Don’t be lazy, don’t steal and don’t kill.
Those are the three simple rules that govern the modern lives of Ecuador’s indigenous Canari people who live in the mountains and valleys surrounding the city of Cuenca.
Of course they fall under Ecuador’s national laws, there’s no escaping that.
But it seems to me that the boundaries governing the lives of the Canari seem a bit easier than the ten commandments.
From just three simple rules a highly complex society and culture has evolved and endured over the centuries. And I had the opportunity to see the colour and vibrancy of the Canari on one of their most sacred days – the summer solstice.
We’d been learning the Spanish language in Cuenca for the past six weeks and our school, Simon Bolivar, invited us to come along on a field trip to Ingapirca, Ecuador’s largest Inca site that falls within the lands of the Canari. I went, as Carmen had house sitting duties back in Cuenca.
The trip fell on the the longest day of the year and I was actually going to see two celebrations – the solstice and the harvest festival.
On the drive out from Cuenca our guide from school, Sandra, told us all about the Canari and the traditional way of life they still lead even in this modern age. She said they have their own way of doing things, especially when it comes to justice, and if you break any of their three simple rules you can land yourself in big trouble.
Canari law-breakers will be taken to a certain area and whipped and stoned. Everyone in the community is called to watch the criminal be punished. The local police try to arrive as quickly as possible to prevent the violence but they’re not always successful.
Some have died from these beatings.
The Canari are a strong people. When the Inca empire was expanding throughout Ecuador in the 13th century they were stopped in their tracks when they reached lands controlled by the Canaris. The only way the Incas could conquer the Canari was for their leader to marry a local princess to get the two communities to live together peacefully.
The fruit of this peace is the magnificent archaeological site of Ingapirca which holds a temple of the sun; an ancient wonder constructed with immense care so that when the solstices occur the sun shines through a door way.
But that’s all fallen down these days. However the rounded temple’s foundations are still standing and we wandered through history and around its fascinating stone steps and levels during our visit.
Check out my video of the temple of the sun here:
The construction of the temple of the sun
The temple is a thing of wonder. The entire construction was built without mortar so every single stone piece fits perfectly to make its structure strong enough to hold together. The story goes that in Cusco, the Peruvian capital of the Incas, when the Spanish built colonial houses on top of Incan foundations their buildings were torn asunder by earthquakes while the ancient stones were unharmed.
The terraces surrounding the temple of the sun hold many fascinating ruins and give clues to what life was like when the Inca ruled their empire. A long stone covered track knifing through the site is said to be the remains of an Inca road, the very thing that allowed them to keep order and conduct trade across the vast distances they held.
There’s also a strange boulder covered in deeply gouged holes. There are plenty of theories about what it was used for with most agreeing it’s some sort of calendar and the holes would be filled with water and line up with star reflections.
After we’d picked Ingapirca apart we walked down to a hidden valley where a very cool reminder of the Incas looms large, and Inca head. No one knows how it was formed or whether it was carved out or came into being via nature.
Dancing to celebrate the summer solstice in Ingapirca
Back at the entrance to Ingapirca the summer soltice celebrations of the Canari were in full swing.
The women were dressed in their bright traditional clothing whose designs have gone unchanged for many years. Troupes of young people performed traditional dances for the crowd and we got swept away in the moment, clapping along and enjoying the spectacle.
You can watch a few of the performances, and snippets from the ceremony, here:
It was time to go. But not before I tried something at the very heart of traditional Ecuadorian culture.
Limpio is the act of spiritually cleansing evil spirits and maladies from the body.
I sat on a small stool and an old Canari woman beat me senseless with a handful of flowers and herbs which she then broke and put against my nose. I inhaled and felt strangely light and elated.
She then took a bottle of herb infused water, took a swig and spat it all over my head and face. She went around behind me, lifted up my shirt and spat all over my back!
You can watch me get ‘limpioed’ here:
Afterwards I paid her a few dollars, said my thanks and ambled down the road, feeling light on my feet and cleansed.
On the longest day of the year, at one of Ecuador’s most sacred sites, I got much more than I bargained for. I felt I’d connected with an ancient culture that is still vibrant and strong today.
I wiped my eyes and smiled at the sunlight glittering through the trees. Noticed the majestic mountains. Felt like a hawk soaring through the sky…
Much later, when the effects of the limpio had worn off, I found out that the herbs she’d beaten me with and made me smell are somewhat hallucinogenic.
The day was a trip back in time indeed!
Have you ever been enchanted by an ancient culture? Where was it?
Things you need to know:
Cost: Entrance to the Ingapirca ruins costs US$6. My tour cost $30 through our Spanish school Simon Bolivar but you can also get an organized excursion from most tour companies in Cuenca and these cost about US$45 – US$50.
How to get there: You can catch a Trans-Cañar bus from terminal terrestre in Cuenca at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. every day. The trip takes two hours one way and costs US$2.50. The return buses are at 1pm and 4pm. On Saturdays and Sundays the buses only return at 1pm.
The journey time is shorter going with a tour group like I did. It only was around an hour and a half by car.
When to go: The ruins are open 8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily. The summer solstice is a fun time to visit because of all the ceremonies.