Explore The northern sierra
About 24km west of Cayambe and 70km north of Quito are the ruins of Cochasquí, one of the country’s most significant pre-Inca archeological sites. Built at 3100m by the Cara or Cayambi people around 900 AD, the site’s fifteen flat-topped pyramids were constructed from blocks of compressed volcanic soil (cangahua), now coated in grass, at the base of Mount Fuya Fuya. Long ramps lead up to most of the pyramids, which were levelled off to accommodate wooden structures that have long since rotted away.
One theory posits Cochasquí was a fortress, and the pyramids do occupy an important strategic position, with Quito and the volcanoes Cotopaxi and the Pichinchas visible in the distance. Perhaps more compelling, though, is the idea that the site was a kind of observatory – excavations have revealed the remnants of circular platforms, thought to be calendars of the sun and moon. Holes drilled nearby probably held pillars that would have cast shadows over sundials, and the site is also aligned with the summit of Cayambe volcano, over 30km away, and the Puntiazil site, another ancient monument used for gauging celestial movements; shamans still congregate at the site around the solstices and equinoxes to perform spiritual rites. Although many of the pyramids are little more than large overgrown mounds, the eerie atmosphere and striking views alone merit a visit.
Tucked away behind the ruins are two reconstructions of ancient Cara houses (circular structures with thatched-grass roofs built around a living tree), a medicinal plant garden, plus a small museum exhibiting artefacts recovered from the site. Local Spanish-speaking guides, one of whom also speaks English, will meet you at the entrance and show you around the site for free (though tips are always appreciated).