Earth : South America : Ecuador : Andean Highlands (Ecuador) : Otavalo
Otavalo is a small town in Ecuador. It has about 50.000 inhabitants and is the capital of the canton 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 successfull 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 share the long black hair (the men usually wear it 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 2 US$. If you come from Tulcan near the Colombian border, buses will probably drop you off at the Pan American highway.It's only a 10 minute walk to the center from there. The "Otavalo" and "Las Lagos" bus companies running between Quito and Ibarra in the North of Otavalo will drop you off at the bus terminal in Otavalo. Outbound buses for Quito and Ibarra leave from the same terminal about every 15 minutes.
Taxies will take you anywhere within town for 1 US$. Negotiate with the driver if you want to go to places outside town. To Peguche waterfall, the rate is about 2,50 US$, to Mojanda Lake, you will pay about 10 US$. There is also plenty of buses going to nearby communities and towns, most of them leaving from the main terminal.
Town Markets. Every Saturday 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 communities sell their handicrafts. You will find a wide range of weavings, jewelry, clothes, wood and stone carvings, paintings, hats, and all kind of kitsch from pretty much any corner of Ecuador and neighbouring Peru and Colombia. Most vendors will claim that their goods are all hand-made at home, but you will soon get a feel what´s machine-made mass production and what´s a real quality handicraft. Although Saturday is the main market day, purchasing handicrafts on any other day is possible and a far less hectic experience. If you want something more authentic or just stock up on your groceries, try the town´s largest food market Mercado 24 de Mayo (open all week), or the little organic market Feria IMBABIO , where women from the surrounding villages sell traditional dishes and organic fruits and veggies that they harvested the same day on their farms (open on Saturday mornings only). 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 (unless you are planning to protest about the way those animals are treated there).
Peguche Waterfall is a beautiful waterfall with a hight of 18m, situated at 3km from Otavalo. After the waterfall, the river takes the name of "Jatun Yacu" or "Big Water". This is a sacred place for the Indians as they have a close relationship with nature, especially mountains, water and certain trees. Lagoons, springs and waterfalls are considered places full with powers, where the natives carry out ritual baths of purification or pacts with the spirits of the place.
Imbabura Mountain with its 4610mts is located 60km north of Quito, near Otavalo and San Pablo Lake. 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; crops and good weather depend on him. During droughts, the locals carry out rituals on the mountain or in other sacred places to ask for his help. During these ceremonies, there is a "Huaccha Caray"(poor gifts), which consists in collecting food of all the families: this food is then blessed by the Yachac or shamán, and shared by all people, while they pray and ask God and the Taita Imbabura for water.
San Pablo Lake lies 3.5 km southeast from the center of Otavalo at the feet of the volcano Imbabura. It occupies a tectonic hole that is approximately 4km long and 3km wide. It is one of the most visited lakes in Ecuador. Imbakucha and Chicapán are Kichua names for the lake. Chicapán is the oldest archaic name. The lake is worshipped by the inhabitants of the different communities in its surroundings. There are also some old legends that explain the mythical origin of the lake.
Cerro Cayambe is an imposing 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. For indigenous people, due to its location and its form, Cayambe constituted an important astronomical reference and an exact agricultural calendar. Local people considered the mountain as the center of the Universe and time.
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. The climb to its top is of medium difficulty, compound mainly of rock and in its final part of rock and snow. It is an active volcano although there is no historical records on recent eruptions. Its crater is located towards the western side. At its western flanks it joins extensive moor areas, lagoons and cloud forest.
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. The access road to Cotacachi Mountain departs from this path.
Chachimbiro hot springs are of volcanic origin with temperatures of 45 to 55 degrees Celsius. The water has a high level of chlorides and iron, magnesium, copper, sulfur among other minerals. The water acts as a purgative stimulant of the cardiovascular system and it has anti inflammatory effects; it also has a diuretic effect and stimulates the central nervous system. And, last but not least, Chachimbiro has all the accomodities you need to stay and feel happy.
Cotacachi Village is a small town of 20.000 inhabitants some 20km north of Otavalo. The town is famous for its leather goods.
Ibarra is the capital of Imbabura province. 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.
Ilumàn offers amazing walking, and a much quieter pace of life at just 15 minute bus ride from touristy 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.
Other Villages There is a large number of villages surrounding Otavalo, Ibarra, and Cotacachi. Each village tends to specialise in the manufacture of a one particular good, e.g. weavings, rugs, embroidery, wood carvings, handicrafts made of tortora reed, and others.
You might have a better chance to do your shopping if you arrive early, as early morning good luck sales are important here, and vendors seem to become less interested in the mid afternoon. You will find many vendors who sell exactly the same, so shopping around to get the best price for your desired souvenier is all too easy. Also check out the prices in nearby shops before buying at the market, because sometimes they are better value. Bargaining is accepted, but consider that Ecuadorian "market culture" is different from that 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 resellers who pay pity-prices to the actual producers.
You will find restaurants with national and international cuisine allover 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$ 1.50 for a set lunch with soup and main course, to US$7-9 for a dinner in one of the nicer restaurants. There are also a few purely vegetarian restaurants in town, and some restaurants have a range of vegetarian options available. Otherwise the chicken pieces are just picked out from the common "caldo de gallina" before it is served to you as "caldo de verduras". More adventurous diners may want to try one of the many food stalls around the handicraft market, at the market "24 de Mayo", or at the "Feria IMBABIO". The roast porks and the fried Tilapias offered there look delicious (and they really are), but make sure that the stalls fulfill basic hygiene requirements. You might also find the traditional roast guinea-pig ("cuy asado") there. Give it a try, its really yummy, although it doesn't have much meat on it. For good cakes try the "Pie Shop" at the southern corner of the Plaza de Ponchos, or try 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 Fauna" just opposite. On weekends you will find a quite lively nightlife along the northern end of Calle "31 de Octubre", with an array of clubs,peñas, and bars.
Finding accomodation in Otavalo is no problem at all, even on busy weekends. Allover Otavalo and in villages and towns nearby there are some 50 establishments offering accomodation 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.
If you want to experience a homestay with local families, learning about their culture and way of life, the following options are recommended.