Ecuador’s high altitude haciendas

From working farms to elegant boutique hotels, these glorious historic homes in spectacular rural settings have opened their doors to visitors.

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.

Colonial treasures
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.

Grandiose guesthouse
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.

High altitude hotel
About 60km south of Quito, beyond the robust little town of Machachi and set in grassy highlands at a breathtaking 3,600m, Hacienda El Porvenir is something a little different. This is the homestead of a 4,500 hectare working cattle property. Grass roofed and terracotta walled, the hacienda is heated by roaring log fires beside which you can enjoy hearty Ecuadorian highland meals like locro de papa (a creamy potato soup served with avocado and cheese) or llapingachos (potato and cheese pancakes). This is a relaxed, rural accommodation – and an excellent base for mountain adventures. The estate’s property borders Cotopaxi National Park, the centrepiece of which is the magnificent snow-capped, active volcano Cotopaxi. Many visitors use the hacienda as a base for acclimatisation before an attempt on Cotopaxi’s summit; however, there are also excellent trails for lower altitude trekking and mountain biking. Horse riding, of course, is also on the menu of activities; kitted out in a highland poncho and llama-skin chaps to keep out the cold, you will feel like one of the chagras (cowboys) who are the hacienda’s expert riding guides.

Inca roots
Also about 60km south of Quito, at an altitude of 3,000m, the colonial San Augustin de Callo hacienda was constructed on the site of an Inca palace that was established in 1440 AD and built by one of the last Inca emperors, Huayna-Capac; it is one of the two most significant Inca sites in Ecuador. After the defeat of the Incas, parts of the ruined palace, with its perfect Inca stone work, were incorporated into what then became an Augustinian convent – a base for the French Geodesic Mission that verified the shape of the Earth ��� and finally the private home of General Leonidas Plaza Gutierrez, leader of Ecuador’s liberal revolution (and of the same illustrious family that own Hacienda Zuleta). The estate is now home to the general’s granddaughter, whose father, the well-known Ecuadorian congressman and legendary amateur bullfighter Jose María Plaza, played a pivotal role in the country’s politics.

San Augustin de Callo is also an ideal base for outdoor adventures. Follow Inca pathways on horseback or on foot to explore the traditional rural villages that dot the surrounding countryside, or visit the fragrant rose plantations that produce one of this country’s least known exports. There are plenty of mountain walks on the estate and you can also fish for trout in the mountain streams. Dining at night on the farm’s fresh produce – a thoroughly Andean menu with upmarket flair – guests marvel at the precision-cut stones of the dining room’s Inca palace walls, which meld seamlessly into the subsequent architecture – the most eloquent visual metaphor, perhaps, for the ancient roots of all Ecuador’s richly historic, colonial haciendas.