Overshadowed by the eponymous volcano, CAYAMBE (2850m) is worth a quick visit for its renowned home-made cheese and bizcochos – buttery biscuits locals carry around by the bagful. It’s also a regional centre for Ecuador’s flower industry (its fourth-largest export), evident in the shimmer of plastic-sheeted greenhouses gleaming across the valley. For much of the year it’s a quiet provincial town most travellers skip on their way from Quito to Otavalo, but during the fiestas of late June, things really get busy when indígenas descend from the surrounding villages for singing, dancing, parades and bullfights. The celebration kicks off with Inti Raymi (Quichua for “sun festival”), which heralds the summer solstice and continues for several days until it merges with the fiesta of San Pedro on June 29, honouring the town’s patron saint.
The centre of Caymbe is the leafy Parque Central, at the northern end of which is the town’s grandest building, which houses the Centro Cultural Espinosa Jarrín and Museo de la Ciudad, exhibiting pieces recovered from the nearby Puntiazil, an important ceremonial site of the ancient Cayambi people. The site itself, located down a grassy track by the town cemetery, has not borne well the passage of time, though the remnants of a large pyramid are discernible. At the centre of the site once stood a large cylinder (destroyed in 1834) made of packed earth, which measured celestial movements; a similar device has been reconstructed at the Quitsato monument just outside town.
For local shopping, several little biscuit factories are dotted around town – the Fábrica de Bizcochos San Pedro, opposite the cemetery, is one of the best – and many stores sell the speciality queso de hoja, a salty, white cheese boiled and wrapped in achira leaves. Market day is Sunday, when the town streets and marketplace on Junín and Restauración are filled with stalls selling many kinds of locally grown fruit and vegetables.
Apart from this, there are few things to see in Cayambe other than the archeological site of Puntiazil and the local museum with corresponding finds. Still, the town makes a good base for exploring the area, as does the splendid Hacienda Guachalá, a short distance away.
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).
Seven kilometres south of Cayambe, just before the turning to Cangahua and Hacienda Guachalá, at Km70 on the Panamericana, is the Quitsato equator monument (wwww.quitsato.org), taking the form of a giant sundial (reloj solar), spanning 54 metres across with a ten-metre-high cylinder, placed exactly on the equator, as its gnomon to cast a shadow. From this huge clock face, a compass rose of light stones inlaid into dark allows you (or one of the guides on hand, at least), not only to read the time, but also the month, while other features indicate the solstices and equinoxes. The words “quitsa to” mean “centre of the world” in the language of the Tsáchila people, and one of the goals of the monument is to link Ecuador’s modern identity as an equatorial nation to the ancient cultures of the region, who well understood these techniques of charting celestial movements and knew the position of the equator to a degree (pardon the pun) that is only just becoming clear. The on-site Museo Cultura Solar explains in fascinating detail these links to the past, including good coverage of La Condamine’s geodesic mission to Ecuador in 1743, and encourages the reappraisal and rescue of the region’s many languishing and under-researched archeological sites
Heading southeast of Guachalá, the dirt road climbs through onion fields and páramo grasslands for an hour’s drive until it passes the Las Puntas hills, site of the entrance checkpoint to the vast Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca (daily, 7am–6pm; $10, though this is often overlooked; ID required). Founded in 1970 the reserve protects over 4000 square kilometres of land, from 5790m to just 600m above sea level. This huge range in altitude spans ten ecological zones that harbour a staggering number of plant and animal species, including nine hundred birds (among them the condor, mountain toucan and Andean cock-of-the-rock), and rare mammals, such as the spectacled bear and dwarf deer. Also living within the reserve are Quichua-language speakers at Oyacachi, a village renowned for its hot springs, and the Cofán people, in the far northeast of the reserve at Sinangoé, who offer family-based accommodation for $30–40 per person per day (arrange through the Fundación Sobrevivencia Cofán; wwww.cofan.org).
The reserve’s highest point is the summit of Volcán Cayambe (5790m), Ecuador’s third-highest mountain; just south of the summit is the highest point on the equator, reputed to be the only place on the planet where the latitude and average temperature are both zero degrees. The volcano has a refuge ($17) at about 4700m, reached by a 25-kilometre dirt track leading southeast from Cayambe, with bunks, kitchen facilities, electricity and running water; bring a sleeping bag. The climb from the refuge to the summit (6–7hr) is regarded as more dangerous than either Cotopaxi or Cayambe for its many crevasses, risk of icefall, strong winds and frequent bouts of poor weather, though many agencies in Quito can arrange guides, equipment and transport. Nearer the refuge is an area of crevasses and ice walls often used by climbing schools and agencies for technical training.
There are several other points of access to the Cayambe-Coca reserve, mostly in the Oriente. The road from Papallacta to Baeza and Lago Agrio borders the easily accessed southern and eastern edges of the reserve, and the most common points of entry along this road are from Papallacta, El Chaco and Lumbaquí, 70km west of Lago Agrio.
Not far beyond Las Puntas checkpoint, the entry road descends into soft cloudforest and ends at OYACACHI, nestled at 3200m in the crook of a valley. The village lies at the high end of one of the oldest routes into the Oriente, very likely the one Gonzalo Pizarro used during his ill-fated search east for El Dorado. One legend maintains two families met here to establish the community, one from the highlands (the Parión family), the other from the rainforests in Oriente (the Aigaje family); it might be a quaint story, but almost every one of the village’s Quichua-speaking residents has one of these names. They live by the reserve’s environmental regulations, which prevent them from developing or cultivating the surrounding terrain, but do grant them generous plots of communal and individual land nearby. Self-imposed rules prohibit the sale of cigarettes and liquor in the village. A hydroelectric dam provides energy, and trout farming, cheese production and woodcarving bolster the local economy. On the main street opposite the school is a communal store many local families supply, where you can buy anything from a simple batea (tray) to elaborate animal carvings.
The main attraction for visitors though, apart from the starting point for a hike to the Oriente, are the thermal springs, Fuentes Termales (daily 8am–4pm; $2), where you can wallow in the warmth of several steaming pools while admiring the wooded hills around you. Apart from weekends, when there’s a woodcarving market at the entrance, you’ll have the place to yourself.
Oyacachi receives few tourists, but there is a bus service from Cayambe, meaning unless you come on Sunday you’ll probably have to stay the night here. The hotel (no name, ask for it or the owner, Elgar Parión; t02/2288968 is the shared number for the whole village; $11–15) has a few perfectly comfortable yet simple rooms with a shared bathroom. Campers can pitch their tents near the springs for a few dollars. You can get meals up the street from the hotel at La Oyacacheña (no sign), run by María Zoila Aigaje, who cooks up a mean fresh trout. Other locals would also be happy to cook for you; just ask around. A taxi or camioneta from Cayambe costs around $20–30 one-way (1hr 15min), or around $40 for a full day.