There are few places on this earth that are as satisfying to the soul as Ingapirca. I do not say this with spiritual intent, although you may experience Ingapirca this way; I am not a religious man.

What I do mean is that this place holds much significance: historically, culturally, architecturally. It’s as if these things are bound together in a single strand. On some level, you intuit its balance, its unity, and understand why Ingapirca is what and where it is. This is Ecuador’s Acropolis.

Ingapirca is on the Qhapaq Ñan, the “royal road” in Quechua, known also as the Andean Road System or the Inca Trail, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Indeed, the Inca Trail runs directly through the heart of Ingapirca, though now this section is a roped-off museum piece and no longer the vital communications, defence, and trade network it was. Still, the few metres of cobbled roadways that exist on this remarkable heritage preserve immediately impress with their former greatness. The avenue is wide and well-constructed; still-functioning aqueducts hurtle fresh rainwater toward the citadel.

You will find Ingapirca, the village and 16th-century ruins, about 90 minutes northeast of Cuenca in Cañar Province. You may of course take a bus from Cuenca. Chantal and I, and our constant globetrotting companions Chris and Filiep, drove from Quito and then Baños de Agua Santa, along the hair-raising Panamericana/Troncal de la Sierra. Which sounds like an impressively maintained stretch of modern highway – and parts of it are. Others, not so much. In heavy fog and high altitude, the route is utter treachery. Don’t ever think you could do it at night.

Ingapirca is what I always imagined the Andes would be: low-slung stone houses with Spanish colonial ceramic roof tiles; precipitous peaks and deep, verdant valleys; sparkling mountain streams; fragrant eucalyptus trees. And above it all, and everywhere around us, the ancient remains of a mysterious empire.

It is magnificent.

When to Go

The charter buses from Cuenca start to pull in just before noon, at which time the place becomes a swarming hot mess of ridiculous telephoto lenses and Columbia trek fashion.

We arrived instead at opening, 10:00 am, and had the place to ourselves. Our guide gave us a very informative personalized tour – in the rain, which is relentless: bring a poncho. When we were done, he recommended that we hike the Inca Trail past several ageless landmarks and through some of the most devastatingly pretty landscape I have ever seen. Our walk took about an hour. At 3,160 metres above sea level, we had to stop frequently to catch our breath. By the time we returned, the trail was crawling with tourists.

Tip: If you arrive at opening and complete your tour by lunchtime, take your almuerzo at the family-run restaurant/handicraft shop/baño at the trailhead, near the entrance to the ruins. The food is authentic, hot, well-prepared, and inexpensive. Try the seco de carne.

Where to Stay

Posada Ingapirca. Do yourself a favour and splurge the sixty bucks. This 200-plus year-old restored farmhouse is so far beyond your understanding of romance that it hardly registers, except as its own distinctive experience. It is 300 metres from the ruins. Many of the habitaciones have fireplaces. The llama-inhabited grounds are lovingly, charmingly maintained. Posada’s restaurant is delightfully cozy on a cold Andean night. Breakfast is included in the room rate.

Tip: Bring your own wine for in-room quaffing. You can buy it at the restaurant, but management charges more for bottle service than if you’d ordered it from the menu at dinner.