Updated: May 24, 2018
When I think of pyramids, I think of Egyptian pyramids. I definitely wasn’t thinking about llamas, amazing Andean views, and ancient calendars. When our friends told us about the pyramids of Cochasqui, we thought “cool, we’d love to see some pyramids”. But this is a different kind of archaeological site, an expansive, educational, and inimitable representation of the ancient Andean culture that created it.
As we drive north from Quito past Guayllabamba towards Tabacundo, on a sharp little u-shaped bend in the highway, our friend says “turn here, this is it” and I see the big sign that says Cochasqui as I pass the turn. So I go up a little ways and turn around. And you would never suspect that this is an important national archaeological research park by the signage on the highway. But it is. And it is a very worthwhile visit too.
We drove up the unremarkable, mostly dirt road and pull into the small dirt parking lot. We walked up to the tiny, understated ticket booth and purchase our tickets for $3 for foreigners ($1 for nationals, $0.50 for students, and $0.20 for children – pets are not allowed – sorry Niele). Once through the gate we waited in a covered area that had a large topographical map in need of a little touch up, several wooden benches and stools, and a variety of photos and art. The best part was the curious greeting crew of llamas waiting at the chain link gated entrance to the pyramid area. They were a little shy, but determined that a gathering crowd meant there were treats in store for them at some point in the future.
When our guide arrived, we headed through the gate and the llamas ran off to the hills close by to watch our every move, quietly awaiting their turn to participate in the tour. The park does have English speaking guides, however, our group was mostly Ecuadorian, and therefore we had a Spanish speaking guide. First on the tour was one of the smaller pyramids which had been excavated so that we could see part of the structure. Our guide explained some history of these pre-Colombian and pre-Incan ruins which sit on 84 hectares (210 acres) and consist of 15 truncated pyramids and 21 burial mounds which are called tolas (see note 1). Archaeologists date the site construction between 950 CE and the Spanish conquest of the 1530s. Exactly how the pyramids were constructed is not clear, but archaeologists believe that Cochasqui was “a ceremonial and astronomical center for the Quitu-Cara culture, a developed social, technological and scientific organization that inhabited a vast region from the coast to the Amazon and from the north of the province of Pichincha to the southern region of Columbia” (see note 1).
We walked down the gentle slopes of the valleys between the pyramids and their ramps on large wooden steps laid onto grass paths as our guide explained the archaeological theories of the ancient pyramids. Our guide also explained that this particular location was most likely one critical reason that the Quitu-Cara people used to choose this site due to its expansive views and high altitude. The views alone were marvelous. We made our way past the largest pyramid which measures approximately 90 meters (300 feet) long by 80 meters (260 feet) wide and 21 meters (69 feet) high (see note 1), then headed back uphill to the astrological center. The excavated astrological center was covered by a corrugated metal roof held up by large, smooth logs, and contained both a very large sun calendar and a large moon calendar. The sun and moon calendars were believed to assist in determining planting and harvesting seasons.
We walked slightly uphill to just in front of a restoration of a small, covered suspension bridge. And almost miraculously, llamas began to gather from all over the large property, eagerly awaiting their treat. Our guide provided small amounts of natural salt for those of us who were interested in making friends with the llamas. It was amazing how shy each llama was as they cautiously approached our outstretched palms and how soft their lips and tongue were as they gently ate the salt from our hands. Once the excitement of feeding the llamas had passed, we headed further uphill to a small plateau where there were wooden benches overlooking the entire pyramid area. Our guide explained further the importance of this archaeological site to the history of the ancient people of Ecuador. At that altitude on the plateau you could really imagine the significance of the view and the pyramids to the communities living in and around this location.
Our hike continued to a eucalyptus tree-lined road traversing the property which the conquering Spanish built to travel across the mountain. Our guide explained the significance of many of the plants and trees to the Quitu-Cara culture and how they were used in everyday life. We walked through a hand-made gate up a narrow dirt path to a restoration of a Quitu-Cara domicile from pre-Spanish times. The home contained numerous artifacts that showed the normal, everyday life of a typical family with sleeping areas, a kitchen and an eating area as well as a complete garden with a variety of plants that would have been cultivated by the family.
We followed the Spanish-built, stone and mud walled road back to the heritage museum near the entrance to the park. As we entered the classic Ecuadorian style building with its numerous artifacts distinctly displayed, our guide explained the meaning, purpose and history of each piece. As we lingered and listened, the cultural significance of and pride in the archaeological findings became quite clear. To show us more insight into the daily lives of the ancient people, our guide walked us from the museum to a restoration of an ancient hut near the entrance gate. Inside were numerous artifacts and explanations of daily society including chores, hunting, games, art, clothing and community artifacts. Our guide led us through daily life in a village as well as allowing us to try our hand at some of the ancient games.
Overall, this is an excellent display of ancient Andean life as well as the miracles of ancient construction and astrology. The tour is approximately 1.5 – 2.5 km (0.93 – 1.55 miles) mostly on grass and wooden planked stairs. The temperature and climate varies, as it always does in the Andes, however I would recommend being prepared for anything from sun to rain to wind with temperatures of 10C – 27C (50F – 80F). The museum building and cultural hut are a bit on the musty side for anyone who suffers from allergies or asthma. But it was a fascinating look into ancient Andean culture, customs, and history, and well worth the few hours that it took and the $3 entry fee. For more information and to plan your visit, see the links provided below.
Lynn, Bob and Niele
Note 1: Information obtained from Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochasqu%C3%AD