Haciendas of the Ecuadorian Highlands

Passengers on our Galapagos My Way expeditions may precede their adventures in the Enchanted Isles with a new eight-day exploration of the Ecuadorian Highlands. Lia Oprea, who makes Ecuador her home for part of the year, will lead the pre-voyage extension.

During our weeklong foray into Ecuador's Sierras, we'll have a chance to visit its haciendas, once-private estates, as my friend Juan and I did when we recently visited Hacienda La Cienega, a luxuriously restored 17th-century manor set along the Andean cordillera.

The history of the haciendas is well told by looking at their origins, architecture, and the line of visitors that graced the floors of these intriguing homes. Spaniards settling Ecuador were given vast land grants in return for their services to the Crown. The new landowners chose the altiplano, or Andean highlands, for its fertile soil and year-round springlike climate on which to build their grand estates. These haciendas reflected the elegant European architecture of the period. A magnificent main house enclosed fountain gardens, and each estate possessed its own, often ornate, family chapel on the grounds. In the past few decades, many of these haciendas have been restored to their original splendor and have opened their doors to guests.

Juan and I experienced this firsthand after a day of hiking in Cotopaxi National Park. After a delicious meal of local trout, we enjoyed a glass of wine in the drawing room of Hacienda La Cienega and speculated that the great explorer Alexander von Humboldt had likely sat in front of this same fire during his visit to La Cienega in 1802. Humboldt had come to study Cotopaxi's volcanic activity, and he was enthralled with the unique alpine flora of the paramo, the high plains that stretch from north of Quito down past Cuenca.

On our hike earlier in the day we came to understand why so many others have revered the valleys of these mountains. Fifty years before Humboldt's visit, Charles-Marie de La Condamine, leader of the French Geodesic Mission, first entered the fertile Quito valley via the Pichincha Volcano alpine pass. He noted with amazement the mild climate, budding flowers, and fruit-laden orchards, and compared the area to the most beautiful provinces of his native France.

Throughout history the verdant vistas and unique geology of Ecuador have also inspired artists. The 19th-century painter Frederic Church was a guest of the Chiriboga family at their Hacienda Cusin, nestled in a small valley outside of Otavalo at the base of the Mojanda and Imbabura Volcanoes. The area fascinated Church, and he captured the magical light and lush flora of the dramatic landscape in his painting The Heart of the Andes.

Today, Hacienda Cusin's lovingly restored 40-acre estate includes a country-manor-style main house with an excellent gourmet restaurant, flowered courtyards, and guest cottages, as well as a monastery and cloisters complete with a tower and parapets.

I hope you'll join me as I lead the Zegrahm Expeditions exploration Haciendas of the Ecuadorian Highlands. We'll discover Ecuador's altiplano, from the sweeping paramo of Cotopaxi National Park to the colorful indigenous villages and markets of the Otavalo region, and stay in style at these luxurious estates with their rich cultural history and fine art, just as adventurers did centuries ago. Please contact Patrick Kirby in our office for more information.