I’m lying on a creaky leather sofa, feet pointing towards a fat black stove humming with heat, the logs popping and cracking and giving the room a faint tang of smoke. The walls are the colour of ochre, the wood floors dark and burnished and the ceiling has heavy beams running across it. The doorway to the bedroom goes through a wall two feet thick and in there another fire is fizzing away. Through the next doorway the bathroom has yet another fireplace glowing in the corner while P has a bath in the claw-foot tub.
We are at the edge of the Cotopaxi National Park in Hacienda San Augustin de Callo, a handsome farmhouse which incorporates an Inca palace. From where I sit I can look over the Spanish stone courtyard which was full of llamas this morning, eating carrots from our hands and staring at us with their goaty eyes. Heavy-tiled roofs, black and wet with rain, overhang the edge of the courtyard on two sides creating a sheltered walkway. One the other two sides are Inca walls with dark stone blocks that fit together so perfectly that you couldn’t insert so much as a piece of paper between them. They used no mortar and no-one quite knows how they did it. This is an ancient place in the shadow of Cotopaxi, the tallest active volcano in the world. If it wasn’t obscured by grey-white cloud I would be able to see it through the window of our bedroom.
Our day began in Quito, ninety minutes north, at the home of our Nieman friend Pablo. His house in the newer part of the city is a cross between a Swiss chalet and a Japanese Ryokan. The hardwood floors are as solid as steel and the brightly coloured walls are filled with Pablo’s photographs for National Geographic and others. Quito is around ten thousand feet up and climbing the stairs leaves you panting for breath and slightly dizzy. We’ve had headaches but on the whole the altitude hasn’t been too much of a problem.
Quito is less frenetic than I thought it might be. The airport was calm and efficient, the people we’ve met restrained and courteous. Our cab driver, so often the bane of foreign airports could not have been more helpful with our piles of bags and our lack of Spanish. Arriving at sunset and into the rush hour, the streets were packed with darting yellow taxis, thundering blue buses billowing black diesel fumes with conductors standing in the open doorways. At stop lights, scrawny children juggled for tips, and women in skirts, shawls and porkpie hats sold tubes of pears, oranges and bags of nuts. There is none of the insistent, relentless, in-your-face “I give you good price” hustling. Here if you don’t want to buy, you don’t catch their eyes and they move on.
On our first full day after arriving we went to Old Town Quito a bouncing cab ride away from Pablo’s house. Its a place of modest grandeur, of squares and colonial buildings with fancy stonework picked out in peppermint and peach. We went into a couple of churches with dark stone facades slotted with narrow doorways. Once inside though, the entire altar wall was covered in gold leaf; every corkscrewed piller, every niche, every section of wooden lattice was gleaming gold in the dim light. I remember reading someone’s account of travelling through South America and noting how Catholicism had to be even more vivid here to catch people’s eyes in countries where their daily lives were already full of colour and extremes.
Outside on the sidewalks everything is bustling. Smart city types in suits and perfectly white collars walk importantly past people selling clockwork toys, lottery tickets and baskets of rambutans. Cars race and beep, buses compete for passengers, a man with no legs lies on a wheeled bed accosting people with a megaphone.
Here though, in the serenty of the Hacienda there is just a feeling of ancient calm. A rooster is crowing confidently somewhere. We ventured out briefly this afternoon to a hill so perfectly conical it too was thought to have been built by the Incas. Its a natural feature in fact, but was used as a lookout by the Incas and then the local nobles. We drove up it in pouring rain hoping to walk around the top, but the rain pounded on the car roofs and the muddy track began to turn into a river so we slithered back down and into brilliant green fields, past steaming black horses and fighting bulls, past the bull-ring on the edge of the Hacienda and into our rooms, mellow with firelight.
Dinner last night was in the black-walled stone room built by the Incas as some sort of ceremonial hall. Its just large enough for a long wooden table and serves now as a dining room. Our group filled it: the Fitzgeralds from Cambridge, Robert and Sui Fun from Hong Kong, Pablo and the three of us. The three kids (Tom and two Fitzgeralds) got there earlier and were eating spaghetti, delighting and exasperating the white-tuniced staff. The staff are a friendly and sincere bunch, dedicated with some seriousness to ensuring our every need is met and a little unsure about how to deal with our inclination not to put them to too much trouble. We are eating like Lords. We’d had a three course lunch and so were served a “light” dinner, starting with moist balls of deepfried cornmeal with a froth of avocado puree followed by buttery chunks of sea-bass and then a range of perfect deserts: rich chocolate cake, a wicked little chocolate mousse and a passion-fruit cake that woke up the salivary glands. Mignon, the aristocratic lady who owns the place, joined us for dinner. She is the niece of one Ecuadorian president and the granddaughter of another. Her father was a noted amateur bullfighter and black and white photos of him show a tall, charismatic man entertaining a group of friends from behind a bar in the Inca Great Hall, a mounted bull’s head on the wall behind him and a tall gundog in front of him with its front feet on the bar. They are all in baggy suits with open collars. Mignon is very definitely of this stock, fizzing with energy, all flashing green eyes and unlined skin. She loves this place and wants to share it. I get the feeling she enjoys having company too.
When, after brandy in the low ceilinged sitting room we finally ambled back to our rooms we found the ever-helpful staff had stoked up all three fires to industrial levels and heavy wooden shutters had been closed over the windows. Tiny merangues in paper cases were gently melting beside our beds and Tom was soon asleep with flickering firelight reflected on his face.