Ingapirca: Not Just the Most Famous Inca Site in Ecuador
When we left Cuenca, on our way north to the Pujili Corpus Christi festival, we decided to visit Ingapirca, often called Ecuador’s most important Inca ruin site. We drove off the Pan American, and climbed the winding mountain road towards the ruin site. As we rounded the last bend and the site came into view, we both remembered we had been here before. No, not in a past life – during our 2008 visit to Ecuador. That was our first surprise.
We had read about it in our Footprint guidebook [Amazon Affiliate link]
Ecuador’s most important ruin, at 3160m, lies 8.5Km east of the colonial town of Cañar. The Inca Huayna Capac took over the site from the conquered Cañaris when his empire expanded north into Ecuador in the third quarter of the 15th century. Ingapirca was strategically placed on the Royal Highway that ran from Cuzco to Quito and soldiers may have been stationed there. The site shows typical imperial Cuzco-style architecture, such as tightly fitting stonework and trapezoidal doorways.
It also mentions that it costs US$6, including the museum and a tour in Spanish.
When we visited Ingapirca in 2008 , we wandered freely around the site, and there was no entrance gate. We stayed overnight in the unpaved parking lot, which was really just a widened part of the road. There were few signs explaining the site. We thought it was just a small Inca ruin site to the east of the highway.
Our second surprise was that the place now had a lot of infrastructure:
- The parking lot is still part of the road, but is paved and no longer muddy.
- There is a large building with bathrooms and other amenities, and also the ticket office.
- The entry fee is US$2 and includes a tour guide. Our guide, a local Cañari, spoke English.
- The site is very well maintained and has explanatory signs along a well-marked path.
- There is a site museum, but it was closed and apparently empty – I couldn’t understand the answer when I asked about it.
Our third surprise was that our guide had a slightly different take on the history and significance of the site. From his account, this was initially a sacred site of the Cañari people, the local indigenous group. Much that you read about this site, in guide books and on the internet, only concentrates on the Inca presence.
The Inca arrived around 50 years before the Spanish. They integrated with, rather than conquered, the local Cañari. There was a marriage to seal the deal and they occupied this site together, living side by side, worshipping the Moon (the Cañari’s most important god) and the Sun (the Inca deity) in their own ways. This continued until the Spanish displaced all of them, carrying off stones to build churches and other colonial buildings.
Over time, many stones were also taken by locals to build other structures. When the site came to the notice of the authorities, and they began to excavate, conserve and restore it, a call was sent out to bring the stones back. Many of them were returned voluntarily. Others were collected by the military, who demolished buildings to recover them. Although they have not been integrated back into the site, the collection is very important to the locals, who play a big part in caring for this place.
Our tour began at what is left of the Temple of the Moon. This was a Cañari site. Their lives were based around the phases of the moon: when to plant, when to harvest and the feminine nature of the moon was celebrated by them. All that’s left is the base of the structure, which is almost circular. You can distinguish all of the Cañari structures at the site by their curved or rounded shapes. From the Moon temple site, there is a good view of the Temple of the Sun, built by the Inca.
Nearby is a tomb, which had 11 skeletons; one upper class woman and 10 others. Our guide suggested she was a queen and the other bodies were her servants. They had been drugged, then buried alive as they slept, to accompany her on her journey to the next world. There were also many valuable offerings made of ceramic, stone, copper and shells, in the tomb. The stone next to it, which looks like a headstone, marks the grave, but is also placed so that its shadow falls in a particular way to mark the solstices and equinoxes.
On the way to the Sun temple, we were stopped by our guide to examine some large rocks with holes in them. There are differing beliefs about whether these are man-made holes or if they actually occurred naturally. Our guide explained that one of them was used to mix dyes from various plant and animal sources to decorate clothes and bodies. The larger one was used to view the moon. It seems that the Cañari would not look directly at the moon, given its status as a god. The holes would be filled with water and they could look at the reflection. He went further to say that some believe it was some kind of calendar, which could be read by which of the holes reflected the moon on a particular day of the month.
As is normal for Inca sites, the Temple of the Sun was built upon the highest point at the site – formerly an ancient Cañari ceremonial rock. The structures in and around it are typically Inca, except for the elliptical shape of its base. The guide told us that this was due to the influence of the Cañari people. It is aspected exactly east-west. The rooms on either end have niches, which held gold objects. They are situated so that at the solstices and equinoxes the sun would shine through the door and fall directly on one or the other of these objects. This occurred at sunrise and sunset, at either end. In this way the temple was a calendar which marked the important events of the Inca culture.
Next to the Temple of the Sun is the remains of the Acllawasi (or Akllahuasis). This was the house of the chosen women, who served the Temple.
This site was particularly important to the Inca because it was on its royal road network. There is a small part of ancient Inca road preserved at the site. Here it is known as Ingañan – Inka road. It is not marked as part of the World Heritage listed Qhapac Ñan – Royal road, but I haven’t been able to distinguish between the two. As with so many of the sites along the ancient highway, there was a lot of food stored – often enough to last 2 years. Some of the remains at this site are circular storehouses for grain.
We are glad that we inadvertently re-visited Ingapirca, because this time we came away with some real understanding of the significance of the site, both to the Inca Empire and to the local Cañari people, who are still very proud of this place.
For further reading we recommend this article: “Ingapirca, proof the Inca respected cultures they conquered.”