Hacienda Cusin – the courtyard I remembered from the travel magazine
My biological travel clock was ticking. More than 25 years ago, I saw an article in a travel magazine featuring Hacienda Cusin near Otavalo, Ecuador, about ninety minutes north of Quito. The full-page picture in the magazine taken from the hacienda’s balcony, overlooking a flower-filled courtyard, was so beautiful that I kept it filed in my travel memory bank of destinations. Finally, a few years ago we booked our flight from Miami to Quito a couple of days before Thanksgiving with no baked turkeys expected on the table. Hacienda Cusin’s driver, Angel, met us at the airport after 8 p.m. and drove through the darkness around many curves and higher than I’ve been except in an airplane seat. Hacienda Cusin, a restored 17th century Andean estate, is at an altitude of 8,500 ft/2,600m. We arrived at the historic, ambience-filled hacienda and walked along the cobblestone entry, through the courtyard with the gurgling fountain as the frog-croaking orchestra on the lily pads played a welcome melody.
Entrance to our suite
Our booked room was being remodeled and it was not ready, so we had an upgrade! The double French doors with heavy wooden shutters carved with griffins and cupids opened to an expansive living area with comfortable sofa situated in front of the large fireplace. An ornate antique armoire concealed a television, a DVD player and a good selection of movies. A large window filled an entire wall facing the garden with a heavy wooden desk and chair positioned in the center. Antique objects covered tabletops and the fireplace mantel. In case we felt lyrical, an antique harp was in the corner beside a velvet-covered chair. A green, rubber iguana whimsically waited on the top of a wooden bench along with boxes of games and a couple of worn-around-the-edges hats. I was very vocal about my happiness as I surveyed all of the delights in the living room, bedroom and bath. Angel and the young man helping with the bags were chuckling at my amazed contentment.
The crackling fireplace warmly welcomed us. When we were alone, Jim and I hugged and congratulated each other on our fine choice. We had five nights to savor the hacienda lifestyle.
The bathroom had a rain shower fixture and a separate bathtub with sheet-size, heavy, peach-colored bath towels to luxuriate in pampered comfort. There was only one complaint. The non-slip stuff applied to the bottom of the bathtub was so effective you could exfoliate your backside! I’m known for being clumsy, so maybe non-slip was a good thing.
After sleeping in our king-sized bed with duvet, wool blankets, hand-woven bedspread and down pillows, I awoke to see yellow angel trumpet flowers heralding the morning at our window. Yellow and black colored birds fluttered in the garden, and an emerald green hummingbird zoomed from bloom to bloom. The list of bird sightings on the grounds reads like a “Who’s Who?” in the bird world with blue-and-yellow tanagers, black crested warblers, great violet-eared humming birds and many more. The gardens have an astounding 1,000 trees or more, including banana, eucalyptus, walnut, grapefruit, lemon, jacaranda and magnolia.
Calla lilies, purple bougainvillea, fragrant jasmine and trickling fountains decorated the walk to the dining room for our breakfast. Sunshine warmed the room through ceiling-height windows and French doors opening to the patio. A log fire added more toasty warmth. Heavy wooden dining chairs with leather seats surrounded wooden tables covered with crisp white hand-made cotton place mats. I bought similar place mats later for wonderful memories at my own wooden table.
I ordered hot pancakes and heaped on fresh strawberries and butter. Jim had an omelet with flaky rolls fresh from the oven. And, of course, we had hot coffee with warm milk from the pitchers on our table. Freshly squeezed orange juice was on the table each day, and Jim experimented with other flavors including the tree tomato, which Angel showed to us growing in gardens alongside the road. The food alone is worth a trip to Hacienda Cusin!
Later in the day we met with our new friends, Tom and Linda. They live in the valley near Cotacachi with gorgeous views of the mountains, even snow-capped Imbabura at 15,000ft/4,570m. They raved about life in Ecuador, boasting about the year-round Spring-like weather, the food, their beautiful garden and especially the kind people they’ve met. Cotacachi is a primo leather center with jackets, skirts, boots, belts, briefcases, bags, riding equipment and wallets. I purchased a beautiful handbag of good quality workmanship for a fraction of the price I would have paid at home. Jim bought a badly needed new belt from a young lady who laughed at his worn-out, falling-apart old one. We walked the streets and noticed construction activity with remodeling work and fresh, brightly colored paint being applied. It’s on its way to being a lovely place, definitely in a beautiful setting.
We decided to go to San Antonio to see the woodcarvers next day, and Angel drove us there and waited while we wandered into many shops, seeing the craftsmen at work. One could buy ornate plaques, religious artwork, flowers, life-size statues of women, children and Don Quixote, chests and furniture – all made by expert woodcarvers. I selected a medium-sized, rustic, shallow wooden bowl, similar to one my mother used for her biscuit dough; and thankfully it did fit into my suitcase. I also found an ornate wooden piece carved with shapes of fruit and other objects, which is perfect in my kitchen. Napkin rings made of woven straw with tiny figurines of ladies in colorful dress holding babies or flowers were too adorable to pass up. They’re just the right touch with my white place mats!
I purchased a few more gift items, and then we went to Hacienda Pinsaqui for lunch. Hacienda Pinsaqui, dating from 1790 is close to Otavalo, about 10 minutes by taxi.The stately hacienda is furnished with French and Spanish antiques, and massive chandeliers grace the interior. We were seated facing the gardens with a pond and orange trees down below. Women wearing traditional dress of embroidered blouses, colorful shawls and full skirts edged in bright trim, served our lunch. Jim selected fried shrimp; Angel had filet mignon and I chose the grilled trout. Warm chocolate cake rounded out a perfect lunch. Angel greeted people in the dining room and everywhere we went, saying they were his amigos. He proudly told us about the items Ecuador exports such as shrimp, eucalyptus, roses from large rose plantations, coffee and many other products.
Entry at Hacienda Pinsaqui
Later in the evening I wore a bright red wool jacket to dinner at Hacienda Cusin, enjoying langoustine with fresh vegetables from the hacienda’s beautiful garden followed by blackberry ice cream. I smiled smugly at the French tapestries on the wall to my right and above the fireplace. Jim saw my glances at the French loveliness. We came close to going to France instead of Ecuador despite the fact that we were short on vacation time. My sensible side shook me by the shoulders, or was it Jim? I chose Ecuador, but I was pleased to see these French touches for my dining pleasure.
We explored the vegetable garden the next morning, watching the gardeners with their spades and wheelbarrows. Little did they know how much I would enjoy gardening in that black, rich soil… I posed for a picture by the rows of purple cabbages, roses, hollyhocks and a stone wall covered in succulents surrounding this little paradise. A garden-green tool shed, almost as large as the old cottage in my Granny’s flower garden, made me think of the story about Old McGregor’s garden. I wondered if Senór Rabbit chomped down on Cusin’s vegetables.
I found a buzzing bush, not a burning bush, humming with bees near a cottage behind the garden. I had my large zoom lens on my camera, so I thought I would try to capture some of these little stingers, unless they captured me. I tried for bee pictures in France, but they flew faster than Air France when I focused my lens. Apparently the bees in South America were on siesta time because I captured five shots worthy of National Geographic- not boasting of course!
El Monasterio de Cusin (a sister partner) is next door with the same wonderful antique furnishings and lush landscaping. I was surprised when the manager said it is a newer property since it has the same old ambience as Hacienda Cusin. The upper terraces and bell tower with a secret entrance are the perfect places for viewing and taking pictures of the mountains.
Murals cover the walls near the bar entrance. The murals depict fiery torment for sinners, showing demons and two-faced women along with other gruesome subjects. Happy pictures of children playing with a lion and people feasting around tables heaped with tasty food were painted in contrast representing the good people.
I had absolutely the most fun of the whole trip at the cattle sale, early Saturday morning. Angel drove us to the site on a hillside above Otavalo. Farmers and their families, many dressed in beautiful, colorful shawls and headdresses were gathered with their cows, bulls, goats, chickens, baby chicks, pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs, and one turkey escaping the axe for awhile with no thoughts of Thanksgiving. A farmer presented little pink pigs tied to strings of twine in perfect New York Rockette precision, except when I aimed my camera. Then, they scrambled in all directions, wrapping the pig farmer like a maypole.
Bargaining, gossiping, eating and a little romancing were underway on that hillside. Above it all, tents were pitched with whole pigs cooking and big cooking pots filled with parts of animals that I didn’t care about eating or even knowing where they came from. Little did I know that the airline would serve them for breakfast on our return flight along with what they claimed to be scrambled eggs??
We went to the Otavalo craft market next, and I purchased shawls, cotton shirts and a tiny doll made from the agave plant. And I thought agave was only used to make tequila! We waited at the edge of the street for Angel to return and bought ice cream cones for a couple of little girls while we enjoyed their playful antics. It reminded me that Daddy always bought ice cream cones for us on Saturday after we went to town. My favorite was walnut ice cream.
Jim said: “Don’t you think you could retire here instead of France? They have good food and they eat some strange food too, just like France. They have lush gardens. They have stone houses and cobblestone courtyards. They have big fireplaces and antiques. And, occasionally I see a man stopping for a pee by the road. Just like France!” I quickly answered: “Eewww! You only want to move here because the gas is cheaper!”
Tom picked us up along with his elderly mother for a very enjoyable evening before we flew home early the next morning. The group was a mixture of people, some Floridians, and local people, so there was a lot of interpreting. We rode back to the hacienda with a family in their double-seated pickup. They spoke very little English. Their little girl was learning to count and she proudly practiced: “1 – 2 – 3 – 7 – 9 – 10.” Her older sisters corrected her with lots of laughter, but still she persisted. I thought I would teach a song to her, and I sang: “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” They loved the “Ee – I – Ee- I – O” part.
Jim is adapting to the hacienda lifestyle
Ecuador. It all comes down to the lovely people. We scarcely touched the surface during our short vacation of true thanksgiving. If you have an opportunity to visit, then I would suggest that you take it. Hacienda Cusin was worth the wait!
Note: This post is based on an unpublished newspaper article that I prepared, so it doesn’t have my usual goofy style. Maybe I should have went with goofy from the start.
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