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Zuleta Magic — The Best Hacienda in Ecuador?

August 28

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