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HACIENDA LIVING

Ecuador boasts dozens of old haciendas, rich in history and comfort. The best lie within an easy drive of Quito, making fantastic bases from which to explore the surrounding countryside. Most also offer their own excursions, whether on foot, by bike or on horseback. By North American or European standards, the country's haciendas are a bargain, and even if you're on a budget, you should make a point of staying at at least one for a splurge to remember.

North of Quito, there are several well-known and appealing haciendas. Approaching the famous market town of Otavalo, cobbles and tall white walls announce the turn for Hacienda Cusín.

Cusín dates back to the first Spanish division of lands, when the owners were lords of all they surveyed - literally. Cusín's sway stretched right the way round the lake's southern shores, including most of the volcano and the finest arable land fed by its rivers. The hacienda was first owned by a triple-barrel surnamed Count, who today would have had trouble signing a credit card slip. Established in 1602 and home to many long-surnamed families, the hacienda is presently owned by an Englishman, Nicholas Millhouse, a white-haired cheery chap who smiles out from photographs above mantelpieces. He no doubt wrote the notice by the tea-making table in the drawing room: "Tea is complimentary. It sustained the Empire upon which the sun never set." He wasn't there when I visited, since I'm sure there would have been some Earl Grey available if he had been.

Of Ecuador's haciendas-turned-hotels, Cusín ranks among its greatest. Its charm lies in its age, but also in its eclectica. The hotel's drawing room exudes a Home Counties, Fox & Hounds set piece, and yet is filled with Ecuadorian religious antiques, oil landscapes, prints of endemic flora, English-looking sofas and curlicue Ecuadorian tables. The main salon is more homogenous in style, but still surprises with the flourish of an art-deco lampstand here, or the handsome carved bench straight out of a Bishop's residence there. The walls are three-foot wide, the cobblestone paths plumb straight, the garden manicured to perfection.

Accommodation ranges from comfortable guestrooms, suites and hideaway cottages nestled in the garden, to the more recently-built rooms of the adjoining Monasterio de Cusín. They all enjoy private bathrooms and garden views, and most have fireplaces and beamed ceilings. My favorite cottage is No. 10, my favorite suite are the "Dueño's" and No. 17, and room No. 19. Dinner is served in a baronial-style hall under chandeliers and candlelight. French windows in the library and reading room look out onto a garden where jasmine, agapanthus, bougainvillea, hollyhocks and phlox bloom among the native orchids and lounging llamas. Services include horses (which are well looked after), mountain bikes, squash, Spanish lessons and nannies. Packages range from simple nights with breakfast included, to all meals, horse and bike riding, squash and videos packages.

Hostería Hacienda Pinsaquí lies to the north of Otavalo, and of the country's haciendas perhaps feels the most lived in. The house has been in the hands of the Freile family for five generations, and only opened its doors to paying guests some seven years ago. At the weekends, Pedro Freile drives up from Quito to spend a day riding his horse with friends.

There are in fact three Pedro Freiles. The elder, now in his sixties, is renowned for his love of horses. He is famous for greeting his guests in the bar for an aperitif - on horseback. There are photos of him with a magnificent chestnut Arab, in a master bedroom.

One approaches the main house through imposing gates, the front garden rolling down to a fountain at the hacienda's main entrance, which then divides into two wings. The furniture, including an exquisite chandelier and a behemoth writing desk, comes mainly from France and Europe, brought back by the free-wheeling and free-spending Freile of the early 20th century, who was perhaps a lover of Frida Kahlo while ambassador to Mexico.

Pinsaquí's cobbled paths and walls are thick with history. On his troubled travels to and from Bogotá and Quito , Simón Bolívar would stay at the hacienda, and though unproven, no doubt met his lover Manuela Sáenz here for furtive fumblings before he returned to matters of state. In the late 19th century, the hacienda hosted the peace treaty drawn up between Colombia and Ecuador after the Ecuadorian president had backed the wrong horse (the conservatives) in one of Colombia 's endless civil wars. Soon after, Pinsaquí was severely damaged by the earthquake which shook the province in the late 19th century, but was thankfully faithfully rebuilt.

Adjoining the main house, passing by the family chapel, are what were once the store rooms where the produce of the hacienda's vast lands were brought. They've now been converted into vast dining and living rooms with huge hearths and echoing ceilings. The garden at the back of the house is crowded by clusters of huge royal palms, with paths leading round a small man-made lake, a 20th century addition. Around the lake graze three or four timid lamas, and beyond them some of the majestic steeds of the Freiles.

Round the Imbabura volcano from Hacienda Cusín, and reached by a stunning, bumpy old road, you come to the valley of Hacienda Zuleta . Owned by a branch of the Plaza oligarchy that owns San Agustín (see below), Zuleta is a working dairy farm tucked into a furiously-cultivated, fertile valley. The cheese and produce served at its excellent restaurant come directly from the farm, including fresh trout. The family is also deeply involved in the local community weaving, making it a great place to learn more about this highly-praised Ecuadorian craft. The Plazas here still treat their guests as family, with only a few comfortable and antique-filled guestrooms available, and require a two-night minimum stay, with extensive horse riding trips also available.

Of all Ecuador's haciendas, the approach to La Cienega is the most impressive of all. Tucked into the fertile valley which rolls south from the skirts of the Cotopaxi volcano, one turns off the road to an avenue of eucalyptus nearly a kilometre long. At its end, nearly obscured by the overarching leaves and branches, gleam the stately white-washed walls of the hacienda. The eucalypti are thought to be the oldest in Ecuador. Their wiry trunks tower in a tangle of rectilinear lines by which some of the country's most eminent visitors have passed: Charles-Marie de la Condamine, head of the 17th century geodetic expedition, and Alexander von Humboldt, the irrepressible German naturalist who did more to bring the wonders of South America to the attention of the world than any other, bar Darwin perhaps. As well as these documented foreign visitors, residents of the house include two presidents, and innumerable Ecuadorian dignitaries.

The house's rooms ring a beautiful patio, a fountain burbling at its heart. One side is dominated by the stuccoed front of the austere chapel, crowned by two small bell-towers, its great wooden doors carved with elaborate swirls and foliage.

Despite its lovely gardens and old-world feel, the rooms at La Cienega are disappointing. The best are numbers 8 and 9, which boast unbeatable views of the eucalyptus avenue and the gardens. Reserve these. The food is OK, but nothing amazing, unfortunately.

Also close to the perfect cone of Volcan Cotopaxi, Hacienda San Agustin de Callo has a wonderful feel. Built in part from the ruins of an old Incan fortress or monastery, a meal in the dining room feels like you're eating inside a pyramid, its charcoal-black walls cocooning diners. San Agustin's chapel, built from Incan walls with their trapezoidal niches is a beautiful, unique sight, while the views of the volcano from their comfortable and informal living room are incomparable, and their rooms all individually painted and decorated. Some include beautiful antique enamel baths, and many imaginative touches. As well as doubles, they also have an entirely new, and very tastefully decorated separate house sleeping about seven. The hacienda can organise tours of Cotopaxi National Park on horse back or by foot, and also hosts regular folkloric performances.

The oldest hacienda in Ecuador, Hacienda Guachalá, lies northeast of Quito, near the town and volcano of Cayambe. It looks like a movie set for a costume drama unfolding at the time of the conquistadors. A wide, cobbled courtyard sprouting a few weeds and wild flowers is overlooked on one side by a covered arcade that is used as a dining area. The white walls of the long corridors in the low-lying, rustic mansion are decorated with stag heads, riding tackle, native weavings and old photographs. There's even a fascinating archive of 400 black-and-white photographs taken by the owner Diego Bonifaz's grandfather at the beginning of the twentieth century. Not to be outdone by La Ciénaga's chapel, Guachalá offers two. The first one had been eternally desecrated when used for a profane party, so a second had to be built.

While accommodation is not as luxurious as some other haciendas, the ancient messuage does boast a large indoor swimming pool heated by solar power. In mid-June, the hacienda hosts a televized show-jumping competition, and horses are available for hire throughout the year. Contact tel (022) 363042 fax (022) 362426.

Other haciendas-cum-hotels in Ecuador worth investigating include:

Hotel Café Cultura (www.cafecultura.com) in the heart of Quito New Town. The hotel was voted one of "the best budget hotels in the world" this year, and is also my home-from-home in Quito. Its rooms, housed in an old mansion, are all individually-painted with their own character and feel. It makes a great base, and, more importantly, serves Earl Grey tea!

La Mirage tel (06) 915237 fax (06) 915065 email mirage1@mirage.com.ec website www.larc1.com (close to Otavalo), a hacienda-style country hotel complete with a beautiful garden, palatial rooms, antiques, fine food, pool, spa and gymnasium. It's the only hotel in Ecuador to date to be part of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux group.

Hostería La Andaluza tel (022) 904223 fax (03) 904234 email francarenas@yahoo.com, has come to be regarded one of the best south of Quito, near Riobamba. Although not as old as its counterparts around Latacunga, the Andaluza is still extremely comfortable and peaceful. Rooms are furnished with attractive antiques and come with log fires. The excellent restaurant compliments an exercise room, sauna and cozy bar.

 
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SMALL PRINT: On the request page, you must state you came from Ecuadorial to benefit from the airport transfer offer.
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