your visit for the morning. By afternoon in these heights a dense fog rolls in (another reason not to drive yourself). Before that, Juan will have you seated for lunch in the intimate and charming Posada Ingapirca overlooking the Inca site. Its working fireplace is hung with masks and other indigenous artifacts. Here you can dine on the region’s hearty soup and dessert of local soft cheese with a molasses-like syrup or stewed tomatoes-- a sweet variety unknown to most of us --all washed down with a swig of local corn liquor.

Those who wish may arrange to stay overnight in one of the cluster of comfortable rooms the inn provides, decorated with brightly painted and woven crafts amid colonial antiques. From here it’s a short walk into the tiny town of Ingapirca itself to check out the street scene. Or you can rent horses to amble through the hills and absorb the raw beauty of those mighty mountains.

If you make the trip on a Sunday, Juan will stop midway at the small town of Canar, known (to locals, you’re not likely to spot other tourists) for its weekly open-air market, a hive of family activity with Indian women in traditional felt hats, striped stockings, and layers of bright petticoats conducting business with their babies strapped to their backs.

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