Mysterious Pyramids Are Treasures of Ecuador

Article excerpt

The mysterious pyramids of Ecuador lie at the end of long, grassy ramps, reminders of a civilization lost in the Andean mists of time. All face north toward Lake San Pablo, where scholars believe the Quito-Cara civilization originated.

These pyramids rank among the least known wonders of South America. Few know of them and fewer still visit the site.

Beyond the pyramids, built between 900 and 1500 A.D., spreads a 280-degree, dreamlike landscape of green valleys and white-capped volcanoes. The vast valley of Pichincha runs toward its 15,820-foot volcanic namesake, which looms royally above Quito 50 miles away; its neighbor, the majestic, snow-crowned Cotopaxi, pierces nearby clouds; and ancient fortress ruins ride distant ridges recalling pre-Inca glories. Often shaman come to this awe-inspiring setting to absorb the pyramid energies.

In 1515, when the Incas defeated the Quito-Cara Indian tribes, they destroyed their foe's mud-brick buildings and raised their stone temples and palaces. After the conquest, the Spaniards reused the Incan stones to build their palaces and churches. Today, only the Quito-Cara's mud-brick pyramids remain, preserved under the grassy Ecuadoran earth between the Chota and Guayllabamba Rivers. The pyramids are one of Ecuador's most important archaeological sites.

Heading north from Quito on the Pan American Highway, the road forks after the village of Guayllabamba. The left fork leads through a dry landscape of acacia and cactus. North of the pueblo of Tabacundo lies Cochasqui, "the place between the lakes," with its pyramids.

We follow an ancient road once used by runners to bring news to Cochasqui. In Inca times it became part of the Inca's vast Royal Road that stretched from Colombia to Chile. Today,peasants repair it with cobblestones as we bounce past in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Luck was with us: A guide appeared after a brief wait to tell us the story of this ancient site as we walked the ramps, scrambled up the pyramids and peered down deep pits revealing the old mud bricks of the pyramids' base. Of the 15 pyramids found, nine have ramps leading to platforms and six are square; circular Indian funeral mounds dot the site.

The Quito-Caras culture began about 500 A.D., flourishing for centuries before its fierce warriors fell to Inca invaders after 20 years of war. The last battle exploded at nearby Laguna de Yahuarcocha, a lake in an extinct volcano near the provincial capital of Imbabura, called Imbarra. Later, it was dubbed the "Lake of Blood," after so many corpses of Quito-Cara warriors were tossed into it.

Scholars have uncovered a scant picture of this civilization, but much remains an undeciphered puzzle. The Caras brought to the highlands a sophisticated understanding of astronomy and were the first to recognize the equator as the track of the sun. Here they built their pyramids.

The pyramids' 40-inch square blocks, a mixture of clay and grass, weigh about 80 pounds. Chocoto, a local cement which is still used, welds them. The blocks are covered with soil; small houses or temples, possibly resembling those topping Mayan pyramids, once rose above their lofty platforms. …