Hacienda San Agustin de Callo

24/Enero/2012 | 18:17

By Lance Brashear

"On the latter part of the plain – known as Callo – which runs from Latacunga toward the north, there stand the walls of one of the palaces inhabited by the Inca Emperors, kings of Quito.  Its name has remained until today.  Presently, the palace is used as country dwellings for the hacienda of the fathers of Saint Agustin of Quito." – Don Antonio de Ulloa, 1748.

More than 250 years after Antonio de Ulloa, a member of the French Geodesic Mission that came to Ecuador to determine the true shape of the planet in the 18th century, described what is known as San Agustin de Callo, the name still persists. 

A country home that is a former Incan palace and former home of the order of Saint Agustin is today one of the region's most remarkable getaways, having been featured in publications like Food and Wine and  National Geographic.

Ulloa's notebook describes the   unique construction of the hacienda still visible today: "The stones are so well carved and coupled that one cannot even insert the blade of a knife, nor can the crevices be compared to the thinnest piece of paper."

At the turn of the 19th century the explorer, Alxander von Humboldt, the man who coined the term "Avenue of the Volcanoes," visited San Agustin and also noted the skillfully cut stone, an Incan legacy as famous as the legends of gold, which were never found following conquest by the Spanish.

The property eventually passed to Leonidas Plaza in the 20th century, a leader of Ecuador's liberal revolution and twice president of the country.  Today, the hacienda is an exclusive lodging run by Plaza's granddaughter, Mignon, who has hosted presidents, the Queen of Spain, and even the Bobby Kennedy family.

Although San Agustin de Callo has enjoyed the presence of so many distinguished guests throughout history, the hacienda still remains somewhat incognito on the radar of many Ecuadorians, obscurely located in the vast extension of the Andean cordilleras.

Guest Veronica Elizalde from Guayaquil, who recently stayed at San Agustin de Callo for the third time, says she only learned about it two years ago.

"I received a 'Travel and Leisure Guide' of best hotels of the world.  I was checking it and I saw it.  I did not know it existed.  I saw the place and said 'wow' that is nice.  Then I had a pod cast from Fodor's (Travel Guide) and they were making a comparison between Costa Rica and Ecuador and it mentioned this farm.  That is why we came here the first time."

That San Agustin is a lodge today is either fitting or ironic.  Humboldt said the hacienda house was once an Incan "tambo" or inn constructed along the route from Cuzco to Quito.  But Plaza says the Incan construction at San Agustin was designed for a king, not just any passersby from the Empire.

"There is a more rustic kind of style that is more elementary that does not have these unions and this pillow shape," she explains, pointing to the stones. "So this was intended to be a palace or temple.  I think the Spanish arrived and conquered them before they finished it."

But where the Incas and Augustinians left off, Plaza continued.  She undertook a vast restoration in 1995 during which she discovered even more Incan construction.  "I started discovering Inca walls so I had to call the archaeologists.  We didn't know they were hidden."

Her re-design of San Agustin over the years has preserved much of the architecture, which is not only Incan.  "Each period is marked by a specific architecture style and that is what it makes it unique and wonderful."

Standing in the courtyard visitors can observe Incan stonework from the 14th or 15th century.  Spanish colonial architecture from the 18th century is seen in the roof, and Republican designs from the 19th century are evidenced in the stone bannisters that separate the patio from the courtyard.  Together it  creates a structural ambiance not replicated elsewhere.

Though guests come to see the "Incan hacienda," as it is known, they often return for other reasons.

"Everytime I try to do some adventure, going to Quilotoa, to Cotapaxi," says Elizalde, referring to the area volcanoes, which offer excellent day excursions.  During her stay she and six friends headed out for a picnic by the lake, complete with sandwiches and champaign.  They returned at night looking forward to the comfort.

Because San Agustin is located near Cotopaxi National Park the nights can be particularly cold. But each of the rooms around the courtyard has not only a fireplace in the bedroom, but a second one in the bathroom. Plaza, who spent a lot of time on the hacienda as a child remembers the cold nights.

"I thought poor tourists I don't want them to freeze to death like I did when I was a child .  I would suffer each time I had to take a bath and I would be crying because you get warm in the tub and then they would pull you out to the freezing cold."  She recalls telling her father of her plan to make fireplaces in the bathrooms when she grew up, which is one of the best design decisions she ever made.

"I never imagined it would cause such a sensation.  But people see that and say 'wow' it's lovely and it gives you the atmosphere."

Atmosphere is also part of the dining experience at San Agustin.  Guests have the privilege of eating in the Incan temple.  Though a window was installed years ago, the room is naturally dark and visitors often eat by candlelight.  And what they eat often seems as amazing as where they are eating.

Plaza is famous for her locro, the traditional cheese and potato soup that is a staple in the Ecuadorian Andes..

Chef Henry Richardson of Quito recently brought internationally recognized chef, Sumito Estevez of the Gourmet Channel, to San Agustin just to try Plaza's soup.  And Plaza says the Queen of Spain requested her recipes during her visit.

But like the Incan walls around her, Plaza says her locro, too, was an accidental find – the result of  curdled milk that should not have been.

In so many ways San Agustin has been a discovery for Plaza as well as her guests, which is ultimately what visitors seek.   "It is like a little jewel that nobody has found," says Elizalde.

From the locro to the Incan walls to the thousands of visitors she has come to know, Plaza has undoubtedly made more discoveries than Ulloa and Humboldt together.  But one thing still remains unearthed.

"I never found the gold." 

She didn't have to.  She has found so much more.

San Agustin de Callo is located near Lasso in Cotopaxi Province, about one hour south of Quito.  Overnight stays range from $228 to $398 per room, not including taxes.   Discounts for children are provided.  Contact them in Quito at 2-290-6157/8 or in Lasso at 3-271-9160, or write to [email protected].   Visit the website at www.incahacienda.com