Leaving the central sierra behind at Alausí, continue 93km south on the Panamericana and you’ll reach El Tambo. From here, a side road branches 8km east from the highway to the southern sierra’s first important attraction, Ingapirca. Though not as dramatic or well preserved as the Inca remains of Peru, Ingapirca is nonetheless an impressive site that certainly deserves a visit, if only to witness the extraordinary mortarless stonework for which the Incas are renowned. South of here, only a few low-key attractions dot the 79km separating El Tambo from Cuenca: namely the small market town of Cañar, the hilltop sanctuary of Biblián and the sleepy provincial capital of Azogues.
Seven kilometres south of El Tambo, CAÑAR is a small town with narrow, twisting streets lined by attractive, colonial-style architecture. It’s normally very quiet, but bursts into life on Sunday mornings with its weekly market – a good place to admire the beautifully embroidered skirts and blouses the local women are famous for, as well as the finely woven belts the men wear, embellished with intricate motifs on both sides; you might also see men wearing traditional samarros, sheepskin trousers used for horseriding. While Cañar is a more appealing place than El Tambo, which is just a ten-minute bus ride away, the accommodation here is not particularly inspiring: on the plaza, at the corner of Pichincha and Bolívar, the ageing Residencial Mónica (t07/2235486; $11–15) has small but relatively clean rooms, while those at Ingapirca, at Sucre and 5 de Junio (t07/2235201; $16–20), are faded and musty but have TVs and private bath (none too clean by some reports). A basic bunch of restaurants, all offering simple menus del día, include Los Maderos on Calle Pichincha, or the Reino Cañari or the Florida International, both on 5 de Junio.
The Inca Trail to Ingapirca is a three-day hike following a forty-kilometre stretch of the route – and in some parts the original path – of the Inca Royal Road that once linked Cuzco, the Inca capital, with Tomebamba (where Cuenca now stands) and Quito. The hike begins in the tiny village of Achupallas, which is an hour’s drive along a vertiginous road from the small railway town of Alausí. Colectivo trucks leave Alausí for Achupallas between 11am and noon daily except Saturdays, and there’s one daily bus at around 1–2pm. Your surest bet is to hire a camioneta to take you there from opposite the Panamericano hotel in Alausí, at the corner of 5 de Junio and 9 de Octubre; if there’s none there, just ask around and someone will offer to take you.
Most hikers set off from Alausí between 5–6am. Alternatively, you could turn up in Achupallas the day before you want to start walking – there’s a simple little hostel here called Ingañán (t03/2930652; $11–15), where you can also get meals. If you’re hiking it independently, it’s essential to take the IGM maps of Alausí, Juncal and Cañar, as well as full camping equipment and warm, waterproof clothing. Rubber boots or gaiters will also come in handy, as there are some extremely boggy spots to negotiate. Try to take as light a pack as possible, though, as you’ll be hiking between 3100m and 4400m, which can be quite hard going. The terrain you’ll cover is mainly wild, open páramo, with some beautiful ridge walks giving fantastic views. Most of it is uninhabited, but the final 8km or so is quite populated with campesinos, and you’ll probably get a lot of attention from kids asking for sweets, pencils or money.
The hike is commonly divided as follows: day one takes you from Achupallas up the Tres Cruces valley to the Laguna Las Tres Cruces (6–8hr), though you may want to cut this hard day short and pitch your tent in the páramo a couple of hours short of the lakes; day two takes you from Laguna Las Tres Cruces to a small collection of Inca ruins known as Paredones, by the shore of Laguna Culebrillas (6–7hr); and day three goes from the Paredones ruins to the Ingapirca ruins (4–5hr).
Perched on a breezy hill commanding fine views over the surrounding countryside, INGAPIRCA , which roughly translates as “Inca wall”, was built during the Inca expansion into Ecuador towards the end of the fifteenth century, on a site that had been occupied by the Cañari people for over five hundred years. The Incas destroyed most of the Cañari structures (though a burial site remains), replacing them with their own elaborate complex that probably functioned as a place of worship, a fortress and a tambo, or way-station, on the Inca Royal Road connecting Cuzco to Quito.
Since then, many of the Inca buildings have been dismantled, their large stone blocks hauled away by Spanish colonists to be used as foundations for churches and other buildings; however, the complex’s central structure – known as the Temple of the Sun, or the Adoratorio – remains substantially intact and dominates the whole site. It’s composed of an immense oval-shaped platform whose slightly inward-tapering walls are made of exquisitely carved blocks of stone, fitted together with incredible precision. Steps lead up to a trapezoidal doorway – a classic feature of Inca architecture – that gives onto the remains of a rectangular building within the platform. It is the superior quality of the platform’s stonework, usually reserved for high-status buildings, that suggests this was a ceremonial temple.
The rest of the site consists mainly of low foundation walls, possibly the remains of storehouses, dwellings and a great plaza, among other things. There’s not a great deal left, but the guides stationed near the site entrance can explain various theories about what once stood where (some speak a little English). They’ll also take you on a looping one-kilometre path in and out of the ravine behind the ruins, to the nearby Cara del Inca (“Inca’s Face”), a huge rock face resembling a human profile with a hooked nose, as well as several other rock-hewn curiosities, including the Casa del Sol with its circular, supposedly astronomical, carvings, or the Silla del Inca, a large boulder with a chair cut into it, actually a broken piece of a small Inca bath from the hill above. Count on a guided tour of the site taking two hours. There’s also a small museum (with an attached book and craft shop) just inside the entrance displaying Cañari and Inca pots, tools, jewellery and a skeleton found on site.
Azogues’ bus terminal is just off the Panamericana – called Avenida 24 de Mayo as it runs through the town – a couple of blocks northwest of the parque central. You’ll find smart, modern accommodation with private bath and cable TV at the Rivera (t 07/2248113; $26–35), south down Avenida 24 de Mayo at its corner with 10 de Agosto. For more character, head up to Hostal Peleusi (t 07/2245445; $16–20), on the corner of Matovelle and Serrano, overlooking the very pleasant parque central; the hotel is above a good restaurant, La Fornace, a gelatería and pizza parlour. Other places to eat include El Padrino, on Bolívar 6-09 and 10 de Agosto, which serves decent chicken dishes in a pleasant old dining room, while La Fogata, at 3 de Noviembre and Avenida 24 de Mayo, specializes in fish and seafood. A few blocks south of the park, at the corner of Bolívar and Tenemaza, El Che isn’t a bad place to grab a juice, coffee, taco and a snack. The Pacífictel phone office is on the north side of the parque central.