There is a gentle magic at Hacienda Zuleta. Tucked into a long valley in Ecuador’s highlands, ridged by peaks of the Andes, the 17th century hacienda winds around a central cobblestone courtyard. The family homestead-turned-inn of former Ecuadorian president (1948-1952) Galo Plaza Lasso is still run by the Plaza Lasso family today. Inside, 14 guestrooms are named after their earlier occupants and the library, hung with family portraits and warmed by a fireplace, hosts a daily plate of cheeses made in the cheese factory on premises.
I arrived here from a two-night stay in bustling Quito, after a week aboard the Mary Anne cruising in the Galápagos Islands. This was the mountain portion of my two-week-long sea, city, and mountain tour of Ecuador, the peaceful finale to my trip. As I lay on my big comfortable bed just after arrival, my ears rang, filling in for the lacking city noise I’d become accustomed to. Here there was only quiet and the occasional sound of horse hooves clacking against cobblestone. My room was grand and yet comfortably homey, with flower borders painted around the windows and high-beamed ceilings with a Swiss feeling. Most remarkably, the beautiful green tiled bathtub that took up at least a third of the big bathroom—oh my!That afternoon, I went on a horseback ride with Mr. Rodrigo, whose home was just outside the main gate of the hacienda, and whose father and grandfather had worked here before him. His wife waved at us as we rode by their door and on into the community spread through the foothills nearby. As we trotted along the pathways, we passed pigs and their piglets, cats and kittens, dogs and puppies, cows and calves. There were rows of crops: quinoa, maize, potatoes, and purple lupines blooming. People, dressed in traditional outfits, all waved and exchanged friendly words with Mr. Rodrigo and a smile with me. We passed embroidery shops where the current president of Ecuador comes to get his suits made. The town of Zuleta is famous for its embroidery.Around that evening’s cheese plate, Galo Plaza Lasso’s daughter, Margarita, who one of the guestrooms is named for and is now in her golden years, shared stories of her childhood summers spent here. Her home is across the property, and her nephew, the hacienda’s general manager, lives just a saunter down the road in the other direction. The Plaza Lasso family has mastered the delicate balance between friendly, excellent service, and giving their guests space to relax and explore. My hosts, Janet and Fernanda, seemed to know every time a question arose in my mind and they’d show up, uncannily, at my side when I needed directions to a trail-head or a pair of rubber boots to go sloshing across a river.All the guests ate delicious, fresh lunches and dinners around a table together, sampling local cuisine made with vegetables grown in the hacienda’s organic garden. Across the table that first night, a woman smiled at me, “you’re going to love it here, this place is amazing,” she said as if she’d been let in on a secret. Even the salad was out of this world.The following days, I hiked the trails charted on my map: along a ridge behind the hacienda on the “Ruta del Conejo” for a valley vista, to a wide field of white wildflowers above the community, and past the archeological site (dating back to 700 AD) and the Caranqui pyramids. At the Condor Rehabilitation Project onsite, they’d just had their first successful chick hatch five weeks earlier and the chick’s magnificent parents perched near the nest. I trekked onto a finger of the Andes that led me on a steep, lush trail, the “Sendero del Oso,” across two streams with ropes to hold onto and finally to a waterfall that could have been set in Hawaii. On the way back to the hacienda, I met a sweet little calf and tried to imagine ways to bring her home, though it might have been a tight squeeze for all of us in my city apartment in the end. I visited the cheese factory and the local embroidery shops where a woman showed us a beautiful tablecloth that had taken her three months to complete.After a particularly long walking day, my heels and calf muscles were so sore, and when I returned to my room after a satiating dinner, my bathtub was filled with bubbles and rose petals.
-Photos and text by Sommer Antrim, Photo Blog Editor, Hacienda Zuleta Extension