For the early Spanish colonisers of Latin America, land was easy to come by. Great swathes of the continent were granted to the conquering elites in return for services to the Spanish crown. And in Ecuador, land grants were largely in the sierra – the beautiful, mountainous highlands that are easily accessible from the capital Quito and blessed with rich volcanic soil for agriculture.
Over time, these estates (haciendas) became self-sufficient communities and were built to a grand scale, borrowing architectural influences from Spain and adorned with the handiwork of local artisans. The end result: glorious historic homes in spectacular rural settings, basking in the gentle climes of the endless equatorial spring.
Some of Ecuador’s haciendas have remained in the same families for centuries; but since they no longer rely on the inequitable serfdom on which they were founded, many have opened their doors as elegant boutique hotels, redolent with the histories of generations that worked to create them.
A horse-lover’s paradise
Owned by the Plaza-Lasso family, which has produced two Ecuadorian presidents, the working farm and boutique hotel of Hacienda Zuleta, 110km north of Quito, is steeped in centuries of history. The area’s original pre-Columbian inhabitants, the Caranquis, were conquered by the Incas in the 1470s; then the Incas by the Spanish in 1534. Jesuits then farmed the estate, and the current family acquired it in 1898. Set at 2,800m in its own glorious private valley, Zuleta is a horse-lover’s paradise. It has a stable of robust, noble steeds – a mix of Andalusian, English and Quarter horses – 2,000 hectares to ride across, and knowledgeable guides who will take you out for an hour or a day, at a walk or a gallop. There are also mountain bikes, a condor rehabilitation project, pre-Inca archaeological sites and tours of the estate’s dairy and artisan workshops. Most wonderful of all is Zuleta’s elegant homestead, where you dine deliciously and share fireside conversations with the current generation of the Plaza-Lassos, while historic photographs of Ecuador’s greatest look down from the walls. The bedrooms are comfortable and elegant: not luxurious, but a pleasingly understated mix of country house with aristocratic urbane.
Established in 1790, Hacienda Pinsaqui was originally a textile enterprise that employed more than 1,000 weavers and spinners. Just outside the town of Otavalo, still known today across Ecuador for its excellent crafts market, the estate was a frequent overnight stopping place for Ecuador’s revered 19th-century liberator, Simon Bolivar, and has now been in the Freile-Larrea family for five generations. Imposing white gates and a grand corridor of palm trees lead to the tiled and whitewashed house that rambles over two wings set around cobbled courtyards with splashing fountains. Spread all around are lush gardens, ponds, mountain vistas, wandering llamas and an extensive stables from which emanates the neighing of the estate’s feistiest stallions. The estate is now fully converted to a hotel, yet still inside are the owners’ family treasures: exquisite chandeliers, behemoth writing desks, antiques from France and Spain and acres of Italian marble. Every now and then, the current owner will delight and surprise guests by making a grand entrance into the hacienda’s bar on his prize stallion, from which vantage point he recounts an oral history of the estate as visitors sip their Espíritu de Ecuador (Spirit of Ecuador) by the log fire.
On the shores of Laguna San Pablo, also near Otavalo, the 17th-century Hacienda Cusín and monastery have been lovingly restored as a relaxing and elegant guesthouse by the current English owner. The interiors of the main house are fabulously grand: paintings and antiques from the 16th-century conquest period (both genuinely ancient and reproduction) meet local silver work, embroidery and rich fabrics from local looms. The estancia’s gardens are fragrant and colourful with belladonna, bougainvillea, agapantha, foxgloves, orchids and palms, and attract more than 50 species of birds. Just outside the estate are the often snowcapped peaks of Imbabura and Cotacachi – perfect territory for hiking or riding the horses from Cusin’s stables. And to help you dig deep into the local culture, there are also Spanish lessons on offer.