Otavalo, about 60 miles (100 km) from Quito, is probably on your Ecuador travel to-do list and there are some compelling reasons to visit this small city in the north. However, the one attraction you’ve probably heard of in Otavalo should probably be skipped. Find out more in our City Travel Guide to Otavalo, Ecuador.
What to do in Otavalo, Ecuador
The most famous thing to do in Otavalo is a visit to the Saturday market. If you’ve never seen a Latin American market before then you may find it compelling. The colors. The clothing. The array of products for sale.
However, if you’re looking for a place to really go shopping, our advice is: skip it. Most of the goods are low-quality junk that can be found in touristy markets around the world.
If you do choose to wander around the Saturday market in Otavalo, use your common sense. Pickpockets are a known problem because so many tourists visit.
If you’ve got your heart set on buying a quality example of the textiles that this town is famous for, go shopping in the many textile stores in Otavalo where you can examine the goods and maybe even talk to the weaver. If you’re really serious about it, visit the Tahuantinsuyo Weaving Workshop in the nearby town of Agato. It’s run by a famous weaving family started by Miguel Andrango who is known as Ecuador’s most famous weaver.
For a more authentic, less touristed market check out the weekly animal market which is also held on Saturdays beginning very early in the morning. This is where locals go to buy and sell cows, sheep, guinea pigs, chicks, pigs and piglets, horses, donkeys, and even fighting cocks.
Even if you don’t go shopping for textiles you’ll see many traditional and colorful woven and embroidered elements in the clothing worn by Otavalan women and girls. The Otavalans are indigenous to this area of Ecuador and they were farming here long before the Incas came and conquered them in the 1500s.
Then came the Spanish who eventually conquered the Incas and subjugated everyone. European diseases and the rigors of slave labor under the Spanish decimated the Otavalan population which may have been down to as few as 30,000 people by the late 1500s. But the Otavalan culture survived and it thrives today in and around Otavalo.
About 2.5 miles (4 km) out of town is the El Lechero tree. Here, legend has it, that after a long drought the local people decided Imbabura Volcano was mad at them and needed a sacrifice to appease it so the rain would return. They chose the most beautiful girl to be sacrificed, but her boyfriend spirited her off. The mountain god found them and turned her into a lake and turned him into a tree which is now revered since he was so loyal to his love. Legend or no legend, it’s a lovely spot. Bring a picnic.
Parque Condor, located on a hill above Otavalo, is part of a non-profit foundation and home to a wide range of birds which have been rescued from abusive or unsustainable situations. No birds are ever taken from the wild.
When we were at Parque Condor there were bald eagles, many types of owls, falcons, Andean condors, various hawks, and even a harpy eagle.
Visitors to Parque Condor can walk around large bird enclosures, then watch an hour-long flight show (Spanish only) at 11:30 am and 3:30 pm Wednesday through Sunday (weather permitting). The place gets packed on weekends.
Cuicocha Crater Lake, which means “Guinea Pig Lake” in the Quechua language because of its shape, is about 11 miles (17 km) from Otavalo. You can walk around the lake, which formed in the crater of a dormant volcano and which has some picturesque wooded islands in it.
What to eat in Otavalo, Ecuador
Pie. You should be eating pie in Otavalo. That’s because Otavalo is home to the Shanandoa Pie Shop on Plaza de Ponchos where, for about US$4, you get a huge slice of pie.
There are usually at least six different varieties of pie to choose from including blackberry, apple, cream pies, and much more. A scoop of ice cream can be added as well. The place smells like Karen’s grandma’s kitchen and we admit that we’ve detoured well out of our way more than once during our time in Ecuador just to get a slice.
Another thing you should be eating is the award-winning oven-roasted pig (hornado) in the Mercado 24 de Mayo building. Walk up a few stairs, find the section of the food hall with vendors selling whole roasted pigs, and find Rosario Tabango’s stall. Here, US$2.50 gets you a plate with mote (boiled corn), two potato balls, hot sauce, and her absolutely succulent pork. She also offers sausages served with rice, pork, and raisins which also sounded interesting but we were full.
Where to sleep in Otavalo, Ecuador
The private rooms at Hostal Chasqui (US$12 per person) are clean and comfortable, especially the lone room on the top floor which also has a huge private patio with great views. The shared kitchen is clean and well-equipped, the Wi-Fi works, and they let us use the washing machine for free. Bonus for us: their parking area was large enough for our truck.
The My SachaJi Wellness Ecolodge, about 40 minutes out of town near the base of the Imbabura Volcano and just beyond San Pablo Lake, is a truly eco operation in a truly powerful setting. It’s 11 rooms feature all the comforts plus local textiles and crafts. The food is delicious and nutritious and made using products from an onsite garden. There’s yoga and many other wellness services as well, including a traditional cleansing by a local shaman. If you can’t relax and recharge here, then we can’t help you.
Casa de Luis was opened by an affable man named Luis who’s worked at some of the best hotels in the area (including My Sacha Ji). He offers a very homey environment with four very comfortable private rooms with private bathrooms, Wi-Fi, TV, and great common areas including a nice kitchen and a living room with a fireplace. The best part is the location on San Pablo Lake.
Here’s more about travel in Ecuador