Otavalo is a classic Andean town. It’s crisp, cool and a little misty. People roam the streets in traditional dress. It would just be another dot on the map if it weren’t for the fact that the town is home to one of the largest and most important artisan markets in the Andes. But under the surface, there is much more to Otavalo than the Saturday market. In this post, I’ll walk you through the many things to do in Otavalo Ecuador.
This mid-sized city is a great base to spend a few days while you explore northern Ecuador. It has good food and comfy guesthouses. It’s near a variety of natural and cultural attractions. If you want to fit in all of the following things to do in Otavalo, you can’t just join one of the Quito day trips — you’ll need at least two nights.
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Shop till you drop at the handicraft villages around Otavalo
Otavalo is at the center of a ring of indigenous villages famous for their handicrafts. If you came to do some serious shopping, consider doing it here instead of at the Saturday market. Often the people working at the market are just middlemen for the actual craftspeople — who make very little off your purchase. Visiting the villages allows you to buy directly from the artisans and is one of the best things to do in Otavalo.
The village of San Rafael is known for its tortora products (a straw made from reeds). You can visit the shops and try your hand at making something — it’s not as easy as it looks!
A little further down the road is Peguche. It’s famous for weaving. You can buy alpaca-wool products (try the gloves — they’re soooo warm). Most of the popular Otavalo textiles are actually produced in Peguche. You’ll also find a musical instrument shop — the owner is very friendly and happy to demonstrate how each of the Andean instruments are used in a band.
Finally, Cotatachi is famous for its leather products. It’s also a major population center for American retirees, so it has a kind of weird gringo-y vibe. But if you really want to buy some leather, this is the place.
You can visit most villages independently on local buses and trucks. But it’s more efficient to take an inexpensive tour that also stops at a few natural attractions. Runa Tupari is a community-based operator. Most of the staff are indigenous folks from the villages surrounding Otavalo.
Visit Peguche Waterfall
If you’re in the town of Peguche, it’s worth detouring to the sacred Peguche Waterfall in a small protected forest nearby.
The forest is temperate, but it’s still dense and beautiful. There are some sacred baths toward the middle of the park. In late June, the local community holds a purification ceremony here.
Peguche Waterfall itself is impressive. It’s 18 meters high and produces a steady gush of water. The main activity here is hiking up to a couple different viewpoints. You can get close enough to swim at the base of the waterfall, but the water (and air) is extremely cold.
You can walk to Peguche Waterfall in about 30 minutes from Otavalo. The waterfall is a short hike from the main town of Peguche, which has restaurants and handicraft shops (see above). All in all, one of the most relaxing things to do in Otavalo.
Hike around Cuicocha Lake
Just outside Otavalo is the high-altitude side of the Reserva Ecologica Cotatachi-Cayapas. It’s a really unique reserve because it encompasses four different climate zones — from alpine, snow-capped peaks to tropical cloud forest. It’s been such a conservation success story that you can’t travel between zones within the reserve because the vegetation is so dense.
The most convenient part of the park to visit is Cuicocha Lake (“guinea-pig lake”). The lake was created by what was once among the largest volcanoes in the world, which later collapsed into its crater. Eruptions created two little islands, which make the lake look like a guinea pig — hence the name.
Cuicocha Lake is one of the most beautiful lakes in Ecuador.. You can do a four-hour hike along the crater rim trail to get great views of the surrounding mountains and see some rare bird life. Even though it’s not far from central Otavalo, it feels a world away. Not many travelers make it here — you may be the only one visiting. It’s a can’t miss way to get out into nature on this list of things to do in Otavalo.
It’s best to come here in a taxi, as part of a tour, or with a local guide — robberies are common on the isolated road into the park. Don’t try to hitch or walk in from the main road.
Cows, pigs and guinea pigs for sale: Otavalo animal market
Otavalo may be famous for its artisan market. But one of the most fascinating things to do in Otavalo is visit the less-known — but far more entertaining — animal market.
If you visit, you’ll see old men haggle over the price of piglets (two for $240). Little girls beg their parents for a puppy or kitten. Guinea pigs are carried around by the necks and dropped, en masse, into large bags.
Nothing about this market is geared toward tourism. It’s a glimpse into authentic local life. But it’s now firmly on most peoples’ lists of things to do in Otavalo, so don’t expect to be the only gringo there.
You’ll have to get out of bed well before 7 am to witness the entire noisy, smelly, tragicomic affair. Animal welfare activists should probably steer clear of the Otavalo animal market.
The animal market wraps up around 8 am. Any unsold goats are tethered back to their owners’ tractors for the walk home. By then, the Otavalo market that you came to see — the artesenias — is in full swing.
To reach the animal market, walk northwest from the town center. As you hit the outskirts of town you’ll see people heading to and from the market with their animals — follow them. The market is in a large open field on the far northern edge of town.
Visiting the Otavalo Market
Of course, this wouldn’t be a complete list of things to do in Otavalo without mentioning the Otavalo Market. It sets up in Plaza de Ponchos every Saturday morning starting around 7 am. Craftsmen and women come from all across the region to sell here.
So many vendors come to the market that it basically occupies the entire city center. Usually the vendors further out have lower-quality goods, but there are some gems on the side streets.
Some light haggling is acceptable, but don’t get into too big of an argument over cost. If you can’t agree on a fair price with the vendor, walk away and find someone else to buy from rather than fighting for that last $0.25. Luckily, the market is very low on hassle, so browsing is easy.
Most people just browse the market on their own, independently. However, you could hire a guide for an Otavalo market tour from any of the agencies in town.
If you can’t make it to Otavalo on a Saturday, no worries — the market sets up in smaller form every other day of the week. It doesn’t take over the entire city center, but Plaza de Ponchos is no less crowded with vendors, and you can easily find a bargain on a high-quality Ecuador poncho or alpaca blanket. The most common goods for sale during the week are the famous Otavalo textiles.
Even if you don’t enjoy shopping, the market is one of the essential things to do in Otavalo for experiencing traditional Andean culture. But please don’t treat the vendors at the Otavalo market like tourist attractions just because they wear traditional dress. Always ask if you can take photos and, if someone says no, respect it.
How to get to Otavalo from Quito and Mindo
The Quito to Otavalo buses take about three hours. They run all day from Terminal Carcelen in Quito (take a trole from the city center). Some Quito to Otavalo buses go into the city center, while others will drop you on the Panamerica from where it’s a short walk into town. In the opposite direction, Otavalo to Quito buses depart from a small station on the southern end of town.
You can get to or from Mindo in a day, but you’ll have to change buses and bus stations in Quito. It’s about a $3 taxi ride and you can probably find other travelers on your bus to share with. Mindo buses leave infrequently and the schedule changes constantly, so verify your plans in advance at your guesthouse. It’s easier to get from Mindo to Otavalo than vice-versa.
More locally, you can get to any of the handicraft villages by bus — departures are most frequent in the morning.
If you are on very limited time, it is possible to visit the market on a day trip from Quito. A one-day group Otavalo market tour costs $50.
Otavalo hostel options and food
The Otavalo hostel scene is affordable and comfortable. I recommend Valle de Amenecer, which has single rooms with shared bathrooms for $8 a night, free breakfast, and a pleasant garden common area. If it’s full, try Hostal la Rosa across the street.
If you are arriving in town on the night before the main Otavalo market days (i.e. Friday night), book in advance.
Eating is not one of the best things to do in Otavalo — the food scene is pretty mediocre. Street stalls sell hot dogs and french fries and there are a few cafes along the main plaza. But whatever you do, don’t miss Shenandoah Pie Shop, which serves fantastic, fresh pies and good coffee.
Things to do in Otavalo if you have more time
If you have more time and you knock out all these things to do in Otavalo, consider a day trip to Ibarra. Known as the White City, it has impressive colonial architecture and a massive veggie market. The cultural center and anthropology museum are both worth visiting. Plus, you can get a great sandwich at La Hacienda and an amazing sorbet at Heladeria Rosalía Suárez.
Otavalo itself also has a couple small museums where you could kill an hour or two. The cemetery outside of town is also worth the walk.
If you’re interested in traditional Andean culture, handicrafts, and beautiful mountain scenery, there is no better place in Ecuador to get all three than Otavalo. Add it to your Ecuador travel itinerary now!
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