When looking for a place to stay in a country, you can do worse than settling into the home of a former president.
As it turns out, my presidential accommodations are a long way from the country's capital and seat of government – I'm on the road from Quito, Ecuador, heading into the Andes for a hacienda about two hours' drive from the city.
Along the way we pass the spectacular snow-capped Mount Cayambe, a volcanic peak that is one of the country's tallest. Its summit is visible today, a rare sight, and the clear skies also offer fine views of the beautiful countryside.
We are more than 2900 metres above sea level, and, having just arrived on a long haul from Australia via Chile and Peru, I'm looking forward to taking a couple of slow days to adjust to the altitude.
Fortunately, my destination, the Hacienda Zuleta, is the perfect place to do it. The 2000-hectare property has been owned by one family for more than 100 years. The Plaza family name is a prestigious one in Ecuador – Galo Plaza was president of the South American country from 1968 to '75, while his father, Leonidas, had two terms as president (1901-1905 and 1912-1916).
Upon arrival, we travel up a short gravel road passing a cafe and a field where a couple of horses watch us pass by. Still a working farm and ranch, the hacienda is home to several of Galo Plaza's descendants.
Approaching the main building, we are greeting by staff as well as a couple of the hacienda's dogs. They are as friendly and affectionate towards guests as they are to their masters.
Despite the size of the property, there are only 14 bedrooms and although it's a luxurious place to stay, it still maintains the family-run atmosphere of an unassuming B&B. My room manages to be both spacious and cosy, with antique furniture, a large bed and ensuite bathroom. A fireplace in the corner is loaded with wood and lit in the evening by staff. By the window, two small bird feeders attract the local hummingbirds (I make it my mission to photograph them during my stay, but they move so quickly most shots turn out as dark blurs).
Before dinner each night drinks are served in the lounge room, where we meet the other guests as well as chat to the family. Dinner is a communal affair in a large dining room, where we are served hearty local cuisine that helps ward off the cold evenings at high altitude. The meal includes cheeses made at the hacienda's cheese factory.
Beyond the hacienda, there is plenty for guests to explore. Horse riding is available, but as I'm not a rider, I opt to hike up the hill behind the property, which offers spectacular views of the valley and the small village of Zuleta. It's so green and pretty it could almost be a golf course, if not for its vast size.
Crossing to the other side of the hill, a cold, strong wind rises up, flowing from a large gorge behind the hacienda. Condors can be spotted riding the updrafts.
While condors are still common in parts of South America, in Ecuador the Andean condor has been almost wiped out. Part of this is due to the mistaken belief that they are birds of prey and tend to kill livestock. In truth, condors are part of the vulture family and are scavengers. Their reputation as hunters likely comes from their tendency to hang around livestock killed by other animals, such as the Andes puma.
The hacienda runs a conservation project with condors rescued from captivity. These birds are not released but their young are set free when they are old enough to survive independently. The hacienda has eight condors at the Condor Huasi rehabilitation project and guests can get a close look at the huge birds by hiking or riding to the site, about five kilometres from the main building.
Along the way, another unique feature of the property can be seen – the local "pyramids". These ancient mounds date back more than 1000 years to the Caranqui culture.
After working up a healthy appetite hiking, I enjoy another dinner with my fellow guests. A grandmother from the US, here with her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, reveals this is her seventh stay at the property. A horse lover (there are more than 100 horses here), she can't get enough and this year insisted the rest of the family join her for the week-long stay.
For me, however, it's time to depart. Before leaving I spend a morning at the nearby town of Otavalo, home to a market famous for itsproduce and arts and crafts.
After a relaxing stay that has helped me recover from a long trip and new time zone, I'm ready to start the rest of my Ecuadorian adventure.
LATAM flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Santiago, Chile, with connections to Quito, Ecuador. See latam.com/en_au. The South America Travel Centre can arrange transfers to Hacienda Zuleta from Quito (about 90 minutes' drive).
A stay at Hacienda Zuleta, including all meals, afternoon snacks and non-alcoholic drinks, starts from $US280 a person a night. See zuleta.com
The South America Travel Centre can create tailor-made itineraries, including accommodation, transfers, activities and domestic travel across the continent. See southamericatravelcentre.com.au
The writer travelled as a guest of the South America Travel Centre and LATAM Airlines.