Horseback Riding to Ancient Pyramids At Hacienda Zuleta (Ecuador)

“If you turn around you will see the entire row of pyramids,” Alice said. I pulled lightly on the reins and Esthela immediately reacted, at which I quietly breathed a sigh of relief because truth be said, I was not so sure that she would listen to me.

It was only the third time in my life that I sat on my horse and my confidence still had (and has) to grow. While Esthela continued her grazing I stared in awe at a dozen or so grass-covered mounds in the valley in front of me.

Hacienda Zuleta

The pyramids were one of the stops on our three-hour ride from Hacienda Zuleta, a 17th century, luxurious farmstead in the Andean Mountains of Ecuador. From the hacienda we had followed a cobbled path lined with eucalyptus trees, looking out over pastures. In the distance farmers were harvesting wheat – harvest time had started the day before.

©Hacienda Zuleta

©Hacienda Zuleta

We rode into a valley hemmed in by mountain slopes covered in grass, thickets and forest. It felt as if we were leaving the civilized world. Two condors soared above us, gliding and slowly turning on their giant wings, which added to the magic of the place. We stopped at the Condor Rehabilitation Project where seven rescued condors live in enormous aviaries.

Since 1996, Hacienda Zuleta has a program, licensed by the government, to rehabilitate injured condors, and to breed with those that can’t be released anymore in an effort to increase the number of this endangered species by releasing their offspring into the wild.

The Horses

I hadn’t been sure what to expect when we arrived at the hacienda. I had read about the horseback riding on their website, and it sounded like a great activity. But would that be possible without any proper experience? Juan, our host, assured me that it wasn’t a problem whatsoever.

Hacienda Zuleta was the first in Ecuador to bring purebred horses such as the Quarter Horse and the Thoroughbred to the country. In the early 60s they exchanged the latter for Andalusians. The outcome of this crossbreed is the Zuleteño horse.

The hacienda has 51 horses. Some are perfect for beginners, others for medium-level or advanced riders. And so, this morning, I was instructed how to put on the leather half-chaps and given a helmet.

David, our local guide, helped me into a deep-seated saddle with a pommel, covered with a sheepskin pad, while Alice, our second, English-speaking guide, helped my partner Coen. David had put a bottle of water in one of the saddlebags, in the other we could keep our camera.

Horseback Riding around the Hacienda

It was quiet at the hacienda as the high season had just finished (June-Aug), and it was just the four of us this morning. The average group size is six to eight guests, Alice told me.

I will admit I took me some time to relax and take in the surroundings. I have always admired horses but they are so towering and majestic that I have also found them somewhat intimidating. When a tractor approached us on the narrow road I got nervous. There was no need for that at all, I soon learned.

My horse simply followed David’s to the side of the road, as did Coen’s horse behind me, and Alice closed the group with her horse. I learned to pull on the rein if I wanted to make the horse stop and to pull it gently to the side I wanted the horse to go. Easy as pie!

From the Condor Project we returned to the hacienda. This time we traversed a field dotted with truncated pyramids. By now I felt safe and confident while being rocked back and forth as Esthela walked up a big pre-Incan earthern mound, some hundred meters long and ten meters high.

The Caranqui Pyramids

From the top of a mound we looked out over the largest and best-preserved archeological site of the ancient Caranqui culture. Some 140 mounds, varying from square, truncated pyramids with long ramps to circular mounds, once belonged to the Caranqui civilization (approx. AD 700-1500).

©Hacienda Zuleta

Little is known about the civilization as the Incas conquered them around 1500 and by the time the Spaniards came less than a century later, all oral traditions and legends were lost. Archeological finds reveal that the smaller, circular mounds were used as burial grounds, that some pyramids were used to build houses on while others had a ceremonial purpose.

By the time we returned to the hacienda around lunchtime I had come to enjoy the ride so much that I added something to my Bucket List: to take proper horse riding lessons one day.

Practical information

  • Hacienda Zuleta lies on a mere two-hour drive from Quito, Ecuador’s capital.
  • The hacienda offers a number of trails for horseback riding and you can join a 3-to-10-day riding program here. One of the many opportunities for advanced riders is to join the Hacienda’s horsemen in the morning to bring in the herd from their pastures to the stables. Also of interest: a visit to the saddle maker in the Zuleta Community.
  • When you stay at the hacienda, you pay for a package that includes your accommodation, meals, and all activities. Apart from visiting the condors and pyramids, you can choose from other activities such as hiking, visiting their cheese factory, hand milking cows, and learning about their traditional embroidery projects.
  • For more information check out Hacienda Zuleta’s website.

Additional Reading

All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here & here.

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