Journey Notes from Ecuador's Mainland
Updated: Mar 30, 2022
With snowy volcanoes, deep Amazon jungle, charismatic wildlife and a rich pre-Colombian history, Ecuador offers travelers a "sampler" of the highlights of the larger South American continent and is a welcoming first destination for anyone new to exploring Latin America or ready to dive deeper after trips to Belize, Costa Rica or Peru. In late January of 2022 I traveled to the country for my third visit to reconnect with our Ecuadorian partners and check in on a few new-to-me lodges and experiences.
Like most journeys to Ecuador, I began in Quito, the country's colonial capital nestled in the highlands at a heady 9,350' asl. For my brief stay I was welcomed at the the always gorgeous and stately Casa Gangotena, a Relais & Chateaux property housed in a former private mansion right on San Francisco Plaza in the heart of old town. The views from this hotel - especially from the rooftop balcony - are impossible to beat (see photo below) and no matter where you stay in Quito, you should drop in here for a quick glimpse from the roof and Café Quiteño, Quito's take on high tea which served in Casa Gangotena's elegant atrium from 4-6:30 pm. After a day of exploring sometimes-damp Quito on foot, it's a lovely way to warm-up and perk up before dinner.
Quito can be a bit polarizing. Visitors love it or they don't. I'm fairly amenable to any city serving up cobblestone streets and empanadas and was pleased to be introduced to two newer, very comfortable and welcoming properties at approachable price points that may entice travelers to stay longer. These were Hotel Carlota, the first Certified B-Corp Hotel in Ecuador, and Illa Experience Hotel, an art-filled beauty in the quiet San Marcos neighborhood. A guided walking tour of Quito's old town and local market + requisite visit to the Equatorial line is always recommended. But for travelers wanting to dig in a bit deeper into Quiteño culture, we can arrange a day with a photography guide to help you capture Quito from different angles, a visit to the workshop of a sombreros de paja artisan (also known as Panama hats, but made in Ecuador), or a culinary-focused experience with a local chef. Folks with limited time who want to bike, hike or trail run for a day in Cotopaxi National Park should ask us about renting an "Adventure Van" for a day, a kitted-out Sprinter Van completed with mountain bikes, SUPS, picnic spreads and your own driver for a "choose your own adventure" experience outside of the capital. Or at the very least, let us reserve you a table at Zazu, one of Quito's premier restaurants where Chef Wilson Alpala's menu showcases the diverse gastronomy of Ecuador, from the high Andes to the sea. Photos from our meal are found below.
From Quito we flew one hour to Guayaquil, Ecuador's large port city, gateway to the farming lowlands and jumping off point for the Galapagos Islands. Here in the province of Guayas are the toquilla fields, where the straw used to make Panama hats is grown and harvested, as well as vast farms cultivating sugar cane, cacao, rice and a variety tropical fruits. There is a bit of a not-unfamiliar cultural clash and stereotyping between the highland city dwellers in Quito and the lowland rural farmers in Guayas, at least among older generations. But Saray, our young guide from Hacienda La Danesa, was happy to chat candidly about the misconceptions and changing perceptions on the 1+ hour drive from the city to the farm.*
Hacienda La Danesa is a family-owned farm specializing in dairy cattle, cacao and chocolate, honey production and horse breeding. It offers a nice taste of rural, mainland Ecuadorian life and works well as a 2 or 3 night stay for travelers flying directly in and out of Guayaquil, skipping Quito and the Andean Highlands altogether. Though we visited before our trip to the islands, I personally favor it more as a post-Galapagos stay, giving one time to wind down and reflect before hurrying home and smashing back into reality. A stand out among the more typical farm activities of horseback riding, cooking classes, milking the cows and making chocolate was the "Beekeeper for a Day" experience. This was led by local expert Guillermo, and was a solid half-day, hands-on apiary education. We started with a brief classroom session on bee reproduction, then donned our own official (and sting proof) beekeeping suits and headed out to the farm's hives, smoker box in hand, for an up-close look at the honeycombs and colonies. The experience was surprisingly mindful; as stress reaction and sudden movements could agitate the bees and can cause them to swarm, we practiced slow breathing to keep our heart rates down and create a calm environment for the bees. Once finished in the field we returned to the Hacienda to taste their homemade cheese and several types of honey, including the farm's rich and dark molasses-flavored honey, a result of the bees feeding mainly on sugar cane pollen.
I'll cover my time in the Galapagos Islands in a separate post to keep this one focused on mainland Ecuador which never quite gets its due. After we returned to the mainland from the Galapagos Islands, our last three days were spent at the incomparable Hacienda Zuleta, which simply put is one of my favorite places in the world. (And if you knew me during my "obsessed with horses" phase, it's easy to see why.) I try and persuade every Ecuador traveler to go to Hacienda Zuleta - even if just for a day visit with lunch. There is simply nothing else like it, a special blend of family love, history, indigenous cultures, stunning mountain scenery, amazing horses, endless hiking, unique wildlife, wonderful food and wine, and all of the fun that comes along with a large working farm.
Two hours north of Quito, historic Hacienda Zuleta offers guests a raw and authentic experience, steeped in four centuries of Ecuadorian history and tradition. The original structure dates from 1691 and the large working farm has been owned and operated by the family of Mr. Galo Plaza Lasso, a revered former president of Ecuador, for over 100 years.
And it still feels like a beloved home, because it is. Next to a stately oil paintings, black and white family photos cover every wall in the library (pictured above); some show Ecuador's former president with world leaders, and some portray a smiling young girl, a fuzzy donkey, and several great danes, obviously taken not far from where the viewer is standing, just long ago. Part of the magic happens in the evenings, before dinner is served family style, when guests are invited to gather for happy hour in front of the roaring fireplaces to share a glass of wine and platters of homemade cheese. You never know when one of the people from the photos - the daughter or grandson (pictured below) of Mr. Galo Plaza Lasso - will drop in to say hello and share hilarious stories from growing up on the farm.
The other part of the magic is found in the local Zuleta community, with generations of families employed on the farm or able to start their own sustainable tourism initiatives as a result of the partnership with the Galo Plaza Lasso Foundation, the non profit arm of Hacienda Zuleta that supports community-based tourism. Among the projects supported by the foundation are the women's embroidery cooperative, enabling local female artisans to sell their art and hold private workshops for guests, and Condor Huasi, the only Andean Condor breeding, rehabilitation and reintroduction program of its kind in Ecuador that is managed in partnership with the local indigenous communities. Local farmers also graze their cattle on Zuleta's pastures, free of use, and sell their milk to the cheese factory for above market prices.
Lastly, a working farm has plenty of nonhuman ambassadors as well. The family dogs, Bronco and Mambo, accompany guests on walks around the property and the stable of horses, a special cross of Spanish-Andalusian, the Thoroughbred, and the American Quarter Horse known as Zuleteños, are some of the finest horses you'll ride anywhere in South America. They are impeccably trained to respond to a light touch and among the herd are personalities catering to all abilities of riders. Riding high up into the Andes, through thick pampas grass amidst a backdrop of stunning volcanoes, is one of the most dynamic equestrian vacations available, as shown by the avid horsemen and women from around the world who return to Zuleta year after year for a week of riding their favorite horses.
On previous trips to Ecuador I've spent considerable time in the Amazon jungle at Selva Lodge and Napo Wildlife Center in the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve. I've also spotted fleeting jewel-flashes of hummingbirds to the Cloud Forests of Mindo and Bellavista, have soaked in the hot springs at Baños, and trekked lodge to lodge near Cotopaxi. Mainland Ecuador has so much diversity and vibrancy and it gives me great satisfaction to help travelers explore these often passed-over regions of Ecuador as a stand-alone trip or paired with time in the Galapagos. If I can assist with your upcoming plans, please reach out firstname.lastname@example.org