Ecuador: Hacienda heaven

29 Apr 2005 by business traveller
Tired and hungry, we turned off the dusty Pan-American Highway and drove through some imposing white stone gates into paradise: the Hacienda Pinsaquí, one of Ecuador's most charming Spanish colonial buildings, that has been in the aristocratic Freile-Larrea family for five generations. On our arrival, the family welcomed us, taking us to the "den" for afternoon tea (which turned out to be rather more exotic than tea. It was a potent anise-flavoured liquor called aguardiente) while local Indian musicians played folk songs. Haciendas are one of the best things about visiting Ecuador. Many of these Latin-style ranches, dating back to the 17th century, have their own chapel and formal gardens; it's a bit like staying in your own private stately home. Each of Pinsaquí's 20 guest rooms is individually decorated with a private bath, fireplace and rustic antiques, and most overlook the lovely gardens behind the hacienda. The temperature can drop in the evening, but all rooms have sheepskin rugs and heavy blankets to snuggle up in. Only an hour and a half's drive from Quito, the mountain-high capital of Ecuador, Pinsaquí is in the heart of the Otavalo region. A few minutes by car or an hour on horseback takes you to Peguche, a village of weavers who produce ravishing rugs, throws, cushions and scarves in rainbow colours or nearby Cotacachi, a leather-goods centre. There is also easy access to the region's world-famous Otavalo market, the Lakes of San Pablo, Cuicocha, and Mojanda, as well as the white colonial city of Ibarra. Built in 1790, our hacienda was originally a colonial textile workshop, employing over 1,000 weavers and spinners. The furniture, including an exquisite chandelier and writing desk, came mainly from France and Spain, brought back by an extravagant member of the Freile family, who was rumoured to have been a lover of Frida Kahlo while ambassador to Mexico. His experiences abroad influenced the decoration of the house – you'll find ornate chandeliers, marble floors and framed newspaper clippings from the early 1800s. Dinner in the restaurant begins with a champagne toast in Spanish, followed by grilled meats with aji, the ubiquitous Ecuadorian salsa. You can choose from dishes including fresh fish, meat, typical Ecuadorian soups, fresh fruit and rich desserts. After supper we sat in front of the fireplace in the underground bar, overlooking the Imbabura Volcano, whisky in hand. Over the centuries Pinsaquí has hosted illustrious guests, most famously General Simón Bolívar, who liberated Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru from the Spanish crown. Later in the 19th century, the hacienda's walls witnessed the "Treaty of Pinsaquí", a historic peace agreement between Colombia and Ecuador. In the morning, many guests have breakfast on the patio, surrounded by grazing llamas. Horses are the family's other big passion, which is clear from the walls studded with leather saddles, paintings and equestrian trophies. Rumour has it the owner sometimes enters the bar atop his favourite stallion, to recount the personal history of the hacienda – he even sleeps in the master bedroom with his favourite horse, according to his wife. Ecuador is often overlooked by tourists who make a beeline for the better known attractions of neighbouring Peru, but Quito is a 21st-century city with designer hotels, restaurants and boutiques, as well as the best-preserved Old Town in South America, a Unesco world heritage site. Thanks to its tropical location, the country's climate is spring-like all year round. And it is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world. The colours of the national flag – green, blue, orange, yellow – are colours you'll see everywhere in the landscape. We visited the traditional market of Otovalo, in the town's Mercado de Ponchos, where Indian artists sell ceramics, naïve art and jewellery. Struck by their beauty, we longed to copy their dress style: the gold beads, Panama hats and stunning primary-colour skirts. But, sadly, these are not clothes for stocky Westerners. We tried on ponchos and hats and looked more like Window Twankey than Frida Kahlo. We settled instead for driving back to our hacienda for a cocktail and pretending to be Spanish aristocrats. A two-day Otavalo package with Hacienda Pinsaquí costs US$286 per person (minimum four people) and includes a guide and driver, accommodation, all meals, and sightseeing. Contact Metropolitan Touring on +593 2298 8200 or[email protected]

Getting there

London-Quito No direct flights from London. The best routing is via Miami using American Airlines from Heathrow. Return fares: first class £6,012, business class £3,849, economy class from £485. New YorK-Quito Roundtrip fares: first class varies $3,832 to $3,154; business class varies $3,830 to $1,420; full coach $1,856 to $1,400; excursion fares vary from $1,029 to $449; recent sale $429. No non-stop flights available. Lacsa operates a direct flight from JFK via San Jose (Costa Rica) except on Wednesday. Continental operates a daily direct flight from Newark via Bogotá and from LGA via Houston every day except Tuesday and Saturday. American offers daily connections via Miami and Lan Ecuador offers a daily connection in Guayaquil. Los Angeles-Quito Roundtrip fares first class varies $4,776 to $4,140; business class varies $4,774 to $2,416; full coach $4,548 to $1,310; excursion fares vary from $1,115 to $701; recent sale $685. No non-stop or direct service are offered. Best daily connections are American via Miami, Continental via Houston, Lacsa via San Jose and Mexicana Airlines via Mexico City. Copa Airlines operates via Panama on Tuesday and Thursday.
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