Ecuador’s colorful yet quaint town of Otavalo is legendary for its textiles, produced by a mostly indigenous local population that preserves pre-Inca cultures. In fact, the bustling Otavalo handicraft market has long been considered one of the most important trading posts in the Andes and is an absolute gem for travelers seeking exotic and artisanal goods.
But the town itself is well worth exploring as it offers nature, adventure tourism, unique culture and gastronomic delights. Join Kuoda on an exploration of Otavalo, Ecuador, including its synonymous market and beyond:
Where is Otavalo
The town of Otavalo is located in the Andean highlands of north-central Ecuador and sits at an elevation of 8,441 feet (2,573 meters). Surrounded by volcanoes, Otavalo is a two-hour drive north of Quito and can easily be considered a day-trip destination from Ecuador’s capital.
However, as this article describes (and as Kuoda travel designers will tell you), Otavalo, Ecuador is well worth exploring for at least a few days.
When to visit the Otavalo market
Open seven days a week from 7am to 6pm, the Otavalo market is famous for its display of millenary textile traditions and is one of the largest markets of its kind in South America. Once you step inside you will likely hear local vendors speaking the indigenous language of Kichwa to one another.
Located in Plaza de Los Ponchos, the market sees more vendors (and patrons) on Wednesdays and Saturdays. When planning to visit the Otavalo market, first decide what is most important to you: more options or fewer crowds. (No matter which day you do choose to visit, try to go early as many vendors will start packing up well before 6pm.)
What to buy in the Otavalo market
Otavaleños (locals of Otavalo) fill the artisan market with handmade items of mainly wool, leather, ceramic and balsa wood. Hammocks, ponchos, blankets and hats are particularly popular woven items. If someone you know is an avid knitter, consider bringing them home locally spun yarn.
Visitors will also be enticed by jewelry made of tagua, a smooth nut native to Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil. It is often referred to as ‘vegetable ivory’ due to its aesthetic similarity yet absence of animal cruelty.
After perusing the clothing and household items, you will need to regain some energy. Head to the north end of the Otavalo market and peruse the fresh fruit and vegetable and street food offerings. Sip on yamor (a fermented corn drink) and snack on fried bananas with cheese before digging into a cuy asado (roast guinea pig).
What to do in Otavalo
Vibrant and full of stories, the charming Otavalo market has the ability to pull visitors back multiple times during their stay. But what else to do in Otavalo besides picking up souvenirs in the market?
- Laguna Cuicocha: The 2-mile (3 km) wide volcanic crater lake is considered one of the most beautiful in the region. As hikers circle the breathtaking Cuicocha from the hillsides, they may be able to make out the shape of the lake’s island down below, which locals have long imagined as a guinea pig (cuicocha means “guinea pig” in Kichwa). A quick shuttle by private transport can bring you to the head of the trail, situated at 3000 masl. The loop around Lake Cuicocha is 14km and, at a leisurely pace, will take around 5 hours to complete.
- Visit an artisan’s workshop: Find out how Andean instruments are made and understand their cultural significance when you visit the home or workshop of a superb local talent. The traditional music of Otavalo helped bring Andean sounds to the forefront of world music, and the craftsmanship of the instruments is just as impressive.Visit Cotacachi, the so-called musical capital of Ecuador (and just so happens to be known for its leatherwork), and peruse handcrafted percussion and wind instruments on an intimate visit with a local musician.
- Cascadas de Peguche: A 45-minute walk from the center of Otavalo, the impressive Peguche waterfalls are an ideal destination for a relaxing morning or early afternoon. A well-maintained trail leads directly to the falls, from where you can continue forth on a trail to the right that leads up above the cascades and into a small cave. So unlike the Otavalo market, the verdant flora and sounds of crashing water of Cascadas de Peguche make for a refreshing change of scenery–if only for a few hours!
- Parque Condor: Winged creatures that have been rescued from illegal trafficking and/or are injured and recovering find refuge in this animal sanctuary. Birds of prey such as Andean condors, vultures and hawks swoop through the sky during flight demos (held at 11:30am and 3:30pm). The Dutch-owned foundation is located on the hillside of Pucara Alto, just 3 miles (5km) from the center of Otavalo. Parque Condor is open Wednesday to Sunday.
- Smell the roses: Did you know that Ecuador is one of the world’s largest suppliers of roses? On the way back to Quito from Otavalo, stop by a rose plantation in Cayambe. While walking through endless rows of colorful and fragrant flowers, led by a bilingual guide selected by Kuoda, you’ll learn about their cultivation. Perhaps you’ll return home with a green thumb!
Currency in Otavalo
Ecuador uses the US American dollar, meaning most Kuoda travelers will not have to stress about exchanging money. Keep in mind when purchasing items at the Otavalo market that, unless you are buying many items at once, vendors may not have change for large bills ($50 or $100).
Explore Otavalo with Kuoda
Yes, Otavalo is considered the handicraft capital of Ecuador—yet, it has so much more to offer! On a personalized journey designed by Kuoda, you can experience the best that Otavalo has to offer: from nearby nature escapes to private visits with artisans. All the while, we’ll ensure that your trip is carefully crafted to support our commitment to sustainability. Contact us today to start planning your journey to Otavalo, Ecuador: firstname.lastname@example.org