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Glimpsing Two Cultures – Ingapirca Archaeological Site, Ecuador

Ecuador has less than a dozen major archaeological sites. Ingapirca, near Cuenca, is the biggest archaeological site in Ecuador and because it was created by the Cañari people before being expanded by the Incas, Ingapirca a great place to get a glimpse of two cultures.

Ingapirca ruins Ecuador

The Temple of the Sun at the Ingapirca archaeological site in Ecuador.

Exploring Ecuador’s Ingapirca archaeological site

The Ingapirca archaeological site (US$2 per person including a 45 minute guided tour of the site in English or Spanish, guides are mandatory) is sometimes called Inka Pirka. It’s at nearly 10,500 feet (3,200 meters) and the name means Incan Stone Walls in Quechua and there are certainly plenty of walls, but they’re not all Incan.

Ingapirca Incan ruins Ecuador

The Temple of the Sun at the Ingapirca archaeological site in Ecuador.

The first structures at Ingapirca were built by the Cañari people as their capital in the north. By the 15th century, the Incas were on the rise and they ultimately took over Ingapirca which they used as a ceremonial site and a defensive installation. 

Visitors can still see circular holes in the ground which were probably used to store crops. There’s a House of the Virgins where young women were sequestered, and there were neighborhoods where people lived.

Ingapirca archaeology site Ecuador

The Temple of the Sun at the Ingapirca archaeological site in Ecuador.

The Cañari constructed a Temple of the Moon and when the Incas moved in they built a Temple of the Sun, also called The Castle. This oblong building is on a small rise and features the Incas signature precisely cut stonework. However, the odd shape of the temple, dictated by the piece of land that’s it’s on, meant that mortar had to be used in some places even through the Incas almost never used mortar.

Incan walls - Ingapirca Ecuador

Amazing Incan stonework in the curved walls of the Temple of the Sun.

There’s also a museum at the site with displays described in English and Spanish. We recommend that you start there. The 20 minutes it takes to see the museum will give you a little context for the site itself.

Get an overview of the Ingapirca archaeological site in our drone video, below.

There are a handful of small shops and basic restaurants near the entrance to the Ingapirca site. A nearby trail leads to a huge rock called the Incan Face (for reasons you can imagine). As we walked toward the view point over that rock (which does actually look like a classic Incan profile) we passed an old woman selling things out of her home including carved stone amulets, a star-shaped carved stone weapon, and some amazing pottery.

Ingapirca Ecuador

The Temple of the Sun at the Ingapirca archaeological site in Ecuador.

To our untrained eyes it seemed like she had real artifacts from the site. It’s well-known that before the site was protected stones were taken from Ingapirca and used to build other structures in the area, first by the Spanish conquistadors, who arrived before the Incas were done expanding the site, and then by locals. It’s not inconceivable that a few artifacts were spirited out along the way.

Alpaca Ingapirca Ecuador

An alpaca, one of the best things that come with high altitude locations.

Adventures around Ingapirca

The Ingapirca site is only about an hour and a half from Cuenca and you’ll be tempted to simply take one of the many day trips offered from the city. However, if you have the time plan to spend at least one night in the area. It’s lovely countryside through which you can ride horses and hike, in part, on sections of the Inca Trail.

Posada Ingapirca Ecuador

Posada Ingapirca hotel and restaurant.

There’s also a wonderful hotel less than a 10 minute walk from the Ingapirca site. Posada Ingapirca is owned and operated by the same family that runs Hotel Victoria in Cuenca. The original building at Posada Ingapirca is more than 200 years old and the family purchased it and the property in the ’90s. After renovating the property and adding modern bathrooms and electricity to a wide range of rooms it opened as a quaint and comfortable country hotel. 

Posada Ingapirca Ecuador

The dining room is in a 200-year-old building at Posada Ingapirca.

Rooms have thick adobe walls, exposed beams in the ceilings, hand painted head boards and no TVs. Some rooms have fireplaces and hot water bottles are provided at night. Alpacas roam the property and there’s a small cuy (guinea pig) farm. The floor of the main building and restaurant creaks and the whole structure moves when anyone enters or exits.

lake Culebrillas Inca trail hike Ingapirca

Lake Culebrillas in Sangay National Park in Ecuador.

Even if you’re not spending the night at Posada Ingapirca, stop by for a meal (US$10 lunch or dinner). The menu is full of gourmet takes on Ecuadorean classics. We particularly remember the succulent lamb and, of course, the soups.

lake Culebrillas hike Inca trail to Ingapirca Ecuador

Hiking through the paramo.

While we were at Posada Ingapirca we took a fantastic guided hike. After driving about an hour to Lake Culebrillas in the vast Sangay National Park, we started the 8 mile (12 km) route around the lake, along part of the Inca Trail, then across high altitude paramo landscapes at more than 13,000 feet (4,000 meters). The route also passes a rarely visited Inca tambo (roadside or trail-side guest house). Allow about five hours and in wet weather you may want rubber boots.

Tambo Incan Ruins Culebrillas hike Ecuador

Exploring the remains of a remote Incan tambo.

 

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Hiking On Sacred (and soggy) Ground – Cajas National Park, Ecuador

In Cajas National Park, high altitude grasslands spool out like waves of velvet around creeks and ponds as llamas wander through a landscape that was considered sacred ground by the Cañari people. After hiking in Cajas National Park you may feel the same way.

Cajas National Park - Cuenca, Ecuador

A moody moment in Cajas National park in Ecuador.

Hiking in Cajas National Park

Cajas National Park (free admission), just 20 miles (30 km) from Cuenca, was founded in 1996 and exists at altitudes between 10,100 feet (3,100 meters) and 14,600 feet (4,450 meters). The park covers 7,000 acres (2,800 hectares) which are dotted with hundreds of lakes of varying sizes and is part of a larger UNESCO Biosphere Reserve which was declared in 2013.

Hiking Cajas National Park Ecuador

That blonde grass is one of the few plants that can survive in the windy, cold, high-altitude conditions in Cajas National Park.

There are a variety of trails within Cajas National Park ranging from quick walks to multi-day hikes. If you’re going anywhere off the beaten path take a guide. It is notoriously easy to get lost in Cajas National Park. Detailed maps, GPS coordinates and trail descriptions are available here.

Hiking Cajas National Park Ecuador

In Cajas National Park, water is king.

We hiked the popular (and clearly marked) Torreadas Trail which heads out from the park’s visitor center, which has bathrooms and a basic cafeteria, and around Lake Torreadas. The trail meanders past brooks, smaller bodies of water, over wooden bridges and through clusters of gnarled and stunted polylepis trees. Allow at least 1.5 hours an wears layers. The weather changed a lot during our hike. The climate is driest between August and January, but it can be cold and wet at any time.

Puya bromeliad - Cajas National Park Ecuador

A hardy puya bromeliad in Cajas National Park.

Sleeping in Cajas National Park

Most people visit the park on a day trip from Cuenca, but if you want to have a longer stay you can camp in some areas (be prepared for cold and wet) and there are a few basic shared refugios (like cabins) in the park too.

Dos Chorreras Hosteria - Cajas National Park Ecuador

Dos Chorreras Hosteria near Cajas National Park.

If you don’t want to rough it, consider Dos Chorreras Hosteria. Everything is oversized at this place which channels a Montana lodge by way of the Andes and is located just a few miles from the park entrance. The restaurant seats up to 200. The shop in the enormous lobby sells everything from rubber boots to artisanal cheese, lending a Latin Cracker Barrel look and feel.

Dos Chorreras Hosteria - Cajas National Park Cuenca, Ecuador

The dramatic setting of Dos Chorreras Hosteria.

The rooms are larger than life too. We are in room #13 which has a huge fireplace (there are 14 fireplaces in the hotel) and a jetted tub for two. There are also duplex rooms, family rooms, and a stand alone cabin in which former Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa once slept.

Dos Chorreras Hosteria - Cajas NP, Cuenca, Ecuador

Dos Chorreras Hosteria offers a wide range of rooms, including one cabin where former President Rafael Correa once slept.

Horse back riding on the 9,800 acre (4,000 hectare) property is offered and you can take a guided tour of Pueblito Guavidula, a reconstruction of a small village that was built above the hosteria in the 1800s along what as the only road through the area. A home, a shop. and the gold mine have been restored and can be toured with a guide. It’s like touring a ghost town in the United States, but much, much older.

Pueblito Guavidula - Dos Chorreras Hosteria - Cajas NP

Part of Pueblito Guavidula, a restored ancient village above Dos Chorreras Hosteria.

There are also many trout ponds on the property and we’re told that a member of the Carrasco family, that’s owned the property since the ’80s, was the first in the area to farm trout on a commercial scale — something that’s common now.

Even if you’re not staying at Dos Chorreras it’s a good place to stop for a hot beverage and a few of their famous cheese-filled fried empanadas.

 

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On the Handicraft Trail – Cuenca, Ecuador

Spend a day traveling around the handicraft trail near Cuenca, Ecuador and you’ll see the area’s rich weaving, hat making, and jewelry making traditions which are being kept alive by artisans doing their traditional work in lovely small towns east of the city. Just don’t do it on a Sunday.

Ikat style weaving Casa de Makana - Cuenca, Ecuador

Traditional weaving being done at Casa de Makana near Cuenca.

On the handicraft trail

On the side of the road which runs through the town of Bulcay you’ll see a big sign for Casa de la Makana. Here, Jose Jimenez and his wife Ana Ulloa, who was once pictured weaving on an Ecuador tourism poster, make textiles using a technique which is shockingly similar to Bali’s ikat weavings. Jose says his grandmother taught it to him and the ikat tradition does has a history in Latin America. Up to 4,000 knots are made by hand per day to create intricate designs before the dying process begins using all natural colorants including lichen, indigo, Cochineal beetles, and more.

Natural dyes Makana weaving Bulcay, Ecuador

Before weaving, fibers are dyed naturally using bark, seeds, leaves, and more at Casa de Makana near Cuenca.

Macana weaving - Cuenca, Ecuador

Though you may associate it with Indonesia, ikat style weaving has a history in Latin America too.

Ex President of Ecuador Rafael Correa has worn their creations as has the Queen of Spain and actor Salma Hayek wore one of their makanas (that’s a Quechua word for shawl) portraying Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in the movie Frida. 

Weaving Casa de Makana - Bulcay Cuenca Ecuador

Putting the finishing touches on a textile at Casa de Makana.

As we took the excellent free tour (Spanish only) through the makana making process, Jose told us that many families in the area used to weave like this. Now he and his family are among the last. Before leaving we bought a makana (sometimes spelled macana) for Karen’s mom in the small upstairs gift shop.

Ikat makana weaving - Bucay Cuenca Ecuador

Finished items for sale in the small shop at Casa de Makana.

In the town of Sig Sig (yes, that’s a real name) it’s all about hand-woven hats called toquillas, aka Panama hats (which were never made in Panama). In 2012 Ecuador’s traditional toquillas were named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and we were excited to see the weavers in the large hat making co-op in Sig Sig. Unfortunately, we were in town on Sunday when the co-op is closed. Learn from our mistake.

Sig Sig Ecuador

A street vendor in Sig Sig, Ecuador.

Gualaceo, about 20 miles (30 km) from Cuenca, is a charming river side town known for jewelry and pottery, but we found the new market building to be sterile and uninteresting so we headed to Chordeleg where we found dozens of shops selling the area’s famous sterling silver filigree jewelry. It’s not our thing, but you have to admire the intricate work.

Ecuagenera orchids - Gualaceo, Ecuador

Ecuadorean orchids in Gualaceo.

Orchids aren’t exactly a handicraft, but they’re gorgeous nonetheless. Stop into the road side orchidarium on the way to Gualaceo to see hundreds of different shapes, sizes, and varieties of orchids produced by Ecuagenera in the Amazon, Guayaquil, and in Gualaceo. Most are exported around the world but you can buy from this shop as well.

Orchids - Gualaceo, Ecuador

Ecuadorean orchids in Gualaceo.

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City Travel Guide: Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca, Ecuador is an expat mecca which means you’re going to hear more English (and French and German) and see more North American and European faces here than anywhere else in Ecuador except maybe the Galapagos Islands. But Cuenca is also full of history, culture, hotels, and good food (you can thank the expats for that last one), as you’ll see in this travel guide to Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca.

Plaza de las Flores - Cuenca, Ecuador

Plaza de las Flores in Cuenca, Ecuador.

Cuenca was first inhabited by nomadic cave men and more securely established in 500 AD. The place has been important to the Cañari people, the Incas, Spanish conquistadors, and now people from all over the world including the proud Cholas Cuencanas who swish around the city in their layered skirts, bright colors, and braids.

Architecture in the Historic Center of Cuenca, Ecuador

Architecture in the historic center of Cuenca, Ecuador.

Situated at 8,200 feet (2,500 meters), the Tomebamba River runs through the city whose historic center has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999 on the merits of the colonial architecture there. When you’re done exploring the city, Cuenca makes a good base for visits to the Ingapirca archaeological site and Cajas National Park.

Historic Center - Cuenca, Ecuador

A typical street scene in Cuenca, Ecuador.

 What to do in Cuenca

Churches ofCuenca, Ecuador

Just a few of the 52 churches in Cuenca, Ecuador.

There are 52 churches in Cuenca, so you could spend your whole visit just peeking into them. Instead, focus on the best of the churches and save some time for the architecture, art, and culture in Cuenca too.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception or the New Cathedral - Cuenca, Ecuador

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, aka the New Cathedral.

We took the guided tour (US$3, in English) of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, commonly referred to as the New Cathedral, which includes the crypt and a hike up to the terrace on top for views of the city.

Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception - Cuenca, Ecuador

Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

The Museo de Arte Moderno (better known as MMAM) is located in a peaceful renovated house which was originally built in the 17th century. It’s any small rooms and outdoor courtyards now provide the right setting for a changing selection of modern art (free, donation requested).

 Museo de Arte Moderno (MMAM) - Cuenca, Ecuador

A playful sculpture at the Museo de Arte Moderno (MMAM).

Cuenca shows its Incan roots at the Pumapungo archaeological site (free) which preserves some of what remains of the city of Pumapungo (“the door of the puma”) which the Incas established after narrowly defeating the Cañari people. Researchers believe Pumapungo was second only to the Incan capital of Cusco. Located in the historic center of the city on a hillock over the Tomebamba River, this site is primarily a collection of stone walls and foundations and a re-constructed building.

Pumapungo archaeological site, Cuenca, Ecuador

The Pumapungo archaeological site is an Incan construction that’s right in the middle of modern Cuenca.

The nearby Pumapungo Museum (free) is the city’s biggest museum and it delivers a colorful, comprehensive deep dive into the different cultures and ethnic groups in Ecuador including clothing, customs, money, pottery, textiles, and more. The museum also has some shrunken heads from the Shuar people. Most display explanations are in Spanish.

Pumapungo Museum - Cuenca, Ecuador

A display in the Pumapungo Museum.

So-called Panama hats actually come from Ecuador (they got their misleading name with US President Theodore Roosevelt was given one to shield him from the sun while touring the Panama Canal). Hat making is a revered art in the country and Cuenca is home to a number of master hat makers. The most famous is Homero Ortega. We also found good quality hats (at cheaper prices) at La Paja Toquilla.

Architecture Historic Center - Cuenca, Ecuador

More architecture in the historic center of Cuenca.

Many walking tours of the city are offered as well and some of them are free (but tip if you can). This can be a good way to quickly get a taste of the architecture and history of Cuenca.

On a hillside on the outskirts of the city is the Amaru Bioparque Cuenca Zoologico  ($4) where some animal enclosures at the self-funded zoo appear to be made from chicken wire and ingenuity. This worked well to craft a kind of monkey habi-trail that allowed the monkeys to roam further without getting out, but it did seem like the puma could probably escape if she really wanted to.

Spectacled Bear - Amaru Bioparque Cuenca Zoologico

Andean bears at the Amaru zoo in Cuenca.

We also saw Andean bears (the zoo was also home to the first Andean bear cubs born in captivity in Ecuador), lions, condors, and a wide range of reptiles in an exhibit completed in association with the young and passionate herpetologists and tour guides at Tropical Herping.

To tour the zoo you have to walk along a 1.5 mile (2 km) dirt trail that is steep and uneven in places, so wear walking shoes and clothes. Allow at least an hour and a half.

Street Art, Cuenca, Ecuador

Street art in Cuenca.

Restaurants in Cuenca

Another great thing to do in Cuenca is eat. Thanks, in part, to the large expat community the city has a lot of restaurants catering to a many different tastes.

Fabianos pizza, Cuenca, Ecuador

Dinner at Fabiana’s pizza.

Fabiano’s Pizza serves legit pizza (see above) at great prices to a crowd that’s heavy on the expats (the place had a festive nursing home vibe). The most expensive 12 slice pizza was around US$17.00 and a generous glass of wine was US$3.50. Cash only. English is spoken (did we mention the expats?).

Arepas Moliendo Café, Cuenca, Ecuador

Amped up arepas at Moliendo Cafe.

Arepas are a humble thing, unless you get them at Moliendo Café where this simple cornmeal patty is topped with heaping portions of home cooked Colombian favorites including beans, hogao (a rich sauce of chopped and simmered vegetables), chorizo, chicharron (fried cubes of meaty pork skin), and much more. Portions (around US$3.50 per order) are huge. The Colombian owners also import Postobon soda and Aguila and Poker beer from Colombia.

El Mercado restaurant, Cuenca, Ecuador

Part of the most impressive meal we had in Cuenca, at El Mercado restaurant.

One of the best meals we had in Cuenca was at El Mercado, overlooking the river where polished international cuisine (rack of lamb, grilled octopus, risotto) is served along with creative cocktails (don’t miss their version of a Moscow Mule made with fresh ginger, agave syrup, aguardiente and soda water) and an extensive (for Ecuador) wine list. The excellent bread is homemade, the tableware is chic, and the service is good. The owners also have their own organic farm outside the city and we hope they never take the luscious grilled salad off the menu.

Thirsty? The Far Out brewery makes German style craft beer which you can get at their brew pub in the historic center of Cuenca. 

Ristorante Trastavere, Cuenca, Ecuador

Chef Massimo is from Rome and his Ristorante Trastavere is super Italian.

Ristorante Trastavere, on the corner near the intersection of Honorata Vazquez and Presidente Borrara Streets, is the creation of Rome-born chef Massimo. He opened the place in 2015 and continues to make homemade pasta, gnocchi, bread, and sauces. He makes his own mozzarella, smokes his own fish, and cures his own meats too. The food, served on red and white checked tablecloths in a small dining room above his even smaller open kitchen, is extraordinary. He now has a pizza joint across the street so Fabiano’s has some competition.

La Chalupa, Cuenca, Ecuador

Just one of the inventive cocktails at La Chalupa.

La Chalupa Mediterranean restaurant was opened in 2015 by a young Basque chef. It’s a festive place, equally good for a meal or one of the cocktails created by bartender  Bernardo Arias. Order his Cajas Spirit cocktail which, he says, was inspired by nearby Cajas National Park. It’s made with rum or tequila that he infuses with herbs harvested from the park. Then tonic water, lime juice, and Angostura bitters are added (around US$5). It’s bracing and refreshing, just like a hike in its namesake park.

Cuenca is full of coffee shops and cafes. We had great brews at Goza Espresso Bar and at Café de Nucallacta where they only serve Ecuadorean coffee that they’ve roasted themselves.

Tiesto's, Cuenca, Ecuador

Chef Juan Carlos Solano in a rare quiet moment at Tiesto’s.

Sure you can order off the menu of Ecuadorean classics at Tiesto’s, but it’s much more fun to let Juan Carlos Solano, the self-taught chef and owner, tell you what you should eat. The well-trained waiters will make sure you understand the wide variety of house made condiments which are meant to be eaten in a specific order and in specific combinations. Solano is all about playing with flavors and whether he’s cooking prawns or pork he’s got a vision of the final dish and how it should be enjoyed. Buckle up and go along for the ride.

For a snack or light lunch head to the corner of Juan Jaramillo and Estrella Streets. Here you’ll find a cluster of small places selling sanduches de pernil (roasted pork leg sandwiches) for about US$2. Pick a place (they’re all good) and enjoy.

Rio Tomebamba, Cuenca, Ecuador

Part of what defines Cuenca is the Rio Tomebamba which runs through it.

Hotels in Cuenca

Hotel Los Balcones is a long-standing favorite in Cuenca because it’s right in the center, moderately priced for a mid-range hotel in this city, and is a comfortable combination of history (the building was constructed as a private home in the 18th century) and modern amenities. Service is excellent, many rooms have small balconies (as the name would imply) and the sunny upstairs breakfast room is a great place to start your day.

Hotel Los Balcones , Cuenca, Ecuador

Our room at Hotel Los Balcones in Cuenca.

Hotel Santa Lucia, a bit musty and dusty around the edges, is located in the historic center in a building that was built in 1859. The place is full of antiques and history. Read our full review of Hotel Santa Lucia for Luxury Latin America.

Hotel Santa Lucia - Cuenca, Ecuador

A room at Hotel Santa Lucia in Cuenca.

Hotel Victoria is owned by the Duran family, pioneers in tourism in Cuenca (they also own Posada Ingapirca near the Ingapirca archaeological site). The riverfront hotel is iconic in the city as is its El Jardin restaurant which is modern incarnation of a restaurant created in the 1970s.

Hotel Victoria - Cuenca, Ecuador

Our room at Hotel Victoria in Cuenca.

Hotel Victoria is not a fancy place in the traditional sense of luxury, but it is flawlessly dignified. Rooms vary greatly and some (like ours) are small, but we had a great river view and lots of ambiance. A great full breakfast with made-to-order eggs is served daily in the El Jardin dining room with river views.

Hotel Zahir 360 is a real anomaly in Cuenca. In a city where almost every hotel exists in a historic building full of antiques, the Zahir is sleek and modern. It’s also not in the historic center but on the other side of the river. Read our full review of Hotel Zahir 360 for Luxury Latin America.

Zahir 360 hotel - Cuenca, Ecuador

The Zahir 360 breaks from the hotel crowd in Cuenca with a very modern design.

We walked past the Siena Hotel on our last day in Cuenca. We did not stay at this central hotel, but we did quickly tour some rooms and it was stylish and comfortable and nailed a boutique hotel vibe better than any other hotel we saw in the city.

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Our Latest Work: Manaus, Lima, the Galapagos, Machu Picchu & More…

We just realized that we haven’t published a post about Our Latest Work in a really, really long time. We can fix that. Our most recent freelance travel stories are about Lima, Peru for the Delta Sky Magazine, Manaus, Brazil for CNN Travel, and the Che Guevara trail in Bolivia for the website for the Biography channel.

Delta Sky Magazine - Lima

If you’re on a Delta Airlines flight this month, check our first story for Delta Sky Magazine which where to eat, sleep, and enjoy in three great neighborhoods in Lima. Or read it here

CNN Manaus

This guide to the best things to do in Manaus, Brazil is our first story for CNN Travel. 

 

Bio.com che in Bolivia

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the death of Che Guevara, Bio.com published our story about touring the tiny Bolivian town where he was secretly buried

 

T+L Guide to galapagos Islands

Here are some favorite stories of ours which were published earlier in the year, including our all new Travel Guide to the Galapagos Islands for Travel + Leisure

 

Good - Peruvian chef Ocampo

We were delighted to write about Peruvian Chef Palmiro Ocampo and his quest to reduce food waste and hunger for Good magazine. 

 

T+L Guide to Machu Picchu

We also updated Travel+ Leisure’s Travel Guide to Machu Picchu, Peru’s most famous (and most complicated) destination. 

 

Afar - Travel Fails

Then there was our quick and funny (we hope) piece about real-life Travel Fails for Afar magazine. 

 

And if going green (er) is your thing, check out our story about cutting-edge eco measures in the Galapagos which was published in newspapers across Canada. 

 

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The Most Interesting Border (So Far) – Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia and Topiary Cemetery in Ecuador

We’ve crossed nearly 60 borders in the Americas so far on our little road trip and they’re usually dead boring. But not this one. When you cross between Ipiales, Colombia and Tulcán, Ecuador you can visit two totally travel worthy sites, the Disney-esque Las Lajas Sanctuary on the Colombia side and a massive topiary filled cemetery on the Ecuador side, in a single day.

Las Lajas Sanctuary Ipiales, Colombia

Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia near the border with Ecuador.

Las Lajas Sanctuary in Colombia

Less than 10 miles (16 km) from the border with Ecuador you will find the most elaborate and unexpected church in Colombia. The Gothic revival style Las Lajas Sanctuary dominates a narrow gorge and was built between 1916 and 1949. The massive stone church rises 330 feet from the bottom of the canyon where the Guáitara River rages. The elaborate Roman Catholic church is accessed via a 160-foot-long stone foot bridge. 

The Las Lajas Sanctuary may look a bit Disney-esque, but it’s a serious pilgrimage site.

But the Las Lajas Sanctuary isn’t just famous for its location and architecture (which looks like something straight out of Europe, or Disneyland). In 1754, an indigenous woman named Maria Mueces and her deaf-mute daughter, Rosa, were walking through the gorge when Rosa wandered into a cave and suddenly spoke.

What the previously deaf and mute woman said was that she’d seen a woman carrying a baby. This was eventually interpreted as a sighting of the Virgin Mary and the deaf-mute woman’s sudden ability to speak was considered a miracle. Now thousands of pilgrims visit Las Lajas each year.

Tourist lama photo Las Lajas Sanctuary - Ipiales, Colombia

We’re not sure what photo opps with dressed up llamas have to do with purported miracles, but it’s a thing at Las Lajas Sanctuary.

When we were there a cable car was in the final stages of construction. If you visit now you can ride the teleferico instead of walking up and down to the sanctuary. You will also find the cheapest bed in Colombia at the sanctuary where you can sleep in a spartan nun’s room at a nearby cloister for less than US$10 for two people

Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

The topiary-filled Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán, Ecuador near the border with Colombia.

Municipal Cemetery in Ecuador

About five miles (8 km) from the border on the outskirts of the town of Tulcán you’ll find the Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán.

Topiary Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

Flora and fauna and Aztec and Egyptian imagery inspired the elaborate topiary in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

In the 1930s, local gardener Josè Maria Azael Franco began sculpting the cypress bushes that grow in the cemetery where he worked. Inspired by Ecuadorian flora, fauna and indigenous cultures, including animals from the Galapagos Islands plus themes from Roman, Incan, Aztec, and Egyptian culture, Mr. Franco shaped the plants, which can live for 500 years and grow more than 100 feet (33 meters) tall.

Gardening Topiary Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

A gardener keeps things tidy in the Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán.

Over the years every cypress was transformed until the cemetery was, in Mr. Franco’s own words, “so beautiful it invites one to die.” The Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán now has more than 100 enormous, intricate creations covering the three-acre site, which some of Mr. Franco’s sons now maintain following the creator’s death.

Topiary gardens Municipal Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

We loved the topiary crucifix in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

These cross-border sites were so interesting that we did a story about them for Atlas Obscura, where you’ll find even more details about what could be the most interesting border in the Americas.

Cemetery of Tulcán, Ecuador

You can walk through this topiary tunnel in the Municipal Cemetery in Tulcán.

 

Here’s more about travel in Colombia

Here’s more about travel in Ecuador

 

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