Otavalo with the Imbabura Volcano in the background
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 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 Pan American highway. From there, it's only a 10 minute walk to the center.
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 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$10. There are 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, Panama hats, and and some products from neighbouring Peru and Colombia. Rugs and shoulder bags are made of sheep wool; don't expect many products of Lama wool, as Lamas never occured as far north as Otavalo and most products are from the Imbabura province. Table clothes are usually made of some kind of artificial fiber, woven on machines, but probably still made at someone's home or house atelier. Although Saturday is the main market day, purchasing handicrafts on any other day is possible. Of course, vendors try to sell their products, but they are by no means as pushy as for instances in Asia. Taking photographs is usually accepted but not promoted. People merely go about their business when photographed. Some high resolution impressions of the market show the diversity of the products. When you visit the market, don't just look at the products but also at the beautiful people as they try to make a living.
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), 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 nice waterfall 18m waterfall, situated in a small park some 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. Solstice celebrations take place at the falls around the 21st of June.
- 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 about the 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.
- 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. The enthusiastic Kichwa guide (a former worker at the factory) will show you traditional clothing, agricultural tools, and weaving instruments and explain his people's holidays, weddings, and burial customs. Living history area includes weavers using backstrap and frame looms, a traditional healer's apothecary, and a midwife's delivery area. Tours in Spanish, unclear if English is an option. Open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. $4.
- 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.
In Otavalo you will find a great selection of primarily Ecuadorian indigenous art products, dominated by colorful woven products. Inspired by the transition of motives of Escher, the often brightly colored designs reflect modern interpretations of indigenous Inca art found nowhere else in Latin America. You will find many vendors who sell exactly the same, so shopping around to get the best price for your desired souvenir is all too easy. Bargaining is accepted, but as most prices are a bargain anyway, pushing the price down 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 resellers 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) or San Antonio (wood), so for those products you get more choice and probably better prices there than at the Otavalo market.
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$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. However, vegetarians are not common, so you do run the risk of just having chicken pieces being taken out of the 'caldo de gallina', and served as vegetable soup. 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 pork and the fried tilapia 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 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.
- Taco Bello, Bolivar & Mejia Lequerica 523. The restaurant may be named after the famous fast food chain, but expect much higher quality food. Hearty, delicious, inexpensive Mexican food. Various combination plates for $2-$3 (with vegetarian options). Fantastic, fresh guacamole and salsa bar. $2 lemon margaritas. Good Mexican food is extremely hard to find in Otavalo (and Ecuador in general), so this place is a real gem. The owner, Carlos Suarez, is friendly (and also speaks English).
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 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. All over Otavalo and in neighbouring town and villages 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.
- Hotel Riviera Sucre, García Moreno 3-80 y Roca, 06-2-920-241 ([email protected]), . This place has a nice colourful yard with a water fountain. A single room costs $15. Excellent service, beautiful rooms and gardens with hummingbirds. It's beautiful colonial architecture includes a stone water fountain and three courtyards in which to sit, read, write or enjoy the sun. It also features a library with a book exchange, and two inviting fireplaces to warm the spirit.
- Hacienda Cusin, San Pablo del Lago, Imbabura, 6-291-8013, . Restored 17th century estate 20 minutes south of Otavalo by taxi (US$5). Excellent service, beautiful rooms and gardens, great food. World known Hacienda Cusin offers horseback riding, massages, Spanish lessons, and lots more. Rooms start at US$75. Wonderful!
- Hostal Doña Esther, Juan Montalvo 4-44 and Bolívar, 06-2920739, . Checkin 13.00 checkout 12.00. Double room with private bathroom US$36. Located near the Central Park and the Saturday market, Doña Esther is a colonial style, small and cosy hotel. All rooms are situated around a green inner court yard. The restaurant serves excellent food in Mediterranean style with a Andean touch, and probably the best pizzas in town.
- La Posada del Quinde, Calle Quito con M. Egas (Five blocks from the Plaza de Ponchos), ☎ 593 6 2920750 ([email protected]), . checkin: 2PM; checkout: 12AM. A bed and breakfast, previously known as Hotel Ali Shungu, is spoken of favourably by guests. Email reservations are accepted. 60US$/double.
If you want to experience a homestay with local families and learn about their culture and way of life, the following options are recommended.
- Red de Turismo Imbakucha  is a network of local community tourism projects, offering accomodation, transport and activities in six villages around Lake San Pablo.
- El Rancho (Indigenous Homestay), 8 Barrio Rancho Chico, Ilumán (Get off the Iluman bus from Otavalo (25c) at the Barrio Rancho Chico sign.), ☎ 0979 80742, 2946 092, . checkin: any time; checkout: any time. El Rancho is a large family home in Ilumàn, a village 6km outside Otavalo, which takes 15mins on a bus, and buses run every 15 mins. The family are indigenous Otavaleños who have lived here for generations and sold jewelery and weaving on the market for 15 years. Esthela is a great cook of traditional dishes, and usually prepares fresh food picked from the gardens of her nearby family. The views of volcano Cotacachi (4961m) from the huge roof terasse are amazing , and volcano Imbabura (4610m) is directly behind the house. It´s a great place for hikers, birdwatchers, or language students. USD 5-15. (0.2705373247971191,-78.23432922363281)
- Sumak Pacha Community Tourism Project, Pijal Baja, phone: 097587263 (cell) and 06 2918150 (landline), email: [email protected] Pijal Baja is a beautiful Andean village at the south-east shore of San Pablo Lake. A couple of years ago, the inhabitants of Pijal baja set up their own turism project, and today nearly 20 families offer double rooms with private bathroom for visitors. Activities include hikes to nearby mountains and lakes, guided tours of their organic farms, and lessons in their traditional embroidery. 15-20US$ per night including all meals.