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Originally published Saturday, May 24, 2014 at 7:06 PM

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Hitting Ecuador’s highlights — and history

Exploring a revitalized Quito, several centuries-old haciendas and Otavalo market in an Andean crossroads town.


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

If you go

Ecuador

Getting around

Driving on Ecuador’s new highways (some under construction) is an easy way for independent travelers to reach most larger towns and scenic highlights. But taking potholed, rarely signed backcountry dirt roads slows you down to 10 mph. If you’re on a tight schedule, think about hiring a guide.

Guides

Our English-speaking guides from EQ Touring were smart and upbeat, eqtouring.com.

Haciendas

For some individual haciendas, see:

haciendacusin.com

haciendapinsaqui.com

zuleta.com

More information

Ecuador tourism office: ecuador.travel/en

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Ask me about the European “discovery” and settlement of North America and I can quote chapter and verse. But ask about Ecuador’s cultural heritage or colonial history and I’m lost.

Where then, in this South American country, would a traveler find links to the past? I mean living links, too, not just museum exhibits.

We started in Quito, the capital, founded in 1534, just 42 years after Columbus “discovered” America. Perched at 9,000 feet, it lies at the foot of the Andes’ Guagua Pichincha, a 15,820-foot volcano.

Twenty years ago, when I blew through Quito on a two-day stopover, the city was tired, dirty and lingering on life support. Ecuador’s currency, the sucre, was nearly worthless.

Since then the patient has recovered. In 2001, Ecuador fully adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency, stabilizing the economy. Today the heart of the old city has been scrubbed and painted, its buildings restored.

Abundant lighting illuminates the cobblestone streets at night, trash vanishes in a twinkling, and public squares sport benches, grass and flowers. Purse snatching in the old quarter dwindled when the streets were converted to pedestrian traffic only from dusk to dawn. Looking down out of my hotel room after dinner, I could see and hear couples and families walking past.

As for history, we found it in Independence Square, where old men and visitors sit in the sun. History lives in Quito’s monumental, painted, gold-swathed churches and monasteries, where — on the Sunday I was there — the pews were packed and latecomers stood in the side aisles under dark paintings of tortured saints.

To the haciendas

But Quito was only the beginning. When I first put Ecuador on my wish list, it was the historic haciendas, the centuries-old ranches, I wanted to visit. Originally land grants, these vast ranches boast illustrious family pedigrees and long traditions.

When a friend recommended EQ Touring, a Quito- and Miami-based travel outfit specializing in Ecuador, we asked for an individual trip to the haciendas near Quito, traveling on scenic country roads past ice-clad volcanoes and 13,000-foot farm fields.

The haciendas were historic yet forward-looking. Both Le Cusin, founded in 1602 by Jesuits, and Hacienda Pinsaqui, founded in 1790 and still owned by the original family, felt and looked like the 18th-century white-walled, red-tiled-roof colonial compounds typical of Spanish colonies. Surrounded with flowering vines and far from noise and traffic, they’ll send you back to another century.

But Le Cusin’s present owner is an American who restored the buildings and updated guest rooms and cottages, adding comfort while preserving the colonial feel. The wood-paneled living room and dining hall are reminiscent of a hunting lodge. Guests stay in spacious rooms with fireplaces and can keep busy, riding horses, hiking, sketching, studying Spanish and taking day trips to the market town of Otavalo.

Pinsaqui Hacienda, where we stopped for a bowl of locro (cream of potato soup garnished with cheese and avocado slices), is owned and managed by an eighth-generation family member. Guests enjoy acres of lawns and spectacular views of Imbabura Volcano, and stay in 30 redecorated, family-sized suites.

Zuleta Hacienda, originally a Jesuit property, is now owned by the Plaza-Lasso family, progenitor of two presidents of Ecuador, and the 4,000-acre ranch is a working dairy farm. The hacienda, with a nine-room guest wing, is surrounded by trees and vast green fields, and has a stable full of horses. Guests are enthusiastic horseback riders, hikers and nature lovers.

To market, to market

We spent our last day shopping in the craft market in Otavalo, an Andean crossroads town, saving the last 10 minutes for a sprint through the produce market. We ended up spending an hour marveling at the kinds of vegetables that local farmers can grow at high altitude.

My list, hastily jotted down, included kale, bunches of fresh alfalfa, leafy greens, peas, a half-dozen kinds of beans, red and purple berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, tree tomatoes, tubers, bags of beets, onions, dried spices, 124 varieties of potatoes and 50-pound sacks of quinoa, alfalfa grain and three kinds of corn. And I thought I knew vegetables.



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