The animal market in Otavalo, is a tapestry in motion, a colorful, textured, noisy tapestry that has no beginning and no end. Peter, my husband, and I perched on a ridge above the cacophony and just watched, fascinated by the sea of people below. One woman carried piglets in a canvas bag, another cradled unhappy hens, a third led a bewildered baby cow through the thronging crowd. Here and there people stopped, negotiated, bought, and sold, completing transactions whose roots go back to the beginning of time.
Last fall Peter and I spent eleven days in Ecuador, exploring the Andes region around Quito, the capital. This small resourceful country captured our hearts and souls, and we can’t wait to go back. It’s beautiful, inexpensive, adventurous—and Ecuadorians are some of the friendliest, most polite people we’ve met anywhere.
The funny thing is I knew very little about Ecuador when we decided to go there. For years Peter and I had talked about seeing South America, the mysterious continent to the south. One day I checked to see how many frequent flyer miles we’d need to fly there, and Quito required only 30,000, just a bit more than you’d use flying here in the U.S. Then I discovered Ecuador is on the same longitude as Virginia even though it’s on South America’s West Coast—check a map if you don’t believe me—which means no jet lag. The connections would be a breeze—a two-hour flight to Miami and then about four more to Quito. We booked our flight and began to plan our foray to a new continent.
Last month I wrote about the first part of our trip: touring Quito and its amazing historic treasures; visiting Mitad del Mundo and standing at the juncture of the Northern and Southern hemispheres; and riding horses through the lush landscape at Hacienda La Alegria, where wild roses and calla lilies grow by the side of the road (see www.tidewaterwomen.com if you missed it). For the second part of our journey, Peter and I headed north of Quito to the region around Otavalo, where more adventures, gorgeous scenery, and wonderful people awaited.
UNDER THE NIGHT SKY
I always try to find authentic experiences when I travel. Big box hotels, even the luxury brands, can seem so sterile and soulless. Once you’re inside these accommodations, everything looks the same; unless you look out the window, you could be anywhere on the planet. When I was researching places to stay during our trip, a property just outside of Otavalo called Hacienda Cusin caught my eye. Dating back to the 1600s, this hacienda had seen better days when Nicholas Millhouse began a loving restoration in 1990. Now it’s a stellar property with an authentic ambiance that welcomes people from around the world.
A native Brit, Nik fell in love with Ecuador during a visit in the 80s. He jumped at the chance to buy Cusin in 1990 and then commenced to restore the original hacienda, adding rooms, modernizing bathrooms, upgrading kitchen and dining areas, and creating a cozy compound in the process. Then with an eye to the future, he built El Monasterio on land adjoining Hacienda Cusin. Offering additional lodgings and meeting space, the Monastery is a rustic, yet modern complex with whitewashed buildings, tile roofs, cute courtyards with water features, lots of wood and natural materials, and an unpretentious vibe. These elements combine to encourage “fervent creativity,” says Nik, who describes El Monasterio as a “meeting place for great minds.” I can’t think of a nicer place for a yoga retreat, a writing conference, or a think tank—or just to stay and be in the moment.
Peter and I lodged in Room 18 in the original hacienda, next to the library where tea is always available to guests. Our room, like most at Cusin, featured a cozy fireplace, which a staff member lit each evening, as well as a small collection of books. But don’t look for a TV in your room because you won’t find it. Nik told us that he tries to encourage people to disconnect from technology while staying at the hacienda. Instead, he invites guests to stroll through the gardens under the night sky or read a good book beside a crackling fire. Peter and I loved the peace and quiet we found at Cusin and absolutely didn’t miss having a TV in our room.
Accommodations at Hacienda Cusin include breakfast—a hearty plate of eggs, bacon, toast, jam, and delicious juices—and you can also savor lunch or dinner in their lovely dining room. One night Peter and I joined Nik for a delicious meal of squash soup, salad, and picante-style shrimp followed by homemade ice cream made from local fruit. Looking down from the walls of the elegant dining room are portraits portraying saints and noblemen from the pages of history. Throughout the entire property, stunning portraits, landscapes, still lifes, sculptures, textiles, and tapestries—all from Nik’s private collection—combine to make you feel like you’re staying in an art museum—a relaxed museum without the stony-faced guards and “please don’t touch” signs.
If you appreciate the great outdoors, there’s plenty to keep you busy at Hacienda Cusin. One morning Peter and I rode horseback along dirt roads that led high above the town of San Paolo and saw stunning views of lakes and mountains and sky. Hiking is also a popular pastime, and you can spend hours exploring the surrounding countryside alone or with a guide. After turning left out of the gates of the hacienda, Peter and I hiked for a couple miles along a road that bordered a green valley. Cusin’s resident dog accompanied us, and we passed landscapes worthy of the Hudson River School of painters. Out of nowhere a small church appeared with hand-painted decorations and a statue of the Virgin Mary peeking out of a window.
Another morning Peter and I visited Parque Candor, a sanctuary for birds run by a Dutchman named Joep Hendricks. High atop a mountain above San Paolo Lake, Parque Candor offers amazing views from its landscaped grounds, where aviaries contain a variety of birds of prey, including two Andean condors, Ecuador’s national bird and one that’s seriously endangered.
“The Andean condor is the ambassador of the project,” Joep said, “and a very important symbol of the Ecuadorian culture.” In fact, condors are the largest flying bird in the world with wingspans reaching ten feet across. Sadly there are only around 200 Andean condors left in the wild. Joep hopes that Parque Condor’s environmental programs, combined with fundraising efforts, will help ensure a brighter future for the condor.
After visiting with the birds, Peter and I headed down to San Paolo Lake, where we’d spotted a nice lakeside resort called Cabanas del Lago, and decided to have a beer and a snack in their cozy restaurant. We were fortunate to get a table in the Tiki-style outdoor dining patio overlooking the sparkling lake and proceeded to while away the afternoon in this absolutely stunning setting. As the clouds danced across the sky and the sun sank slowly in the west, we watched water skiers, kayakers, and boaters scudding across the surface of the glistening lake. We weren’t terribly hungry, but decided to try the white corn empanaditas stuffed with a savory meat filling and served with guacamole and homemade hot sauce, washed down with Ecuador’s tasty beer.
One day Peter and I visited Hacienda Cusin’s sister hotel called Las Palmeras Inn, just five minutes from Otavalo. Nik gave us a tour of the property, which features garden cottages, family suites, and even a private house to rent—all with Spanish-style architecture surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens. In fact, Nik has expanded his offerings to include a few on-site homes for sale—both at Cusin and Las Palmeras. He recognized the appeal of this peaceful landscape and envisioned selective communities where owners could build second or permanent homes for their retirement. I loved the tranquil setting of these homes and could easily see myself settling down for a few months or a few years in Ecuador.
AN ETHEREAL GLOW
We’d read about the Saturday craft market in Otavalo and planned to stay Friday night in town so we could get up early and experience the market fully. I’d found a small hotel called Hostal Doña Esther, owned by a Dutch couple, which was right in the city center. The price was affordable, so I made a reservation for one night.
What a cute place! After passing through a gate at the street, you enter a cozy courtyard with potted plants and a tinkling fountain. A stairway leads you up to balconies surrounding the courtyard and entrance to the rooms, which are clean, basic, and comfortable. We loved the Old-World ambiance of the hotel and enjoyed getting to know the Dutch owners Wendy and Arthur, who moved to Ecuador 18 years ago.
That night Peter and I were relaxing in our room when we heard the faint sounds of musical instruments. Looking down in the courtyard, we saw a group of Andean musicians getting ready to play. What luck! We’d been thinking about going out for some nightlife, but now we didn’t have to. We joined other guests down in the courtyard, sipped wine, and heard the most fabulous music, played with passion by this group of seven musicians. Two brothers—almost identical in appearance—harmonized on “Hammer and a Nail,” alternating their poignant singing with playing their indigenous reed instruments. The band’s heartfelt music captivated me, and yes, of course, I bought their CD!
The next day’s market was all I thought it would be and more. Besides the animal market on the edge of town, practically every street in Otavalo was packed with vendors selling art, blankets, clothing, belts, pottery, jewelry, handbags, hammocks, sweaters, hats, baskets, and beads. In the food market, colorful fruits and vegetables, spices, cuts of beef, fresh fish, poultry, and baked goods were on display for crazy-cheap prices. No wonder this market draws tourists and residents alike. You can pretty much find anything under the sun here!
Peter and I planned to spend our final two days in Ecuador at Casa Mojanda, a unique property about 20 minutes from Otavalo. This mountainside inn and organic farm offers charming cottages with traditional furnishings and views that rival any I’ve ever seen. In the distance you can see two dormant volcanoes Cotacachi and Imbabura, who, legend has it, are lovers. Locals say when the wind picks up in the mountaintop communities, the lovers are blowing kisses to each other.
We planned a horseback ride the first afternoon at Casa Mojanda and, accompanied by a guide, meandered for nearly three hours through forests, across streams, along valleys, and past farms—all the while enraptured by the idyllic countryside. One thing Peter and I discovered while enjoying horseback rides in Ecuador is that our guides weren’t afraid to let us run a bit. Whether it was a sedate trot or an all-out gallop, Peter and I loved the exhilarating feeling of pounding along the roads—if only for a few moments. In fact, the horses seemed to sense that Peter and I weren’t experienced equestrians and slowed their pace at the first tug on the reins.
Casa Mojanda, like Hacienda Cusin and Las Palmeras, also offers a select few homesites for sale. Daniel, the innkeeper, showed us an available homesite, and my eyes grew big when he told me how much it cost to build a home in Ecuador—not much. Nearby a llama grazed in the grass—my front yard, I daydreamed—and I looked across the valley westward at a view that took my breath away. A checkered cloth of green lay like a quilt across the mountainside, and beams of light broke through the cloud cover, casting the setting in an ethereal glow. I still think about that view and wonder….
That evening we joined Casa Mojanda’s other guests in the dining room for a before-dinner glass of wine. We met a couple from South Carolina in their 60s, who were checking out Ecuador as a possible retirement location, and a mother from the UK who came to Ecuador to visit her daughter—also staying at Mojanda—who worked as a teacher for a local charitable organization. The wine hour segued into dinner, and we dined hungrily on a delicious dinner of fried local fish and fresh vegetables.
The sun sets early in Ecuador—around 6:15 p.m. Days and nights are each about twelve hours long. And like Cusin, Casa Mojanda doesn’t believe in drowning yourself in a TV before bed. Instead, you can read, play cards, hop in the old-fashioned, wood-burning hot tub, or simply gaze at the stars. Sometimes Casa Mojanda features Andean folk music for guests, and the staff is also happy to arrange private classes in Spanish, weaving, herbal medicine, or Ecuadorian cooking.
After a hearty breakfast the next morning and a hike to a beautiful nearby waterfall, Peter relaxed in the common area while I treated myself to a massage. In a sunlit room above the reception area, I lay on a massage table and soon fell under the bewitching spell of the Quechua massage therapist, a pony-tailed native who spoke no English, but whose warm smile expressed his humble gratitude. Nimbly, he went to work seeking and finding just the places my body needed relief. Soon I stopped thinking about the massage and gave myself over to the lucidity of the moment.
At one point I could hear the therapist chanting very softly under his breath, and I began to realize he was doing more than just manipulating my physical kinks. He was helping dissolve some of the other kind of kinks, the ones that lie all twisted and torn deep down in your soul. At the end of the massage it was all I could do to pick myself up from the table. I felt drained yet exhilarated at the same time. As Peter and I drove down the mountain after we checked out of the inn, we saw the massage therapist flying down the road ahead of us on his bike, his black ponytail waving in the breeze.
Memories like this one—of the people we met in Ecuador , the stunning vistas, savory food, and pleasurable moments—are what you hope for after a visit to a faraway land. And if you’re lucky, you’ll bring more than memories back home with you: you’ll carry a piece of that place in your heart—and when you close your eyes, you’ll be there once again, where the wind blows kisses across the land.