Zuleta Magic — The Best Hacienda in Ecuador?
Yesterday we enjoyed eating ants and live beetle larva, rafting on Tom Sawyer-like balsa rafts down a section of one of the Amazon River’s major tributaries — the Rio Napo, and swimming like fish in the Casa del Suizo swimming pool. The Amazon Basin offers an altogether different world from our time spent in the highlands and at the Hacienda Zuleta, which as busy as we have been I’ve had a hard time finding time to write about. Now with an Amazon rain squall pounding down on the tin roof of the lodge we are staying at I can eke out of few moments.
Zuleta lived up to it’s reputation as one of the most intriguing of all haciendas in Ecuador, one sure to be a definite stop on the new itinerary for Mountain Madness that is coming together day by day as we visit these incredible places. As with most working haciendas, Zuleta has an interesting and long history. It began in the late sixteenth century and its more recent history is as colorful as any in the past. Enter the dynamic Plaza family once again, a different branch of the family than that of Mignon, our eccentric and gracious host at Hacienda San Agustin.
In the family for the past 100 years or so, this 4,000 acre working hacienda’s current manager, Fernando Plaza, the grandson of former Ecuadorian President Galo Plaza Lasso, serves up a comfortable, homespun feeling for visitors, heavy on the creature comforts. The families house and the grounds, home to over 600 cows, horses, beautitiful flower gardens, a condor breeding project, a cheese factory, organic gardens, and some recently discovered pre-Inca ruins, are all accessible to visitors. We enjoyed conversations with Fernando and his family numerous times in the cozy sitting rooms and in the spacious family dining room and soon felt comfortable walking the hallways, exploring the rooms, and sleeping in the bedrooms of this important, aristrocratic Ecuadorian family. Ah, if these walls could talk.….,
The fun all started though shortly after we arrived with the kids jumping into piles of straw in the hay shed. As we we watched the kids launch with glee into the hay from the rafters, Fernando explained to me that their main goal at Zuleta is to “create an experience that captures the magic of the place.” His genuine enthusasim and vision for this hacienda is infectous and with an aim at sustainability and community involvement, it can be said to be a model operation for hacienda owners across the country. There is a lot to check out here!
Before dinner I also took a quick drive up the cobblestonne roads to sneak a view of the heavily glaciated Cayambe, which lay a short distance to the south. It’s on this peak that Mountain Madness holds its mountaineering school and to discover such a place as Zuleta so close at hand is a great find for sure! With the evening light fading as we descended through the quilt-work of fields and rolling hills that surround the house and hacienda operations, it became clear there were lots of opportunities here for trekking and acclimating for MM groups and for friends and family that want to join in the adventure, but instead of climbing maybe trek, ride horses, hike in the cloud forest, or just explore.
But first, dinner. As with all Mountain Madness trips in Ecuador, one soon realizes that in addition to climbing or trekking objectives, there are extrordinairy culinary opportunities. This night, alongside the Zuletan made cheese, that is now exported to the US, we enjoyed a soufle now made famous by Gourmet magazine, which like all things at Zuleta comes with a story. Thrown together for an large impromptu dinner party of well-heeled friends of the President, this highland delicacy has become synomous with Zuleta hospitality. Paired with good company, great wine, and a roaring fire this made for the perfect Andean evening. Yum.….
~ Mark Gunlogson