Hualambari Tours (tel. 07/2830-037; www.hualambari.com), TerraDiversa (tel. 07/2823-782; www.terradiversa.com), and Metropolitan Touring (tel. 07/2837-000; www.metropolitan-touring.com) all offer a wide range of day trips out of Cuenca, including trips to the two attractions listed below.
Parque Nacional Cajas (Cajas National Park)
After you've seen the museums and historic sights in Cuenca, it's great to get away from the city and immerse yourself in the area's natural wonders. Cajas is only about 32km (20 miles) west of the city (about a 1-hr. drive), but it feels worlds away. Unlike many other areas in Ecuador, the park was formed by glaciers, not volcanic activity. Covering about 29,000 hectares (71,661 acres), the park has 232 lakes. The terrain and ecosystems are varied here, allowing for an impressive variety of flora and fauna. In high-elevation cloud forests, bird species range from the masked trogon and gray-breasted mountain toucan to the majestic Andean condor. The famed Inca Trail runs through the park. One of my favorite hikes is up Tres Cruces, which offers spectacular views of the area and the opportunity to see the Continental Divide. I also recommend the hike around Laguna Quinoa Pato; the vistas of the lake are impressive, and as you walk on the trails you'll have a good chance of spotting ducks. From the main visitor center, you can explore the flora of the humid mountain-forest climate -- mosses, orchids, fungi, and epiphytes are common. The forest is full of polylepis trees, one of the few trees in the world that grows up to an altitude of about 3,000m (9,843 ft.). Note: It can get extremely cold here, so wear warm clothing.
Getting There & Visiting the Park -- Cajas is huge, and much of its wildlife is elusive. I highly recommend exploring the park with a guide. Both Hualambari and TerraDiversa have excellent naturalist guides. If you want to go on your own, head to the main terminal in Cuenca and catch any Guayaquil-bound bus that takes the route via Molleturo and Cajas. These buses leave roughly every hour throughout the day. Ask to be dropped off at La Toreadora. Return buses run on a similar schedule and are easy to catch from the main road outside the visitor center. Admission to the park is $10 (£6.65) for adults, $5 (£3.35) for children under 12. If you have any questions, call the park office (tel. 07/2829-853).
Ingapirca is the largest pre-Columbian architectural complex in Ecuador, and it's definitely the most interesting. However, anyone familiar with the massive ruins of Machu Picchu or of the Mesoamerican Maya will find this site rather small by comparison. The Incas arrived here around 1470. Before then, the Cañari people had inhabited the area. It's believed that both the Cañari and Incas used Ingapirca as a religious site. It was common for the Incas to build their religious palaces over the ruins of a conquered culture. When the Incas conquered the area, they ordered all Cañari men to move to Cusco. In the meantime, Inca men took up residence with Cañari women, to subtly impose Inca beliefs on the local culture. Ingapirca, then, is a mix of Cañari and Inca influences. For example, many of the structures here are round or oval-shaped, which is very atypical of the Incas. In fact, Ingapirca is home to the only oval-shaped sacred Inca palace in the world.
Ingapirca means "the wall of the Inca," and you can see some fine examples of the famed Inca masonry here. The highlight of the site is El Adoratorio/Castillo, an elliptical structure believed to be a temple to the sun. If you're here on June 21, you can watch as the sun projects light on certain symbols. Nearby are the Aposentos, rooms made with tight stonework, and thought to have been used by the high priests. Most of the remains from the Cañari culture have been found at Pilaloma, at the south end of the site (near where you first enter). Pilaloma means "small hill," and some archaeologists surmise that this was a sacred spot, especially because it is the highest point in the area. Eleven bodies (mostly of women) have been found here -- perhaps the circle of stones was some sort of tomb. On a hill behind the entrance, near the parking area, is a small museum with a relief map of the site and a collection of artifacts and relics found here.
This site is administered and run by the local community. Llamas graze among the archaeological ruins. If you're lucky enough to visit before or after the large tour buses arrive, you'll find the place has a very peaceful vibe to it.
Getting There -- The site (tel. 07/2215-115) is open daily from 8am to 6pm; admission is $6 (£4). It's best to visit Ingapirca with an experienced guide because most of the resident guides here do not speak English, and all the explanations inside the museum are in Spanish only. A full-day trip to Ingapirca out of Cuenca -- including transportation, lunch, and guided tour of the ruins, but not the admission fee -- should cost $30 to $45 (£20-£30). If you want to go to Ingapirca on your own, catch a bus from the main bus terminal in Cuenca. Cooperativa Cañar (tel. 07/2844-033) operates buses that stop at the site; they depart at 9am and 1pm, and the 2-hour ride costs $3 (£2) each way. The return buses leave Ingapirca at 1 and 4pm. On weekends, there's only the 9am bus, which returns at 1pm.
En Route South: Saraguro
Located 141km (88 miles) south of Cuenca and 64km (40 miles) north of Loja, Saraguro, along with a handful of neighboring towns, is home to a unique and traditional indigenous group known by the same name. The Saraguro are most recognized for their use of black ponchos and shawls, which some claim they wear in memory and mourning of Atahualpa, who was killed by the Spanish in 1533. Both Saraguro men and women wear their hair in a single, long braid, and the women often wear beautiful beaded necklaces. The Saraguros also are known for using distinctive broad-brimmed hats. The everyday use of their traditional dress, however, is greatly decreasing with globalization, and the Atahualpa legend has been called into doubt. Today, Saraguros can be found throughout the region, particularly in Loja and Vilcabamba . The forests and hills surrounding the town of Saraguro are a rich area for bird-watching and a beautiful spot for those wanting to see a bit of rural Ecuador.
Of interest in Saraguro is the fact that the principal church and other public buildings were built using Inca stones cut, carved, and transported from Cusco during the reign of Huayna Capac. The stones were part of a temple destined for Quito. But when a lightning storm struck the convoy transporting them near Paquishapa and Saraguro, it was thought to be a bad omen and the project was abandoned.
Hotel options are severely limited in Saraguro. Your best bet is probably Samana Wasi (tel. 07/2200-140), on Avenida 10 de Marzo, near the Pan-American Highway; it's a simple and inexpensive hostel, with clean rooms and a friendly staff.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.