The Valley of Zuleta is one of Ecuador’s truly arresting getaways, due to its landscapes and cultural importance, yet, few make it out that way… We did so this weekend, always set to rediscover our country’s most beautiful destinations.
While reading our own articles and recommendations — which is how we usually give ourselves things to do in our free time — we decided Zuleta would be a nice place to spend the weekend during these pandemic-ridden days. For one thing, it’s secluded and very beautiful, few people make it out that way… it is also not too far from Quito.
Simply for its landscapes, taking the road from Ayora to Zuleta is a feast for the eyes. You have to be vigilant, no doubt. Don’t miss out on the details. Stand next to a house bright with blossoming geraniums, quite a view against the many earthen homes that dominate several sections of the road. You may think you have seen quaint places like this before… and then you notice you’re surrounded by golden fields and patchwork mountains.
Many adobe constructions here are over a hundred years old, showcasing ancient methods used in Colonial times with which our most beautiful haciendas were built. These old architectural techniques, for the most part, have been lost. Another staple of this part of the country that has also become few-and-far-between, tiles! This is a world of tiles as most roofs still feature them: a beautiful thing.
Before, this was also a world of stones, with an iconic stone rode that made its winding and narrow path to the town of San Pablo, near Otavalo. But much of it has been paved so that one can go as fast as possible (and miss out on the beauty of appreciating the many pretty details along the way). That is why it is double the effort to stop and look.
If one travels along in this almost meditative state, you come across the small local plantations and feel they are telling you something. Is is very ‘rural Ecuadorian’: the small farm, vegetable garden, orchard, or personal plantation next to every house. We identify the purple flowers of the chocho bean swaying in the wind and the tall cornfields filled with ears of corn. This is a fertile land, a land that provides food for everyone.
It is difficult to speak of poverty, of course, as we city folk understand it. Because here everyone has food. Houses may be small but they all have expansive green areas, much more open and extensive than what most people own in city habitats… You may find one or two houses that show-off modern materials here and there, but they look ungainly in our eyes. We prefer the old homes, the wooden windows, the tiles. You suddenly gain an unexpected perspective on wealth and what it means to have and have not.
But we leave these philosophical queries behind as we finally reach the small town of Zuleta. If the intention is to stay at the hacienda, you won’t regret it. It is one of the most beautiful in the country, full of great nature experiences and places to discover, from pre-Hispanic tola pyramids to forests, hikes, horseback riding, excellent home-style cooking, and a wonderful setting to unwind and forget it all, since Zuleta is a true getaway, an isolated, hidden niche amidst the Imbabura mountains.
Strolling about the town
If you are passing by seeking other destinations, you still must stop your car and take a brief walk in town. You’ll find a series of small shops, food stores, and craft workshops that will surely catch your eye in more ways than one. Most of the food products here are organic, healthy, locally-sourced, and delicious, a privilege of the Zuleta Valley. We stop at Pulso Orgánico, where they sell all kinds of local produce you will want to take back home with you: fresh natural yogurt, mango jam, granola, different types of coffee, different types of honey, dehydrated fruit, organic corn, free-range eggs…
We then made our way to Chimbalo, Hacienda Zuleta’s store. The Hacienda is actually well-reputed for its for-export quality products. Find Zuleta honey, different types of flour like local máchica, delicious fruit popsicles, smoked trout, jams… and the entire array of cured cheese from the hacienda’s cheese factory, one of the most important fine cheese producers in the country.
After sticking our heads inside the leather workshops in town, we spent a good hour at the embroidery shops, a great place to find a gift for that special someone, with the classic ‘bread cloths’, but also more modern shawls, blouses, embroidered hats, and beautiful sisal sandals…
And then you have the decorated walls, the old homes, the simple, relaxed livelihoods of the locals, a friendly conversation here and there with the talented Zuleta residents… all of which make this getaway stop an experience to remember.