Hot spot ... Cotopaxi, the world's tallest active volcano.

Hot spot ... Cotopaxi, the world's tallest active volcano. Photo: Getty Images

On Ecuador's high-altitude trail to an active volcano, Lydia Bell feels the ghostly presence of a majestic Inca past.

The equatorial sun is on full beam as we power out of Quito on the Pan American highway - the same artery that Che Guevara followed on his way north from Tierra del Fuego to Venezuela in 1952. The impeccable visibility has buoyed the spirits of our guide, Antonio.

"This is most unusual, my lady!" he proclaims, as we take in the framed view of Cotopaxi through the car's windscreen.

Cotopaxi is the tallest active volcano in the world, at 5897 metres, 50 kilometres wide and with a dollop of white snow spooned on top. Of the active volcanoes along the Avenida de los Volcanes, the main Ecuadorian volcanic arc, Cotopaxi is the one to "watch"; it last erupted in 1877, coating the countryside around Quito in a thick layer of ash.

"Is it smoking?" asks my travelling companion, nervously. "No, this is just cloud cover, my ladies," Antonio says smoothly. But historically Cotopaxi has erupted every 150 years to 200 years, and there have been recent indications that the activity of the volcano is picking up. I urge her not to worry - at this altitude she hasn't enough oxygen to manage a panic attack.

The locals are quite accustomed to living among volcanoes. At the animal market in Saquisili, our first pit stop, we follow Quichua women hawking pigs, alpaca and sheep. The women sit on the trays of clapped-out Chevrolet utes, their babies bundled on their backs, their animals tethered at their feet. I peek inside a writhing hessian bag and find a litter of pink piglets. It's Thursday, so the fruit, vegetable and craft market is operating, too; farmers sell mountains of bananas, glossy Andean fruits such as the tiny, tart naranjillo, pure-cacao chocolate, alpaca ponchos and trilby hats. I indulge my fetish for folkloric baskets.

Later, we drive through rolling hills to our lunch destination, the farmhouse of a stained-glass artist, the angelic Aida Perez, near the non-touristy town of Latacunga. Her cook prepares melt-in-the-mouth pulled pork and I don't think once about the piglets at Saquisili.

Many Latacunga residents work at the rose farms that pepper the area. The town is humming with workers waiting at bus stops for a ride to work, where they can expect childcare and free food. We visit the vast greenhouses of a farm near Perez's place, where steroid-huge roses lean towards the equatorial sun. On the factory floor, magnificent blooms in violet, dairy cream, dusty pink, vermillion and apricot are pruned and bunched by an army of mainly female workers.

Our destination is the 11-room Hacienda San Agustin del Callo, one of many haciendas open to tourists. They are a priceless way for travellers to get a blast of "old" Ecuador.

Our rooms have open fireplaces and walls daubed with murals, and open onto a courtyard at the front and hummingbird-filled garden at the back. In the family sitting room hangs a portrait of the green-eyed owner of the house, Mignon Plaza, as a young woman, by Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ecuador's most famous painter. Our patron isn't well when we visit, but I hear she is a flamenco-dancing firecracker. Plaza's grandfather, General Leonidas Plaza - the leader of the liberal Revolution and twice president of Ecuador - acquired the hacienda in 1921.

The house crops up frequently in historical accounts. Callo, as it was called in colonial times, has Inca walls constructed in the imperial style, built between 1475 and 1500. In 1536 the chronicler, Cieza de Leon, described Callo as one of only two main Inca sites in Ecuador. It was a country dwelling for the Fathers of San Agustin de Quito in 1736, when the King of Spain ordered a geodesic mission to Ecuador - chosen for its position on the Equator - to measure the shape of the globe. The Spanish captains Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa published an account of the mission, writing of Callo: "In view of the limited knowledge the Indians had of sciences and arts; and considering the way their other dwellings are constructed, one can easily detect the majesty of its owner by the palace's size, materials and arrangement."

In 1804, the German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt nicknamed the region Avenida de los Volcanes. He lavished an illustrated copperplate on Callo, describing it as a tambo, a resting place for the Inca King Huayna Capac.

Recent digs confirm the building was abandoned by the Incas in 1534, when the Spanish conquistadores passed through the central highlands - the same year Cotopaxi erupted violently - and was probably set on fire by retreating Inca armies. It's thought that Callo was a temple sanctuary dedicated to the Cotopaxi volcano, which explains the febrile atmosphere in the so-called chapel, fig-leafed with crucifixes and Christian iconography but clearly an Inca temple.

Meantime, we don thick ponchos folded at the foot of our beds and head into the garden to wait. Cotopaxi fills the horizon. A young man emerges and announces anxiously: "The alpacas! They are here for you!" and we find a furry jumble of them in the courtyard, their comical faces expressing perpetual surprise. We feed them carrots from a basket.

The next day, we drive across the vast, sparse, wind-blown Parque Nacional Cotopaxi looking for condors and more alpacas. I see none, but I do catch sight of falcons and skinny wild horses. Coots glide serenely on Limpiopungo lake as we walk its perimeter, and lapwings, gulls and sandpipers circle ahead.

We lunch at the recently opened Hacienda Santa Ana, an old Jesuit monastery filled with religious paraphernalia, near the indigenous town of Pedregal. And we return to Hacienda San Agustin del Callo to enjoy steak with American honeymooners in the Inca dining room.

That night in bed, I read excerpts from the account of the geodesic mission, which mention more about the walls at Hacienda San Agustin del Callo: "Stone is the only material used in the building and it is so hard it resembles flint; its colour is almost black. The stones are so well carved and coupled that one cannot even insert the blade of a knife."

I glance at the wall - mystifyingly geometric, so volcanic-dark it seems smoke blackened - and shiver. At that moment, the door to my room creaks open loudly and I jump, expecting to see the ghost of King Huayna. Instead, it's my travelling companion, wearing an outsize poncho. "Can I sleep in here tonight?" she asks in a small voice. "Those Inca walls are really freaking me out."

Lydia Bell travelled courtesy of Abercrombie & Kent

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Lan Airlines has a fare to Santiago from Sydney (14hr 30min), then to Quito via Guayaquil (6hr), from $2432 low-season return, including tax. Melbourne passengers fly to Sydney to connect. See lancom.

Touring there

Abercrombie & Kent has several itineraries exploring the Cotopaxi region. A four-day extension of a longer tour costs from $1920 a person, including guides, accommodation and transfers from Quito. See abercrombiekent.com.

More information

See quito.com.ec, incahacienda.com.