“The quickest descent so far is 35 minutes,” explains my Kichwa guide, Vinicio Quilimbango, as we commence an 11-mile bike ride winding down the steep flanks of Cerro Cubilche in the Ecuadorian Andes. I survey the surrounding tableau of wildflower-speckled meadows and snow-capped volcanoes rising to almost 19,000ft, and decide the landscape is too beautiful to rush through. A two-hour drive north of Quito, Imbabura Province looks so green, neat and wholesome it could be a Swiss canton, save for the agave hedges and shepherds in trilby hats.
Our adventure progresses from dirt tracks curling through woodland to empty roads where we whizz round the bends relishing the sunshine, breezes and clean air. Here on the Equator, the blooms grow over four feet tall and a glorious bouquet costs just a couple of dollars from a roadside stall.
After 90 minutes of freewheeling with frequent photo stops, we reach Hacienda Zuleta, the 5,200-acre country estate where I’m staying. The approach is suitably grand — a tree-lined avenue leading to a huge cobbled courtyard with a stone cross in the centre. Sturdy white buildings with terracotta roof tiles are illuminated by hundreds of potted red geraniums while a stone lintel testifies to how the property dates back to 1691. There’s also an imposing library with books, photographs and memorabilia telling the story of the Plaza Galo Lasso family, who have lived here since 1898. “When I want to make changes,” confides the hacienda’s current owner, Fernando, “I still have to get permission from distant aunts and uncles”.
Meals are served communally at a 20ft-long cedar table in the dining room, where we enoy homemade quinoa soup, estate-sourced trout and beef, and a passion fruit pie.
Thankfully, there are numerous ways to keep trim. While I opt for mountain biking, my wife Alice goes riding with the estate’s own breed of horses, known as Zuleteños, which are celebrated for being noble, gentle and versatile. “I’m in hacienda heaven!” Alice declares after a full day exploring the mountains with plenty of canters thrown in. There are also 20 miles of walking trails, the most popular leading to the Condor Huasi Project where four rescued birds are being cared for. We’re joined by Grey and Canela, two of the estate’s affable dogs, and the hike is further enlivened by enigmatic pre-Incan mounds and ramped pyramids sprinkled around the valley. I don’t know why they were built, but today they make excellent picnic spots. I lie on the grass, optimistically scanning the hills for spectacled bears, pitying anyone who has to rush through this land.
Double rooms at Hacienda Zuleta start from £203 per person, full-board.
Tribes offers three nights from £925 per person including full-board and return transfer from Quito (excluding flights).
Published in the South America guide, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)