day in Otavalo (pop. 28,000) is a must for any traveler to Ecuador. Every
Saturday, Amerindians from the surrounding villages gather to sell produce,
livestock, woolen goods and other handicrafts. The market is well known by tour
groups, so don't go expecting to be the only tourist, but do go: Otavalo is a
truly unique Ecuadorian experience.
Otavalo Day Trip
The people are a sight in themselves. The men of the area dress in traditional
white pants, blue or gray ponchos and felt hats and have their hair braided in
long pigtails; the women wear white blouses with black sashes and skirts and
lots of gold-colored necklaces. You're likely to see other distinctive outfits,
as well, as people from surrounding regions also come to Otavalo to buy and sell
There are several components to market day, some geared to the local
inhabitants, some to the many travelers who visit Otavalo. It all begins at
dawn, when the animal market gets under way out on the edge of town. We found
this the most interesting part of the market activities: As the sun comes up,
the large, vacant lot is transformed into a place of squealing pigs and lowing
cattle and hundreds of Indians milling about as they size up the merchandise or
try to make a sale.
By 9 am, the activity moves to the hundreds of handicraft booths spread
the downtown. The center of the action is the "Poncho Plaza," but
vendors extend out for several blocks in all directions. Almost any craft item
produced in Ecuador can be found in Otavalo, but the specialties are the
colorful textiles (blankets, ponchos, sweaters, tapestries, hand bags) produced
in the area. Other good bets are musical instruments (charangos and zamponas—pan
pipes), ceramics and hats (panama and felt). Be aware that pickpockets and petty
thieves are active in the market: Keep a close accounting of your valuables.
Plan on getting to the handicraft market early (try to overnight in the area and
arrive before 10 am, when the tour groups descend on the place and the market
gets very crowded). Be sure to bargain. Start at about 20%-25% below the initial
asking price and go from there. Haggling is possible even if you have trouble
with Spanish numbers: Bring a paper and pen to write the figures down. (Many of
the vendors carry calculators to make the process easier.) If you can't make it
to Otavalo on Saturday, you'll find a smaller selection of craft booths on other
days, as well, especially on Wednesday. A large number of permanent craft shops
and galleries are also located on the downtown streets near the Poncho Plaza.
If you still have energy after shopping, stroll through the food markets (one
near the train station, one at Calle Jaramillo and Juan Montalvo). Like the
animal market, these are attended more by the local people than by travelers,
but that's what makes them such interesting places to visit. You're likely to
see women balancing baskets of produce on their heads, lots of live chickens and
tables full of colorful foods—whole pigs, exotic fruits, piles of grains and
Try to arrange one or two extra days to enjoy the small villages and beautiful
countryside around Otavalo. Tour companies in Otavalo run guided excursions to
the villages. Some of the tours visit the workshops of local weavers and other
artisans. Among the nearby towns are Cotacachi (known for its fine
leather goods), Peguche (musical instruments), Iluman (home of the
Inti Chumbi handicraft coop) and Agato (weavings produced on traditional
back strap looms by master weaver Miguel Andrango).
Spend some time at one of the beautiful mountain lakes in the area. Lago San
Pablo is right outside Otavalo (you can hike there), and is large enough for
boating—inquire at the Puertolago hosteria. Laguna de Cuicocha and the Lagunas
de Mojanda are a little farther afield, but easily seen on day trips. Las
Casacadas de Peguche (the Peguche Waterfalls) are another popular destination
for hikers from Otavalo.
Bicycling can also be a great way to spend part of a day: We particularly
enjoyed a three-hour excursion in which we paid a taxi to drop us off at a high
mountain pass on the Selva Alegre Road. From there, it was an easy downhill ride
to Otavalo with plenty of scenic vistas along the way (volcanoes, farms and lots
of curious Indians).
The old colonial town of Ibarra (22 mi north of Otavalo) is a
picturesque place to relax. Red-roofed, whitewashed houses line the cobblestone
streets, which echo the clatter of horse-drawn carriages. The clacking of
chisels can be heard at San Antonio de Ibarra—the nearby town is
renowned for its wooden sculptures (but the quality varies greatly). To the
south of Otavalo (20 mi) is the town of Cayambe, which is renowned
for its cheese. Otavalo is 35 miles from Quito.