Maybe you've heard of haciendas, which are common in Mexico and in some South American countries and were created during Spain's colonization of the area. Most haciendas were huge tracts of land owned and farmed by the elite and were passed down from generation to generation. Haciendas operated almost like small towns unto themselves with a main house for the owner’s family and housing for the hundreds of workers employed on the property—they often even had their own school and their own church. Many were so huge that it would take days to ride the length or breadth of the hacienda.
Over time, haciendas became too expensive to operate and more valuable as real estate so some families sold their entire haciendas or sold off portions of them to make money. But some chose to turn the big, main houses into hotels.
Ecuador has dozens of these historic hotels in houses built as early as the 1500s. They offer epic landscapes, outdoor adventures and some of the top rooms and restaurants. In fact, staying at a hacienda hotel is one of the best ways to get an all-round Ecuadorian experience. But how can you choose the hacienda hotel that’s right for you? We’ve done the leg work.
For luxury travelers
With sophisticated yet traditional style, excellent service, outstanding cuisine and a serious horseback riding program (they have their own breed of horse), Hacienda Zuleta is Ecuador’s most luxurious hacienda hotel. The original hacienda, located near the town of Otavalo, was built by Jesuit priests in the 16th century. Don Galo Plaza Lasso bought the hacienda in 1898 and went on to become President of Ecuador from 1948-52 (his father was also president of the country two separate times). To this day, the luxury hotel is family-run. The place is elegant, authentic, comfortable and luxurious, from the hundreds of freshly cut long-stemmed Ecuadorian roses arranged throughout the enormous house to the hot water bottles placed between your sheets every night (a welcome touch at nearly 10,000 feet in the hills near Otavalo) to the gourmet meals made with traditional recipes and local ingredients (the hacienda is now famous for its homemade cheese). Service is impeccable and many staff members are the third or fourth generation of their family to work on the hacienda. Another point of interest: Hacienda Zuleta has an on-site Andean condor breeding and rehabilitation center where you can get close to one of the biggest (and most endangered) birds on the planet.
For design and culture buffs
While most haciendas in Ecuador were created for cultivating the soil, one hacienda became a place for cultivating the mind. Piman Hacienda Garden Hotel, just north of the town of Ibarra, was established in 1680. The hacienda eventually became the home of writer and newspaperman Ignacio Zaldumbide. Then it was home to his son, the famous Ecuadorian poet Julio Zaldumbide Gangotena. After that, the hacienda was home to his son, statesman and novelist Gonzalo Zaldumbide (one of his most acclaimed works, “La Egloga Tragica” was written at Piman). The Zaldumbide family still owns the hacienda which they’ve recently turned into a surprisingly modern take on the theme. The family hired French landscapers to create formal gardens filled with native plants. Ecuadorian architect Igor Munoz restored the rooms in the original hacienda house which feature original wood floors, hand-painted wood trim and even some original wallpaper. Munoz also created 10 new sleek, modern rooms with walls of windows and huge decks, as well as an angular wood-and-glass dining room. It all adds up to a very creative vibe.
For travelers on a budget
Hacienda hotels can be pricey but budget travelers have at least one great option: Hacienda El Porvenir offers a wide range of room types including “Machai” rooms with multiple low beds separated by fabric partitions and shared bathrooms which are styled after the simple, traditional lodgings of the area—like an Andean dorm ($35 per night including continental breakfast). Standard rooms and spacious new suites are also available. The hacienda has more than 30 horses and riding guides can take you high into the gorgeous landscape of the 2,500 acre hacienda, which still produces renowned bullfighting bulls, on the border of Cotopaxi National Park. The family-run hacienda is also focused on reforestation and sustainable practices and was nominated in the category of “Leading Green Hotel” in Ecuador in the 2015 World Tourism Awards.
For the Indiana Jones types
Hacienda San Agustin de Callo was built on ground that had served as an Incan fortress and palace since the 1500s. Researchers speculate that the property may be the northernmost point that the Incas ever ventured. Small buildings and sections of walls made from symmetrically carved lava-rock building blocks which fit together without any mortar, a distinctly Incan practice, still exist on the property and have been incorporated into the hacienda. The property now offers luxurious rooms with antique details, massive fireplaces and murals. Don't miss the hacienda restaurant, either: It's known for its gourmet regional food (be sure to try their take on locro, a beloved cheese and potato soup). On a clear day, the views of the very active Cotopaxi Volcano are breathtaking. And it's all less than one and a half hour south of Quito.
For traveling families
Many hacienda hotels in Ecuador are either too fancy or too rustic for families. Travelers with kids will appreciate the spacious and flexible family rooms, the friendly farm animals (including rabbits, ducks, donkeys and cows), the organic garden, the wide-open spaces and the kid-friendly dining menu at Hacienda Manteles. Located about an hour by car from the town of Baños—famous for waterfalls, hot springs and one of the most terrifying swings in the world—this former apple-and-pear orchard is located in a verdant valley with views of the currently-active Tungurahua volcano. The sprawling Hacienda Manteles property also includes 25 waterfalls, some of which you can hike to.
(Note: Addresses in Ecuador are cryptic at best, so we didn't include them. Rest assured, your hacienda hotel will provide you with very explicit directions.)
All photos by Eric Mohl
© 2016 AFAR Media