Ecuador goes Luxe

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The 17th Century Hacienda Zuleta
The 17th Century Hacienda Zuleta

“Ecuador is famed as the home of the Galapagos, the beloved islands off the coast that feature mind-boggling wildlife—but the mainland is no slouch either,” so stated in The New York Times travel section that just placed Ecuador No. 7 on its list of “52 Places to Go in 2014.”

Ecuador treats her visitors to an excess of eco-adventures with a slew of added splendors, from treasure-filled colonial cities to standing astride the equator for the quintessential photo op; shopping in craft-filled indigenous markets and buying the true Panama hat; climbing the Cotopaxi Volcano; riding horses or mountain bikes across the highland paramo; whale watching off the Pacific coast; birdwatching in a country of 1,800 species; or hiking through forests with 4,000 varieties of orchids.

What’s new and special in Ecuador in the 21st century is what we call the upscaling of a nation, from the rebirth of the elegant historic center of Quito and the debut of the spanking new airport, to a full roster of new and upgraded luxury accommodations—boutique city hotels, resorts along the Pacific beaches, colonial-era haciendas converted into plush highland inns, and rustically luxe ecolodges in the rain and cloud forests. And now great comfort in true high-end fashion extends to luxe products that showcase river and rail travel, too.

Ecuador knows how to show off its eco-side, adding a sprinkling of luxury to its already marvelous natural offerings.


luxury newcomers – El Mashpi Lodge

The storyline in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams” reads, “if you build it, they will come.” With that in mind, fast-forward 25 years to find Roque Sevilla, former mayor of Quito and chairman of Metropolitan Touring, who had his own dream—purchase land for conservation and create a 3,200-acre private reserve in the wildly biodiverse Choco region, then build a luxury, sustainable hideaway that showcases a wilderness wonderland…and “they will come.” And indeed, they are coming to the unique, rather marvelous El Mashpi Lodge.

On our recent trip to the country, we visited the lodge, driving northwest from Quito into the hilly ecosystem of the Mindo Cloud Forest where over 400 bird species have been recorded; where the forest is draped in orchids and bromeliads; where butterflies are raised on specialty farms; and where an excellent museum has opened in the Sacred Valley of Tulipe at the archaeological site, once occupied by pre-Incan Yumbos people. Then 1.5 hours after leaving Quito, we arrives at the Mashpi Rainforest Biodiversity Reserve, driving farther into the wilds to pull up at, not a thatched rondavel of traditional jungle lodges, but at the award-winning, state-of-the-art (architecturally and ecologically) El Mashpi Lodge. Sitting on a ridge at 3,116 ft., this glass-and-steel house has floor-to-ceiling glass walls designed to connect guests to the outdoors.

The top floor guestrooms and the innovative restaurant are virtually at forest-canopy level, putting guests eye-to-eye with branches on which parrots roost and monkeys play. There are 22 rooms in all—spacious and minimalist in style, yet beautifully decorated and cozy, with walls of glass framing the panorama of a living cloud forest. Guests occupying the three suites can keep an eye on this natural world from deep, stand-alone bathtubs. The lodge’s towering 2-story dining room showcases—with imagination and flair—the diversity of Ecuadorean cuisine, and never have we had better smoothies, choosing from such local fruits as papaya, pineapple, naranjilla, guanabana, muyo and wild blackberry. Guests also enjoy a library filled with wildlife books and briefings by resident naturalists sharing their rainforest discoveries, plus a jacuzzi in the
Wellness Space. Excursions take clients to the hummingbird viewing point, the butterfly house, an 8-story observation tower, and a guided hike to a secret waterfall with a dip on arrival. Guests can even opt for aerial bikes for two that lead them through the canopy. As usual in the wilderness, it’s the sunrise walks (the trails are steep, the guides very good) that produce the show of the day. During our visit, Sandra Borello, president of Borello Tours & Travel, was part of our group, sharing the path with an orphaned tiger leopard cub, locally called a tigrillo. My prize sighting was a big, weasel-like dude called a tayra. An all-inclusive, 2-night package, with meals and Quito transfers, starts at $1,374 pp dbl.

Hacienda Zuleta

The most remote of the highland haciendas, Zuleta, a beautiful 17th century farmhouse that once belonged to Galo Plaza Lasso, former president of Ecuador (as well as ambassador to the U.S.), has remained in the same family for more than 100 years. While Zuleta is not brand-new to tourism hospitality, it just keeps getting better and better at providing the true luxury of authentic experiences—a credit to the ongoing engagement of the Plaza family, particularly the energy and imagination of general manager Fernando Polanco Plaza, who’s an engaging and engaged nonstop believer who says, “tourism helps keep the hacienda a living and working enterprise, as well as assisting in funding community outreach programs such as Condor Huasi, a rescue and rehab center for injured condors.”

The welcome is warm at this luxurious residence, filled with historic memorabilia and modern comfort. It is the centerpiece of a 3,000-acre working farm, known for its excellent cheeses, vast fruit orchards, trout farm, stable of 100 fine horses, and renowned embroideries made by the local community. The 15 beautifully and individually decorated guestrooms are big, accented with family heirlooms, old photographs and period furniture. All have bathrooms with large tubs and many have a fireplace or wood-burning stove. The dining experience—a family-style affair—unfolds in a series of delicious meals focused on traditional Ecuadorean cuisine (family recipes) and prepared with ingredients produced on the farm. Activities include horseback riding (taken very seriously at Zuleta), hiking, biking through the grasslands, touring the cheese factory and even trying one’s hand at milking the cows. For a look at one of Hacienda Zuleta’s community initiatives, we hiked along the road to a rural house, whose interiors exhibited the customs and traditions of the Zuleta community. Then on horseback, we rode out, past fields of barley and pastures of horny bulls, beneath Andean heights populated by speckled bears, alongside the archaeological remains of the Caranqui people, who once lived in this valley, all leading to the condor project. Note: A week later, a breeding effort victory—a condor hatched in captivity.


ecuador: by river and rail – M/V Anakonda

Ecuador’s Amazonia has little of the visitor traffic of either Peru or Brazil, hence it is blissfully remote, pristine, and teeming with wildlife. What it does have now, however, is a deluxe cruise vessel, the 40-guest M/V Anakonda, cruising on 3- to 6-night itineraries along the Rio Napo, starting from the port town of Coca and visiting the untamed wilds within the Yasuni National Park (Ecuador’s largest) and magical flooded forests of the Cuyabeno Nature Reserve. Along the watery way, guests climb canopy observation towers; switch to small boats to explore black-water jungle streams in the company of otters and turtles; look out for legendary pink dolphins, black caimans and anacondas; marvel at the amazing spectacle of the parrot lick in the Limoncocha Reserve; and spend time with several of the region’s 15 local communities.

The air-conditioned, all-suite Anakonda is the first deluxe vessel to cruise in these waters. Her 18 suites (215 to 258 sq. ft.) are fitted with sitting areas, large and comfortable beds, en-suite bathrooms, and wall-to-wall panoramic windows; four suites have balconies. Public areas include a dining room (we had a deliciously super-fresh and imaginative lunch), bar, observation deck with an outdoor jacuzzi, and alfresco lounge. The 25-person crew includes a concierge, paramedic, four naturalist guides and four local guides. A 3-night cruise is priced from $1,600 pp dbl.

Tren Crucero

Wait until you see the new Tren Crucero (cruise train) now offering one of the most spectacular train experiences in the world, riding the rails from Quito to Guayaquil and vice versa on a 4-day/3-night itinerary. Ecuador has invested $280 million in rebuilding its scenic railway for tourism, adding new coaches and locomotives and attractively restoring every station along the route, some with cafes and shops, and meeting places for local people and passengers.

The train—itself a work of vintage art and modern comforts—rolls out of Quito’s Chimbacalle station to begin the 273-mile journey to Guayaquil. During the trip, passengers ascend 12,000 ft. and descend to sea level, a ride that includes passing through the dramatic Avenue of the Volcanoes and switchback ride up or down the infamous La Nariz del Diablo, or Devil’s Nose. Hauled by a combination of steam and diesel locomotives are four air-conditioned, first-class carriages, with panoramic windows, accommodating 54 passengers. Two carriages have table-chair seating, where drinks and tapas are served; and two observation cars are fitted with sofas and an open viewing platform. Every day there is at least one off-train excursion, and meals are eaten in local restaurants or in the hotels where passengers spend each night. Partial itineraries, one or two nights are available; for the full 3-night ride, the all-inclusive cost is $1,035 pp sharing. ●