Otavalo in northern Ecuador is known throughout the country for its Saturday markets, when people come into town from the surrounding area to sell their wares. Unfortunately, there isn’t much else to do in town the rest of the week, and in general two or three days there is enough.
Shopping at the markets
Waking up in Otavalo on a Saturday morning, the streets are almost unrecognisable from the day before. Plaza de los Ponchos is the epicentre of the main handicraft market in Otavalo, four blocks north of the main square along Sucre street, but several surrounding streets are also closed off and are also good places to find gifts.
The main things on sale are textiles, including rugs, pillow cases, ponchos, scarves, hats, hammocks, but also jewellery, paintings, stone carvings and stuffed toys, and it seems that most of these items are made locally, often by hand. There is also some stuff for sale that you could easily buy anywhere else, like imitation brand shoes, notebooks, CDs as well as some food items.
A few things struck us the most about these markets, which we’d heard mentioned on various occasions during our time in Ecuador: the atmosphere was calm and relatively quiet; there were not many other tourists around (it really is a place for locals to shop); vendors were not pushy and were open to haggling. Overall, we found shopping here for a few gifts (since it was our last stop in South America before returning to Europe we were willing to carry a few extra things) a pleasant experience.
Visit Laguna Cuicocha
This is a crater lake at 3246 metres above sea level, unusual for having two islands in the middle. The setting is beautiful, and a great place for some relatively easy hiking. Walking the circuit around the rim of the lake takes about four and a half hours and affords some gorgeous views on a sunny day.
Getting to the lake from Otavalo is quite straightforward. From Otavalo’s Termainl Terrestre (bus station) there are buses leaving every fifteen minutes towards Cotacachi, which pass through the main square of the small town of Quiroga, for which the bus fare is $0.50.
From Quiroga's square there are pickup trucks waiting to take tourists to the lake for $5 per truck, and they may return for you at a specific time if you ask nicely and they are not already otherwise occupied then. We arrived at around 11am and found that by lunchtime there were several taxis and pickups waiting around, offering passage back to Quiroga.
There is also a hotel there, which also has a slightly pricey restaurant overlooking the lake. From the peer just below the hotel, there are boats which will take you around the lake, circling the two islands for a ride of about thirty minutes for $2.75 per person as long as there are at least five people.
Back in Otavalo we found a few decent places to eat, but one that stands out that we can recommend is a vegetarian restaurant called Oraivi, just around the corner from Plaza de los Ponchos.
The fresh homemade bread served with the soup was excellent by Ecuadorian standards and the salads were generous and well presented. A lovely place to sit outside in the sunshine for a healthy but filling lunch.
A nice place to have a cup of Ecuadorian coffee and perhaps a slice of cake is La Casa de Intag, which is also a fairtrade shop, selling coffee, chocolate, soaps, woven bags and other items, good as gifts.
We stayed at Hotel Riviera Sucre, located just two blocks from the main square. We found that despite the shared courtyard and thin doors, it was actually a very quiet place to stay, the beds were comfortable and the bathroom was spacious. My main complaints would be that it was quite cold and night and that there was not much natural light in the room. We paid $28 for a twin room with private bathroom, but no breakfast was included. There is a breakfast menu to choose from at an additional cost, however.
If you are coming to Otavalo from or leaving to Quito, the journey is pretty simple. Between Carcelén bus station in the north of the Quito and Otavalo there are frequent buses and the journey should take around two hours and cost $2.
If you want to travel between Otavalo and Quito airport, however, you have three main options: take the bus back to Quito and then another two hour bus to the airport; take a taxi directly for $60; or take a series of buses directly to the airport that takes around two and a half hours. When I asked the hotel we were staying at what the best way to travel from Otavalo to Quito airport was, they only presented me the first two options. It was when I was having a haircut and got talking to the hairdresser about travelling and it turned out that she often travelled to Europe that I thought to ask how she would get to the airport. Surely, I thought, she wouldn’t spend up to five hours on buses, nor pay $60 for a taxi.
What we ended up doing was waiting at a bus stop on Panamerican Highway, at the south end of Atalhualpa street for a bus to Cayambe (these buses do not enter Otavalo as they are ‘express' services, taking 45 minutes and costing $0.75) where another bus was waiting for us that continued to El Quinche (30 minutes, $0.50), which is a busy market town on Saturdays too. From there, we followed instructions from the bus conductor and crossed the main square diagonally, walked down a few blocks to another crowd of people waiting for a bus and caught a Quito-bound bus to Tababela (30 minutes, $0.50). We were dropped off just after a roundabout for Tababela, crossed the road and waited about five minutes beside the highway with people who clearly worked at the airport and caught the final bus straight to the airport terminal building (15 minutes, $0.85).
So all in all, the journey took about 2.5 hours and only cost $2.60 each instead of $30 each to split a cab that would've only been about half an hour faster.
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