Otavalo is a town in Northern Ecuador. It has about 50.000 inhabitants and is the capital of the district of the same name. Otavalo is world-famous for its indigenous population, the so-called Otavalos, many of which are travelling around the world to sell their famous handicrafts or play in Andean Folk music groups. The Otavalos are considered the economically most successful indigenous group of Latin America, and many of the grandest houses and largest Pick-Up Trucks in Otavalo are owned by Otavalos. However, a great percentage of the Otavalos, especially in the surrounding villages, live in poverty and are victims of racial discrimination. Otavalos are easily recognized by their traditional dress: white pants and a dark poncho for men; a dark skirt and a white blouse with colourful embroidery and colourful waisteband for women. Both sexes wear their hair long (the men usually platted).
Otavalo is approximately 2 hours north of Quito on the Panamerican Highway. Buses to Otavalo leave from the "Terminal Carcelen" in the North of Quito and disembark at a small bus terminal in Otavalo along Calle Atahualpa & Jacinto Collahuazo. The busride is US$2.
If you come from Tulcan near the Colombian border, buses will probably drop you off at the Panamerican highway. From there, it's only a 10 minute walk to the center.
The "Otavalo" and "Los Lagos" bus companies running between Quito and Ibarra in the North of Otavalo will drop you off at the bus terminal in Otavalo.
Outbound buses for Quito and Ibarra leave from the same terminal about every 15 minutes.
Taxies will take you anywhere within town for US$1. Negotiate with the driver if you want to go to places outside town. To Peguche waterfall, the rate is about $US2,50, to Mojanda Lake, you will pay about US$12. There are also plenty of buses going to nearby villages and towns, most of them leaving from the main terminal. Tour operators in Otavalo can arrange private transport for groups.
Otavalo with the Imbabura Volcano in the background
Town Markets. There is a Mercado Artesanal at the so-called Plaza de Ponchos between Calle Sucre and Jaramillo, where indigenous and mestizo people from Otavalo and surrounding villages sell their handicrafts. You will find a wide range of weavings, jewelry, clothes, wood and stone carvings, paintings, Panama hats, and some products from neighbouring Peru and Colombia. Although Saturday is the main market day and the whole town is filled with little stalls, there are plenty of stalls open at Plaza de Ponchos on any day. If you want something more authentic or just want to stock up on your groceries, try the town´s largest food market Mercado 24 de Mayo (open all week). On Saturdays, there is also an animal market Mercado de Animales northwest of town across the Panamarican Highway, where local farmers buy and sell their livestock. This market is quite an experience, but not recommendable for people who care about animal rights.
Peguche Waterfall is a nice 18m waterfall, situated in a small park some 3km north of Otavalo. This is a sacred place for the Indians as they have a close relationship with nature, especially mountains, water and certain trees. Solstice celebrations take place at the falls around the 21st of June.
Imbabura Mountain is located 60km north of Quito, near Otavalo and San Pablo Lake. With its 4620mts it is one of the highest mountains in Northern Ecuador, and in local legend it is considered the father of the indigenous people and culture: the "Taita" (father), as they call him, is the protector of the Indians, symbol of hardness and virility; During droughts, the locals carry out rituals on the mountain or in other sacred places to ask for his help. Imbabura can be climbed, with the easist (but still challenging!) ascend route from the villages of La Esperanza and San Clemente east of Ibarra. Tour operators in Otavalo can provide transport and guides.
San Pablo Lake lies 3.5 km southeast of the center of Otavalo at the feet of Imbabura Mountain. It is one of the most visited and largest lakes in Ecuador. Imbakucha and Chicapán are Kichua names for the lake. It is possible to rent Kayaks or go on boat trips at the Parque Aquático near the village of Araque.
Cuicocha Lake is located 14 km northwest of Otavalo, at the base of Cotacachi Mountain. It is a deep volcanic crater that is 4km long and 3km wide. In the center of this lake are three domes of volcanic rock that form two islands covered with vegetation and separated by a water channel, called “channel of dreams". Its name derives from a pre-inca language: "Tsui cocha" meaning "lagoon of the gods." There is a path around the lagoon that takes about 5 hours to walk. There is an information centre, restaurants, a hotel, and boat tours at the end of the access road to the lake.
Mojanda Lakes & Fuya Fuya Mountain is a beautiful area for hiking, fishing and camping, located 17 km south of Otavalo at an altitude of 3700m and above (cold nights!). Starting at the Large Mojanda Lake, the climb up to Fuya Fuya mountain (4263m) takes about 2 hours and is quite steep in some parts. Otavalo-based tour operators Ecomontes and Runa Tupari offer trekking tours around the lakes.
Cotacachi Mountain with its height of 4.939mts occupies the position N° 11 on the list of Ecuador´s highest mountains. Located 18km northwest of Otavalo, it is part of the Ecological Reserve "Cotacachi-Cayapas". For the indigenous people this mountain is a woman whose full name is: Maria Isabel Nieves Cotacachi. There are many legends regarding her love with the “Taita” Imbabura. It is an active volcano although there are no historical records of recent eruptions. Its crater is located towards the western side. At its western flanks it joins extensive moor areas, lagoons and cloud forest.
Cerro Cayambe is an extinct volcano, the third highest mountain of Ecuador and the highest point on the planet crossed by the equatorial line. It is located approximately 65 km northeast of Quito and 60 km southeast of Otavalo. On clear days, its snow-covered summit is perfectly visible from several points of the northern region. Some tour operators in Quito specialized in mountaineering offer ascends to the top.
Tren de la Libertad is a re-opened section of the old railway line between Quito and San Lorenzo. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays you can travel by train between Otavalo and the afro-ecuadorian community of Salinas and visit several sites of interest along the way.
Museo del Pueblo Kichwa (also known as Museo Vivante) is a delightful museum a 15-minute walk from town, on the other side of the Panamerican highway. Walk northwest on Morales across the river, turn right when the road stops, and ask for directions to "la vieja fabrica". A group of locals re-opened an old textile factory and hacienda as a living history and cultural museum. Open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. $4.
Cotacachi is a small town of 20.000 inhabitants some 15km north of Otavalo. The town is famous for its leather goods and can easily be reached by bus (leaving every 10min from Otavalo bus terminal)
Ibarra, also called the white city, is the capital of Imbabura province and th elargest city in the area. A culinary speciality of Ibarra is Helados de Paila, a type of sorbet icecream. Made of fresh fruit, it is a must for any visitor. Ibarra features a well-preserved colonial city centre.
Chachimbiro . Hot springs of volcanic origin, with temperatures of 45 to 55 degrees Celsius. The springs can be reached by bus from the town of Ibarra, and there are several Spa hotels to stay for the night.
Ilumàn offers amazing walking, and a much quieter pace of life at just 15 minute bus ride from Otavalo. This indigenous village is truly charming and famous for the many natural healers, or shamans, using all kind of medicinal plants and traditional cleaning rituals. There are over 100 shamans in Ilumàn´s shaman´s association.
Indigenous Villages There is a large number of indigenous communities in the surroundings of Otavalo, Ibarra, and Cotacachi. Some of those villages specialize in the manufacture of one particular good, e.g. weavings, rugs, embroidery, wood carvings, handicrafts made of tortora reed, and others. Some tour operators offer tours that visit several villages and their handicraft workshops.
In Otavalo you will find a great selection of primarily Ecuadorian indigenous art products, particularly colorful woven products. Since many shops and vendors sell similar items, shopping around is all too easy. Bargaining is accepted, but as most prices are a bargain anyway, haggling is not as integral to the market experience as in Oriental bazaars. Also, try to buy souvenirs directly from the people that produce them, i.e. in the surrounding villages, as many people in the market are just middlemen who pay pity-prices to the actual producers. Some of the surrounding towns and villages specialize on certain materials for their handicrafts, e.g. Cotacachi (leather), San Rafael (totora reed grass) or San Antonio (wood), so for those products you get more choice and probably better prices there than at the Otavalo market.
Horizonte Maravilloso - Escuela de Español, Calle Cristobal Colon 4-08 entre Sucre y Bolivar . Located in the center of Otavalo, owned by a German/Ecuadorian couple. Offers a personalized and flexible learning program with regard to content, duration and frequency of the lessons. You can live with a family (Indigenous are possible too) or you stay in a hostal or hotel.
Ailola Otavalo Spanish School, Calle Modesto Jaramillo 623 y Morales . Located in the Center of Otavalo. Teaching Spanish to foreigners of all ages. Group and private lessons.
You will find restaurants with national and international cuisine all over town. However, restaurant locations, names and owners change quickly and it is best to ask fellow travellers and locals for their latest recommendations. Prices range from US$2.00 for a set lunch with soup and main course, to US$8-10 for a dinner in one of the nicer restaurants. Some restaurants have a range of vegetarian options available. More adventurous diners can try one of the many food stalls around the handicraft market or at the market "24 de Mayo". The roast pork and the fried tilapia offered there are delicious, but make sure that the stalls fulfill basic hygiene requirements. You can also find the traditional roast guinea-pig ("cuy asado") in some restaurants in town. Give it a try, its really yummy, although it doesn't have much meat on it. Since Otavalo receives a fair amount of international visitors, you will also find restaurants specializing in Asian, Mexican and Italian food.
For those with a sweet tooth, try the "Pie Shop" at the southern corner of the Plaza de Ponchos, or the café on the third floor of the cinema "Sisa" on Calle Calderon between Calle Bolivar and Sucre, which also serves excellent espresso-style coffees.
Popular drinking spots in the center of town include "The Red Pub" on Calle Morales between Calle Sucre and Jaramillo, and "El Fauno", just opposite. On weekends you will find a very lively nightlife along the northern end of Calle "31 de Octubre", with an array of clubs, peñas, and bars.
Finding accommodation in Otavalo is no problem at all, even on busy weekends. All over Otavalo and closeby, there are some 50 establishments offering accommodation for all budgets, from simple dorm beds in backpacker hostels, to luxury-style suites in centuries-old haciendas. The only time of year when you should consider booking at least a week in advance is the time of the Inti Raymi (Sun Festival) around 21 June and during the Yamor-festivities in early September. Below is a selection of midrange to toprange hotels that receive good reports.
Hostal Flying Donkey, Calle Calderon 5-10 y Bolivar, (06) 2928122 . Spotless clean rooms with interesting designs and decorations, roof terrace with great views of the city, communal kitchen, book exchange, fast WiFi. Great source of information on Otavalo and surroundings. Prices start at $8 per person.
Hotel Riviera Sucre, García Moreno 3-80 y Roca, (06) 2920241 . Nice colourful yard with a water fountain, beautiful rooms and gardens with hummingbirds. Also features a library with a book exchange, and two fireplaces. A single room costs $18, double $30.
Hostal Doña Esther, Juan Montalvo 4-44 and Bolívar, (06) 2920739 . Colonial style, small and cosy hotel with rooms situated around a green inner courtyard. Restaurant with excellent food in Mediterranean style with a Andean touch, also serving excellent pizzas. Double room with private bathroom US$44.
La Posada del Quinde, Calle Quito con Miguel Egas, (06) 2920750  Previously known as Hotel Ali Shungu, with beautiful gardens, large rooms. The restaurant "Cafe Pachamama" serves excellent Andean Fusion meals. Double rroms with private bathrooms starting at $65.
Hacienda Cusin, San Pablo del Lago, Imbabura, (06) 2918013 . Restored 17th century estate 25 minutes south of Otavalo by taxi (US$5). Excellent service, beautiful rooms with colonial-times artwork, lush gardens, great food. Rooms start at US$75.
If you want to experience a homestay with a local, indigenous family and learn about their culture and way of life, the following options are recommended.
Runa Tupari is a community-owned tour operator and network of 26 families from 4 indigenous communities close to Cotacachi, offering homestay accomodation, cultural tours and outdoor activities. They have an office in Otavalo at Calle Sucre 14-15 y Quiroga, 50m down from Plaza de Ponchos.
El Rancho Indigenous Homestay, Barrio Rancho Chico, Ilumán .Large family home in Ilumàn, a village 6km north of Otavalo. 4 rooms available.
Sumak Pacha, Pijal Baja,  Pijal Baja is a beautiful Andean village at the south-eastern shore of San Pablo Lake. App. 15 families offer guest rooms to visitors.
There's no direct public transport to the airport, but it can be done relatively easily for under $15: Take a bus from the Otavalo terminal that goes through Cayambe to El Quinche ($1.80, less than 2 hours). Walk a couple blocks up to the park in El Quinche and negotiate a taxi to the airport (app. $12, 15 minutes).
Taxis between the airport and Otavalo cost $50-60. Some tour operators offer private shuttle-service for app. $80 per van, e.g. the Otavalo-based agency Runa Tupari.
Heading South from Otavalo it is possible to get buses that will bypass Quito and will be bound for Latacunga (4 hours) or Ambato. Otherwise, you'll have to traverse the entire length of Quito to get to the southern bus terminal.
For reference, Quito has two main bus terminals:
--Carcelen (North) is mainly used for transportation to and from Quito and Otavalo/Ibarra.
--Quitumbe (South) is used for almost all other parts of the country, including longer trips to Peru.
These two terminals are ~27km apart, and it takes about 40 minutes in a car without traffic to go from one to the other.
Taking the bus from Otavalo to Quito will leave you in Terminal Carcelen, in the far north of Quito. In order to get to Terminal Quitumbe, you need to take a city bus to the Trole and go all the way south to Quitumbe. This can take upwards of two hours, and you run the risk of getting pick-pocketed on the Trole. Or, you could pay the $20-25 to have a taxi bring you there.
You can skip Quito all together by taking the Cita Express to Ambato. This bus DOES NOT STOP IN QUITO. It originates in Ibarra, and you can pick it up on the Panamericana outside of Otavalo heading south. Any taxi driver will know where to catch the Cita Express and usually will know what time it passes. Granted, you will be waiting on the side of the highway, so try to get there as close to the right time as possible. Departure times from Ibarra can be found on latinbus.com -- add about 30 minutes, and that's right around when it will pass Otavalo.
You can disembark anytime before Ambato, which is particularly useful for people who want to see Latacunga or the Cotopaxi region.