An exploration route, for those who have the adventurous vein and the desire to see and discover desert roads…
They say that to uncover Inca treasures, you need to visit Loja. Amid a purple, terracotta landscape, one can’t help but evoke ancient warriors soldiering their way across the hills, concealing their gold statuettes in deep crevices, unreachable by today’s mountain boots and 4×4 vehicles.
Our journey begins in the town of Gonzanamá, 43 km from Catamayo (and 75 km from Loja). Where slopes tumble at chilling angles on certain sections of the road heading northwest, the aroma of eucalyptus floods the way and calms our vertigo. Sacapalca, our first stop, is almost deserted during the week. Dawn is the best time for daily agricultural chores and most retire early, fleeing from the needling sun’s rays. Progress is slow in these hills. We observe a farmer struggling up a hill. It seems to take him an hour to travel a few meters. Continuing northwest, we reach the petroglyph of Santa Ester, in a hamlet called Caja Marquilla, about an hour from Sacapalca’s square. There is nothing to guide you there, except, perhaps, a neighbor who may know the route.
The journey on foot or in an urban vehicle means considerable wear for both the body and engine. The same is true as the road continues to descend, for about three hours, to the Pilancay Gully. What in the summer months is not particularly seductive, during winter becomes an oasis of cotton trees, an unforgettable sight. Mango trees are also scattered about, slowly bearing fruit in time for Carnival in February, when families will turn the banks of the river into a Sunday bathing pool.
Laguna Negra (Black Lake), In Yacuri National Park.
To the south of Sacapalca lies Changaimina. According to etymologists, its name means “where there gold is”. The site is cradled by La Panuma hill. At the corner of Calle Bernardo Ochoa, and as a prelude to the sausage Angelita Jiménez sells for three dollars a plate, some freshly made yogurt is served. She’s been preparing it for four months now. Carmen Tinizaray, a prioste, or representative-for-life of the Blessed Virgin of Charity, is her sole, faithful client today. When she spots us, she generously invites us into her house, an adobe structure more than a century old, one of the few remaining in the town. The Virgin, she tells us, certainly has miracles under her belt: from healing locals to rebuilding the San Felipe school. Our presence is also thanks to the Virgin, so paying our respects to Her in Her sanctuary is a must. The temple rises atop a multi-colored staircase, from which we can admire the entire district. Once inside, the Virgin welcomes Her visitors. They say that if she is happy to see you, her earrings move, a sign that one’s wishes will be heard.
On the way to Lanzaca, in the rural neighborhood of Puerto Bolívar, you can find Pailas Rotas (Broken Cauldrons), whose unofficial “discovery” was shared with the world only three months ago on social media. Arriving at the site (you must ask around, since there is still no signage) takes an hour from Changaimina. There are few houses nearby, but those who live in the area know the way (with shortcuts included). Carmen Briceño was our guide and it took us 15 minutes from the river. The place owes its name to the fact that giant rocks shaped like cauldrons that collect the water that passes through them have slowly broken over the centuries. After spending a day or afternoon here, one can continue south to Cariamanga, where Ahuaca Hill rises as guardian of the town and the entire Calvas canton. It’s home to the Utuana Ecological Reserve, an area protected by the Jocotoco Foundation. Here, you’ll find the only remnants of humid forest in the area. It’s easy to get there (one hour from Cariamanga). Of course, this is a birding hotspot… look out for the beautiful Rainbow Starfrontlet, the Purple-throated Sunangel, or the true star of the place, the Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant!
From Pailas Rotas it’s also a good idea to return to Gonzanamá for the night, before continuing to Quilanga. There we found the patron saint in festivities (these take place throughout September). The central square is an obligatory meeting point. Here you can find Yolanda Marín’s improvised eatery. On the menu: a tasty seco de pollo, accompanied by ground green plantains, yucca and hominy.
A fox crosses our path, P.N. Yacuri.
From Quilanga we get a glimpse of Cerro del Chiro and the caves that share the same name. They say that the last Inca, Atahualpa, ordered his treasures to be buried within these stone tunnels, whose end no one has yet discovered. There is also talk of the caves’ popularity among medical students, who have extracted the remains of perished gold-diggers. “The only person who was able to reach beyond the natural light, got sick and has since been cursed by the ‘ancestors’,” claims Jimmy Japón, a biology student and one of the few guides in town.
With Jimmy we walked up to Plaza del Inca, a hill where until five years’ ago you could find a stone ashlar, which purportedly served a resting place for the Inca himself on His way from Quito to Cusco. The entire area offers a tiny window into a world long gone… today, dominated by the silence of its strong winds. You can reach Chuquiragua Lake, on the summit of Cerro Paja Blanca, after a six-hour horseback ride. Jimmy says that from there you can observe a section of the still-intact Inca Trail, but the visit takes an entire day on foot.
Colorful walls of Sacapalca.
Although distances demand their time and patience, there are several sites to stop at along the way, such as the Anganuma petroglyph. On a rock, the result of the eruption of Colambo Hill — or “The Mermaid” as the locals call it — we can make out the stone inscriptions of an owl, a snail, a fish and a dog’s head. Not far away, we also spot a forgotten rock in the upper part of the Yurarumi, which seems to shimmer in gold, inscribed with letters, or maybe it’s the form of a monkey? After three kilometers of walking, everything lends itself to interpretation…
From Quinara, we can head straight south to Amaluza, to sites such as Molinos de Piedra, Cerro El Diablo and Yacuri lake… but perhaps the most relevant site, continuing to Jimbura, is the Yacuri National Park. This protected expanse is home to wonderful peaks, lakes and waterfalls. It’s even known for shamanic rituals. These take place at Lagunas Negras (Black Lakes), two kilometers from the refuge. Taking advantage of the day here is key. Arrive as early as possible, since morning exploration always has its advantages: you can hopefully spot more creatures in the park, as well as enjoying a dip with energetic waters, a portal to the Cosmos, according to the locals…