We have just had the most remarkable experience spending 3 days at Hacienda Cusin, one of the oldest haciendas in Ecuador. What an amazing place, it almost defies description! We spent most of one whole day wandering in the grounds exploring the wonderful flower and vegetable gardens. “Todos organicos” one of the gardeners told us as we stood awestruck in front of their 5 part composting system — Doug is inspired to increase ours to at least 3 parts, but you really would need an Ecuadorean farmer to turn the compost by hand in the enormous bins they had. They produce all the fruit and vegetables for the gourmet style meals served in the dining room. Trees of fruits like pineapple, banana, tomate de arbol, berries of all kinds, and tree fruits we are used to — such abundance.
The flower beds were equally absorbing — all kinds of semi tropical plants like jade trees, and other succulents which don’t survive our winters, cascading bougainvillea and roses, geraniums climbing the walls 8 feet high, agapanthus and calla lilies growing in hedges, and on and on, hopefully Doug’s pictures give an idea of the lush growth. Two llamas keep the grass in check, not sure how they keep them from eating the flowers. Around every corner was another little walled garden with small pool full of fish and lilies, another crumbling little statue entwined with flowers — who keeps track of it all, I wondered. Though I am always chilly here, the temperature varies little — never higher than 21 or 22, and never lower than 8 or 9 — hence the ability to grow such an astounding variety of plants.
Hours and hours more we spent wandering in the various parts of the house, which had the abundance of a museum without the formality — open fires burned in the main public rooms, with inviting couches and magazine strewn tables inviting you to curl up and forget the real world. The open fires were a real bonus for me and I asked the waiter in the dining room to reserve us a table right beside the fire for all 3 nights. AND – the most important part – we had a fireplace in our bedroom which could be lit at whatever hour we chose! Along with the two hot water bottles which were brought for our bed each evening — no I am not kidding — I gradually stopped whining about being cold all the time. Cold is so much more bearable when you know that inside will be warm…something no one in Ecuador seems to think is important.
Of course we wanted to know the history of this fairytale place — where had all the ornate carved furniture, religious objects, enormous oil paintings, tapestries, carpets, etc etc come from? My one complaint about the place was that I wished they had had some sort of self guided tour of the insides of the buildings (they supplied one for the grounds and surrounding area) so that my curiosity could have been satisfied. However this much we know –
One hundred thousand acres was ceded to a Spanish family by the king of Spain in 1603, and it remained in the same family as a sheep ranch for more than 350 years. At some point in the mid twentieth century it was converted into a country hotel. At that time the journey from Quito over rutted roads took a day or 2 (not 2 hours as currently) and guests came and stayed for weeks. They “dressed” for dinner and to entertain them, wild animals kept under the porches in cellars were paraded through the dining room by the staff. These niches are still in evidence.
By the end of the eighties the owners had run out of money and the place was a run down mess — sporadic water supply, backed up sewers, falling roofs, overgrown gardens, no telephone service, electricity failing daily. At this point the current owner, Nicholas Millhouse, an eccentric Englishman since transplanted to New York, turned up and couldn’t resist the challenge. The property had shrunk between 1603 and 1990 from 100,000 to 30 acres — the original property must have comprised the entire Otavalo area.
We had a couple of fascinating conversations with Nicholas himself. I would say he is now in his mid to late seventies, still fascinated by the place which he has expanded to include El Monasterio, a purpose built new-old complex on the site of an old monastery adjacent to the property, and a dozen gorgeous houses to rent in the surroundings. The current constitution of Ecuador was signed at Cusin in the Monasterio.
He told us that all the furnishings were obtained in Ecuador — most of what he purchased with the house was in terrible shape and had to be redone completely. Some of them were stored in the rafters and blackened by smoke, they were cleaned up and are still black! He said the ’90s in Ecuador were it like England after the war when everyone in Ecuador wanted new furniture and modern plastic decorations. He let it be known that he wanted old furniture and people began pouring through the gates with wooden bedsteads, armoires, chairs etc. He hired a carpenter to refurbish the things, for one thing, Ecuadorian “matrimonial” beds are too small for 2 tourists, being about half again as wide as a single, so he had the ornate head and footboards made into benches which now litter the place.
We wondered about the antique chasubles, or priestly vestments that hang everywhere. He told us that one day, about 5 years into the project, an old monk turned up with a heavily gold embroidered black silk chasuble on a day when he was ready to give up. The monk showed it to him, and hiding his astonishment and delight, Nicholas asked him how much he wanted…$25! “Do you have any more?” the old boy gasped and the next day the monk turned up with 30 more — apparently the monastery had closed for want of monks and they were selling off all their antique goods! These beautiful robes hang on the walls in every room and are astonishing to see. Numerous religious figures pop from every niche, hang over staircases, and grace benches and tables throughout the hacienda. Every time you turn around there is something you haven’t noticed before. One day as I climbed a staircase, I jumped as I became aware of a human figure standing above the landing — it was a life size statue of a saint clad in an antique lace robe which fluttered over the edge of the balustrade!
Not only was the experience fascinating in a visual way, we had the most lovely room in a converted stable, with the aforementioned fireplace and a state of the art bathroom. The meals in the almost overwhelmingly decorated dining room were delicious, changed every night and included a glass of wine — wine is so expensive here we are cultivating a cerveza (beer) habit. Breakfast was enormous and served by the friendly and helpful indigena staff. Everything was made on site, and the vegetables and fruits came from the garden. An enormous treat which we kept telling ourselves we deserved after our arduous week at Spanish school.
It turned out that our wonderful Spanish teacher, Myrian, lives in the tiny village of San Pablo de Lago adjacent to the Cusin property. When she heard we were going there, her eyes goggled (the room rate was 5 times that of our hostel in Otavalo, Doug made up a story about my special cumpleanos ie birthday to justify the expense) and she suggested we meet her in the village square on Sunday morning for a walk part way to the volcano and around the area.
We had a great time, she was such a fount of information always and of course spoke Spanish in such a way that we could understand. She shyly offered to show us her house, and since one of our hour long conversation practices had been discussing our houses, during which she told us the history of her and her husband building theirs, we were very pleased. It was so interesting for us to see.
She is quite a middle class mestizo woman, teaching Spanish, studying by correspondence to be a teacher of English in a primary school, working on her taxi license, with a husband who has managed by stages to purchase a taxi license for Ibarra a nearby town, where such licenses cost $25,000 a staggering amount for here, but half what he will pay when he eventually gets one for Otavalo. We wanted to see what sort of lifestyle a couple of ambitious people their age with 2 young sons had achieved.
Well she hadn’t told us quite all of her jobs — as we walked into her house directly off the sidewalk, we entered her “living room” as she called it which was actually a stationery and school supplies shop with 4 computer stations filled with kids surfing the web and doing homework. Just a little side job to go with all the others — she opens it when she gets back from teaching Spanish (by bus from Otavalo) and keeps it open until 10 each night when her husband returns from Ibarra after his 12 to 15 hours driving a taxi. She seemed to think they were the luckiest people in the world, everything was doable in her eyes, and she had nothing but praise for the current government having made life so much easier with free health care and education, not to mention working on the bribery problem. (There is another side to the story of the government, which is working hard to curry favour with the indigenas and the lower middle class, but Mr Harper would envy them their iron hand with the press — don’t like Question Period? Clap them in jail…) Her mother was in the tiny kitchen cooking the mid day meal, but they had a good stove and a washing machine, running water and so on, so it was a good house. Out back behind the “patio”, a bare expanse of cement, was their corn and bean field, just planted, which supplies all they require with the addition of potatoes supplied by her mother-in-law a small scale potato wholesaler!
Considering this was only 3 days, this post is inordinately long! We reached Latacunga, our next stop last evening after a 4 1/2 hour bus ride on the 1 daily bus from Otavalo that would go around Quito and not require us to get off in the northern bus terminal, take another bus around to the southern bus terminal and finally change again for Latacunga. Reached here after dark, got dropped at the wrong hotel where they were glad to see us but clearly not expecting us — odd hotel for which he asked quite a bit more than the one we were aiming for, realized our mistake by showing him our reservation on the iPad, he was disappointed but bid us a decent farewell and we set off through the dark streets on a longer than desirable quest to find the correct hotel which turned out to be great. Thank goodness for the new rollers, I would never have made it with my backpack! Next instalment coming soon..