Still passing the time at home going through vacation pictures and making photo albums. Clicking my heels today and traveling back to our hacienda vacation, located in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador.
A place I never knew existed or ever imagined visiting!
Over 450 years ago, and after defeating the Incas, a Spanish conquistador took over the land and ruled the area that eventually became Hacienda Zuleta. In Spanish speaking regions, a “hacienda” is a large estate or plantation with a dwelling.
Today, the 17th century hotel and working-farm belongs to the family of two past presidents of modern-day Ecuador. Set in a lush setting, Hacienda Zuleta offers beautiful antique rooms, delicious home-grown Andean cuisine served family style, and a variety of activities.
Over a four day stay, hubby and I enjoyed seeing mountain vistas, herds of dairy cows, pre-Columbian archeological pyramids, and llamas. All while riding on the hacienda’s own breed of horses. We also had the rare opportunity to see and learn about the endangered Andean Condor.
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Avenue of the Volcanoes
Located in the heart of Ecuador’s Avenue of Volcanoes, the countryside surrounding our hacienda vacation commands breathtaking views. Not all are clouds shrouding the Andes Mountains — that’s a volcano topped glacier in the center of the photo.
Flanked by snow and glacier capped mountains, the volcanoes run 200 miles south down the Andean spine. Seven of the peaks are more than 17,000 feet high. The tallest is 20,565-foot Chimborazo. The Avenue of the Volcanoes passes through a valley rich with a landscape of dense forest. Tiny fields cover impossibly steep slopes. Because of the equatorial location, the climate is temperate year round.
A mix of deeply traditional indigenous and colonial settlements with horticultural and artisan markets dot the area. There’s also several very old estates — gifted to Spanish conquistadores — transformed into countryside hotels.
Remote Jewel in the Heart of the Andes
Hacienda Zuleta is a remote jewel in the heart of the Andes. It sits 9,600 feet above sea level, and is located about two hours north Ecuador’s capital, Quito. For those desiring a hacienda vacation, it offers an authentic and unique experience.
All the beautifully decorated bedrooms and suites have their own fireplace. Antique gardens along with cosy living and reading rooms offer a peaceful atmosphere. Our room was in the main house, located down a hallway to the right of this main gathering spot.
Beverages were always readily available here, with a fire glowing in the hearth late afternoons and evenings. See the enormous basket full of firewood? Every night, one of the housekeepers would also light a fire in our room, while tucking hot water bottles in the bed.
When we visited in late June last year, it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere. But, much more temperate than winter here in Pittsburgh. More like a crisp fall. Sweaters were worn indoors and fleece outside.
Daily, before our communal meal in the gorgeous dining room, guests would gather in front of the fire for wine and cheese. Hosted by one of the hacienda’s family members, it was always an interesting and informative conversation.
A variety of cheeses, manufactured on the property, were a delicious highlight of the gathering. During our hacienda vacation, we also enjoyed a private tour of the dairy and cheese factory in action.
Zuleta is a colonial working farm of 4,000 acres. For more than 100 years, the land and country house has belonged to the the family of Galo Plaza Lasso, a former president of Ecuador. He was the son of another president, Leonidas Plaza.
Plaza Lasso was an ardent supporter of modern agriculture. He revolutionized farming by bringing the first Holstein cows, systematic seed selection, and tractors to Ecuador. Hacienda Zuleta was his flagship.
Over 300 cows supply the milk for fresh cheese, yogurt, and butter. Every afternoon, we enjoyed watching cows amble down cobblestone roads from the fields, to be milked at different facilities around the property.
We never got up early enough to watch the 5:00 AM milking though lol! But, accompanied by two of the large family dogs, we did follow one herd back to the barn for an afternoon session.
Zuleta produces 6,000 liters of milk a day, cheese in 14 varieties, cream, wheat, barley, trout, wool, mutton, horses, wood, and even compost from an earthworm farm.
During a hacienda vacation, the best way to see the landscape and agricultural operation is to explore on horseback.
Riding has been a family tradition at Zuleta for over one hundred years. Today, the ranch boasts one of the most exclusive stables in Ecuador.
Horseback riding is their speciality, but they also offer carriage rides, mountain bikes, and well-marked walking/hiking trails to observe the milking, agriculture, mountain views and tranquil life of the community.
They are known for their magnificent Zuleteño horse, a unique mixture of Spanish-Andalusian, English and Quarter horses. The outcome of this cross-breeding is a robust Andean horse with a perfect disposition for trail riding.
I was a little apprehensive about my lack of equestrian skills. One of our fellow guests was an experienced rider who was spending her entire hacienda vacation in the saddle. She shared tales of her adventures over dinner.
I’ve ridden on past trips, primarily with our boys in national parks. We also road horseback on several beaches. Another time, we spent a wonderful week with twice daily rides on a dude ranch in Bandera, Texas.
Beware Idiot Cowboys
But, it had been years since I was on a horseback. Mostly because of a family vacation to Zion National Park in Utah. That horrible experience was caused by an cowboy showing off. His reckless antics caused him to be thrown from the lead horse. It immediately turned around and charged down the nose-to-tail trail of inexperienced riders behind!
It caused my then six year old’s horse to be pushed just off the cliff-hugging, rocky path. My ride had somehow managed to turn completely around, wedging my leg between our two horses. I kept telling our son to let the horse find its own footing, and to remove his feet from the stirrups, let go of the reins, and hold my arm. Just as I was about to yank D off the horse and to me, another guide led his horse safely back onto the path.
Although I stayed extremely calm at the time, it still gives me nightmares! So, it was with some trepidation that I went to the beautifully kept Zuleta stables.
Riding in Style
Turns out, horseback riding on a hacienda vacation is a not-to-missed, fabulous experience!
The stables and a large corral are just a short walk from the compound. In the background is the hacienda’s presidential library in the main house.
Zuleta has horses for every level, and provides helmets, half chaps, rain ponchos, and a saddle bag. Talk about exploring the magnificent landscape in style! I felt like a proper caballero on horseback.
Packing Tip: It isn’t necessary to have heeled boots on a hacienda vacation. First, imagine how much room they would take up in luggage! Hubby and I wore the same waterproof hiking boots we needed in Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands. We also both wore breathable tees with a long-sleeve shirt designed for outdoor activities. Layered on top, was a zip-up fleece for warmth. All but the fleece were also worn in the Galapagos as well.
Jose, who is in charge of the hacienda’s horses, was our personal guide. After suiting up, we mounted and headed out for the morning. Evening though Jose did not speak English, we were somehow able to communicate by pointing and gesturing. He was delightful and an honest-to-goodness horse whisperer!
Isn’t my steed magnificent? And, don’t I look perfectly relaxed and happy posing in a lovely meadow?
Pre-Columbian Mounds & Pyramids
We choose the most popular half-day excursion, which culminated at the Condor Huasi Project located in La Rinconada de San Pedro Valley. Even though the ride began above 9,000 feet, we were already well acclimated to the high altitude. After all, we had just spent ten days in Peru’s Sacred Valley where Mr. Buzz had also hiked the Inca Trail.
Our final destination was located down the valley, in the center of the picture below.
First, we rode down pretty cobblestone roads, shaded by the canopies of large trees. Along the way, we passed several of Zuleta’s pastures and herds of cows, milking sheds, and a trout farm. Additionally, there were fragrant groves of eucalyptus and pine trees.
Scattered throughout the pasture land, are over 30 ancient tolas – mysterious stepped pyramids dating from pre-Columbian times. You can see two of the now rounded mounds (from time and erosion) in the picture above.
An important location for centuries, Zuleta is one of the two best-preserved mound sites of the ancient Caranqui people in Ecuador. It is a living reflection of the region’s history; starting as a refuge from volcanoes, a ceremonial location for Caranqui chiefs, and a rich agricultural resource for the conquering Incas and Spanish.
A little further down, Jose opened a gate and led us off trail into pasture and meadow. By then, I was feeling at ease on horseback; thoroughly relaxed and totally enjoying myself. Plus, it was really exciting to ride right up to the pyramids for a closer inspection; as in the picture above.
I even got confident enough to trot through the meadow as we headed deeper into the valley. Giddy up!
As we were dismounting for the short walk/hike up to the Huasi facility, I caught sight of a group of wild llamas grazing.
After seeing both llamas and alpacas in Peru, I was finally able to eyeball the difference between the camelid cousins. Can you?
- Ears: Alpaca have short spear-shaped ears, while llamas have much longer, banana-shaped ears. To me, that’s the most visible difference.
- Size: Alpacas weigh about 150 pounds, while llamas can reach 400 pounds. At the shoulder, an alpaca stands 34-36″, while a llama is between 42-46″.
- Faces: Llamas have a longer face. Alpaca faces are blunt, with a “smooshed” look.
- Purpose: For over 5,000 years, alpacas have been bred for fiber (and in Peru for meat as well). Llamas have been bred as pack animals and meat.
- Hair: Alpaca produces a much finer fiber and more fleece, in a greater variety of colors. In Cusco, Peru I purchased alpaca sweaters as Christmas gifts for our sons. It was my birthday, so hubby had me select a gorgeous sweater jacket and scarf.
- Dispositions: Alpacas are very much herd animals, while llamas are more independent minded. Alpacas also tend to be a bit more skittish. Llamas are often used as guard animals for alpacas, sheep, and other small livestock.
Beyond the grazing llamas, was a lovely view back down the valley from where we had come. Mind you, all that land is part of the hacienda.
Nationally and internationally recognized, Zuleta has been working for 20 years to conserve and increase the numbers of the critically endangered Andean condor.
We were greeted by a German biologist, and resident condor expert. He spent well over an hour with us. It was fascinating! Here you learn about area’s wildlife, as well as efforts to protect and nurture endangered condors and spectacled bears.
Behind the guys are two adjacent cages. A pair of adult Andean Condors lives in each. Look closely and you’ll spot one sitting right above the head of our knowledgeable guide.
Both pairs were rescued with damaged wings, and can no longer be returned to the wild. I’ll spare you a long discussion on why they are endangered. But, one reason is that they are frequently attacked and killed by humans. Another is that condors nest in rock ledges. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for eggs or chicks to fall from those perches.
Observing Natural Behaviors
Condors generally mate for life. One of the resident pairs was taking turns caring for an egg in their nest.
When the female condor decided it was time for a break, the male was not interested in taking his turn caring for the egg. That led to physical fight between the “lovebirds.” The conservationist was so concerned by the conflict, that he actually entered their compound. Mr. Condor apparently lost the argument, as he finally retreated to the nest.
The chick, if it survives, will either be released into the wild, or sent to another condor conservation site for the breeding. That includes the National Aviary, located right in our hometown of Pittsburgh!
Hubby and I visited there last summer in, Bird Bonding at the National Aviary. Just prior to leaving on our hacienda vacation, a chick had been born. This year, the local condor pair hatched another. Unfortunately, neither survived.
What was most exciting during our visit was spotting a wild condor soaring overhead on mountain thermals. It was breathtaking! Condors have huge wingspans and are so graceful in flight! I could have stood there watching it for hours.
The conservationist pulled out powerful binoculars for us to get a closer look. He got particularly excited, noting this was a new adolescent male that hadn’t been observed before.
A light drizzle turned into a shower and we headed inside to facility where we continued our education.
Afterwards, we enjoyed walking another trail back to the hacienda through aromatic woods, and a profusion of wild flowers and plants, such as bromeliads and heliconias.
Variety of Activities on Hacienda Vacation
That afternoon I took advantage of a rose petal-filled bubble bath. During our hacienda vacation, we saw and smelled roses everywhere! Zuleta had enormous bowls and vases full of them throughout the main house. You can see five of them just in the one room shown earlier.
Ecuador, with its favourable climate, excellent spring water, fertile volcanic soil, and high altitude provides the perfect conditions for high-quality rose production. Ecuadorian roses are beautifully large, come in a rainbow of colors, and have a long vase life. They are also an asset to their ecosystem, providing pollen and nectar to bees and butterflies.
There are many other activities to choose from during a hacienda vacation. We also enjoyed walks and tours of the organic vegetable and flower gardens, pond, family chapel, presidential library, cobblestone plazas and more. There’s even an easy hike to a lovely waterfall on the property.
Zuleta has 21 unique, beautifully appointed rooms, each with its own fireplace. There also lots of cozy antique salons and deep window seats to curl up in.
Booking a Stay
My one complaint was the tiny size of our room. There wasn’t even room to tuck suitcases out of the way. And, the bathroom was very tired and dated. I found it particularly annoying, because there were so few guests during our stay. We’d walk through the main house and compound to see doors wide open to much larger rooms and suites — all empty.
We were booked at Zuleta through a luxury travel operator, in a package that also included our trips to Peru and the Galapagos. So, we had no idea what level of room had been booked. But, we should have received at least a one level room upgrade, which we clearly didn’t get. All meals, including three-course lunch and dinners were included. But, horseback riding was additional.