About 68 miles and a two hour drive north of Quito is the wonderful Hacienda Zuleta. The hacienda, which dates from the Sixteenth Century, is nestled in the Andes Mountains at an altitude of 2,800 metres. This colonial working farm has been in the hands of the Plaza Lasso family for more than a hundred years.
Despite my late arrival due to a flight delay, I receive a warm welcome from my host Amoble. Entering the hacienda is like stepping back in time; a huge fireplace, impressive furniture and family portraits dominate the room and yet it still feels amazingly homely. The fire is lit and the table is laid for dinner, so I am shown to my room and then settle down to a delicious dinner by the fire. Accompanying the meal are three different types of cheese that are made in the dairy just across from the main building. This sets the standard as with every meal served, an array of delicious, homemade cheeses are on offer. Half an hour later I am ready to turn in and walk down the corridor to my room.
How lovely to find my fire lit, a hot water bottle in my bed, chocolate on my pillow and flowers adorning the bathroom. It is these little touches, the staff and the attention to detail that makes Hacienda Zuleta such a special place to stay. The following day I am woken by the sound of hooves trotting along the cobbles…what an ideal way to start the day! I have breakfast with Felipe, the horse manager and my guide for the next few days. The table is laid beautifully and we feast on fresh fruit from the garden, homemade yoghurt, toast and scrambled eggs as we overlook the stables. Felipe asks me about my riding experience and the kind of horse I ride at home. Then explains that I am to ride Rebeldia, a four year old Andalucian cross, who ‘isn’t really a rebel’. He assures me that she is very good for her age and if we don’t get on then there are plenty more horses to try.
After breakfast Felipe shows me around the stables – the tack room, office and hacienda paddocks. Then we set off on a two hour ride, we go out along the avenue and out onto the cobbled roads. Turning down a track by a little farmhouse we pass by curious pyramids called Caranqui Mounds, which were constructed around 1200 A.D. These earthen mounds were necessary to protect buildings such as huts, sheds and temples from the humidity of the ground.
We ride to the foot of a mountain, dismount and tie up our horses. Through a gate and along a short path and we reach the Condor Project. This project aims to boost the breeding of the Andean Condor and to release juveniles into the wild. You cannot successfully release adult condors into the wild and so the Condor House is home to 7 adult condors, which have either been born in captivity or have been so badly injured that they would not survive if released. One pair are incubating an egg and the plan is to team up with Quito Zoo (who currently have two juveniles) to release the three condors into the wild.
I was lucky enough to see not only the 7 condors in captivity, but also see three wild condors in the surrounding area. They are absolutely magnificent birds; an adult male flew ride over our heads and it was the perfect chance to appreciate just how big they are (their wingspan can reach up to 10 feet!). With only about 50 condors left in the wild in Ecuador, now is the time to act. Please ask if you would like to learn more about the condor project at Zuleta. Zuleta also have a project researching spectacle bears and there is a feeding platform and camera up above the condor house. They have known about sixteen different bears to be in the area, although only three have been seen more recently.
In the afternoon we had a super ride through the Zuleta valley, passing through the community and seeing rural life at its best. Pigs and cows are tethered close to the house and children come out to wave at the horses. The mountain views are magnificent, the green valleys giving way to towering peaks and the awesome Cayambe Volcano beyond.
The next day I get up early and ride with Felipe to the horses’ pasture. We round up the herd and usher them the 5km back to the hacienda. By 8am we are definitely ready for breakfast!
Today we ride through neighbouring villages and stop for a picnic lunch on the banks of a stream. My mount today belongs to Fernando (an owner of Hacienda Zuleta), he is called Valentin and is a loveable rogue, forward going and just a little bit cheeky! Returning to the hacienda by a different route we climb up from the valley floor, descend the other side and have some lovely canters along the grass verges.
You are welcome to fill up your days with horses, but when you are not riding there is plenty to do at Hacienda Zuleta. You can take a tour of the cheese factory, hike one of the numerous walking trails, take a carriage ride or visit the embroidery shops in the village. At dinner I meet an American guest who is on her sixth visit. Her favourite horse is waiting for her each time she comes, as is Jose her favourite guide. Sometimes she visits with a group of friends and sometimes she comes alone. She loves to stay here she tells me, it is like visiting family. I have been keen to see Ecuador for some years now and now I have been lucky enough to visit. I had expectations of dramatic mountain scenery, a strong horse culture, wide open spaces, untouched landscapes and fantastic riding. Did it live up to my expectations? Without a doubt.