Otavalo, Ecuador has been one of my most destinos favoritos around the world. The sites, sounds and friendly atmosphere makes this a go-to spot. This is the first place I think of when people ask me for ideas on great places to visit, or places to spend time in. Walking along the streets of this town, seeing all the shops and the weekly open markets makes this a fantastic place to unwind. The pure simplicity makes this place a relaxing, routine travel destination.
Otavalo has a lot to offer; situated at around 2,500 meters above sea level, it is a high altitude town. Be prepared for a slight decrease in energy during your first few days. But, once acclimated to the high altitude you’ll find many places you want to visit. Volcanos, mountains, waterfalls, and grand lakes dot the landscape around this beautiful town.
The best way to find these local wonders is to befriend a local that can show you around. They know so much about the place, so don’t underestimate them. They love their town and they know all the hotspots for tourism and “off-the-beaten-path” locations. But remember, this is a Spanish speaking community so you might want to brush up before walking into the local hotspot market Plaza de Ponchos, where you can buy the best and most colorful clothing every Saturday and Sunday.
My Ecuador Arrival
On my first trip, I traveled by taxi to Otavalo – yeah, call me crazy. Here’s a tip: if you take a taxi from Quito to Otavalo, be prepared to pay a hefty fee. Your best option is to use the extremely cheap and vast bus systems of Ecuador. On my second trip I was smarter and found a bus.
On that second trip, I arrived in Ecuador just in time to watch the clock strike midnight . . . on my watch 😜. When I hopped in a taxi I asked if they could take me to the nearest hostel/hotel. I had no clue what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. The beds were clean and the price was great – I slept like a baby. I would highly recommend this place to any couple or solo traveler.
El Viajero Hotel – Open 24 hours a day
The owners of the hostel were kind enough to hook me up with a friend who drove me to get my phone SIM card and brought me to the Pifo bus stop. Thankfully my Spanish is good enough I could fumble through the questions I needed to ask.
Pifo is a town 20 minutes from the airport, and I was able to wait for a bus that would take me to Otavalo. During my discourse with the bus drivers, who didn’t understand anything I said, I was able to get safe passage on the bus. Unfortunately, I was told there wasn’t enough room for me to sit in a seat right away. I would have to stand for the first 15 minutes.
I enjoyed more than 45 minutes in the back of the bus standing and observing a bunch of families make friendly conversation. What an adventure! I was finally able to sit down and even got myself a local snack from the bus merchants. About half way to Otavalo the bus made a routine stopped for the merchants to get on and sell their goodies. I smiled as I bought a 25 cent bag of chips. I was on my way back to my most favorite destination; Otavalo, here I come!
The first Impressions
When you come into Otavalo in a bus, if you want to be adventurous you can get dropped off on the side of the road, like I did as we entered the town. Or, if you get on the right bus, you can get off at the bus station in the middle of town. No matter how you get there, be prepared for amazing views along the way. Remember, you are in the Andes so the sites are extraordinary.
My favorite place to visit is Simón Bolivar park. Here you can find the bustle of families and kids as they play around the water fountains. Street merchants set up shop every late afternoon along the edges. The steeple of the catholic church looms over the park with its spectacular architecture. It is a really cool place to just sit on a bench and relax and smile as you watch the kids play. There is also free WIFI throughout the park, so you can stay connected. The atmosphere is very welcoming, and you are always greeted with a smile.
If you are fortunate to go during the last weeks of August you will find the park is extra busy in preparation for their amazing 4 to 4 1/2 hour parade and end of summer festivities. Mostly, it is a wholesome affair and provides a fun time for you and your friends or family.
Ecuador isn’t just about the friendly people and amazing views. The food is also spectacular. I always anticipate what I will get for food upon my arrival. The native vendors that populate the evening streets always have the best delights. Meats, fruits and sweets are plentiful. All the restaurants and local eateries are also amazing. But, by far the best food in Otavalo is the bread. It is absolutely delicious. I would wake up every morning, longing for a bite of delicious native bread.
And the prices of local restaurant food is fairly cheap. But, the best spot for an afternoon snack as you walk around town would be the amazing French fry shop, Poultin. They serve the best loaded French fries at an unbeatable price.
One of the meals above included Cuy. That is the local name for guinea pig. Yes, I ate guinea pig. It actually wasn’t bad. I grew up eating squirrels and rabbits and other animals, so I enjoyed it. It has a similarity to chicken that is oily. For those who have had squirrel, it is about the same. 😉
The round pizza you see in the pictures is from Pizzeria Sabor Vazco. One of the best pizza restaurants in Otavalo. It is Italian and it has amazing flavors. Mi amigo y yo would regularly visit this restaurant and order mini pizzas for both of us. They were muy delicioso!
Probly, you have heard of Otavalo for its rather large native Saturday market. The streets are packed every Saturday with foods, goods, clothing and trinkets of all types. The weekend would come and I would be out there walking around just to see all the things being sold – I might also get a trinket if I really want to. There are thousands of people walking around the town on market day. Just make sure you keep your money close to you; pick-pockets are common in places where there are large gatherings of people. But, in the 2 months I spent living there, I never had a single problem. Maybe because of my large stature, I might look intimidating. But I know the folks are wicked friendly and I never worried about that. My advice – just be a smart traveler.
As I walked around the market I spotted the most colorful handmade scarfs, sweatshirts, shawls, and blankets. The alpaca-made material is wonderfully warm and soft to the touch. It is also a great price.
The Surrounding Sites
During my time, I was able to go on extended day trips to different locations around Otavalo and the surrounding region.
CUICOCHA LAGUNA – This lake is situated at the base of Cotacachi Volcano. The lake is 3km wide and has a wonderful, but exhausting trail you can hike around. The lake elevation is at 3,246 meters. The mountain ridges that you walk around are up to almost 3,650 meters. Prepare for a 4 to 5 hour hike around this. If you want to watch my documented adventure around this lake check it out. Yes I was exhausted 😜.
PEGUCHE WATERFALL – This was a quick drive and hike through a park to the amazing Peguche Waterfall. Its beauty is captivating. I would recommend this quick trek for anyone who wants to view such a beautiful spot.
The final part of my trip I want to share is the amazing experience I had teaching English. I will write another blog post about this. The people are very receptive to anyone who wants to help them learn English. I was very thankful for the volunteer opportunities that I had in the local school, as well.
Ultimately, Otavalo has a lot to offer and it is one of my favorite places to travel to. If you ever have the chance to go and meet the people there, please let me know. I might be able to give you some location tips.