Otavalo in Ecuador – markets, volcanoes, lakes and condors

Otavalo market

Otavalo is famous for its huge Saturday market when hundreds of locals arrive from their villages to sell their wares. It’s become so popular that many tourists also flock to this market town in northern Ecuador to witness the spectacle for themselves and try on a few brightly-coloured ponchos. 

Otavalo with Volcán Cotacachi making a brief appearance

After crossing the border from Colombia, I hopped into a shared minivan to take me to the border town of Tulcan and from there I caught a bus to Ibarra. It’s only 45 minutes away from Otavalo, but I was keen to spend a few days in a less touristy place first. The town sits close to Volcán Imbabura, but, unfortunately, April is still the rainy season and it was covered in clouds almost the whole time I was there. 

Parque Pedro Moncayo, Ibarra

Dodging the showers, I explored the streets and colonial buildings and churches. It’s very much a working town and immediately felt different to Colombia with many people in traditional sierra dress. The next morning it was sunny and I took advantage of this to visit the hot springs at Chachimboro. There are just two buses a day there at 7am and 12.30. The site was a bit over-commercialised, but during the week it was a quiet place to idle away a couple of hours.

Textile, Otavalo market

I arrived in Otavalo on Friday, ready for the market the next day. The town is not particularly attractive in itself and it’s really all about the market and the surrounding countryside. The main tourist stalls are focused on the aptly named Plaza de Ponchos. It’s the ideal place to buy colourful handicrafts and ethnic gear which might seem a good idea at the time, but the truth is you’ll probably never wear that poncho back home. 

Animal market, Otavalo

Far more interesting for me was the animal market on the other side of the Panamerican Highway in some very muddy fields. Men were coaxing squealing pigs along pathways, while women with babies tied in bundles on their backs were busy tethering cows to posts. More upsettingly, you can also find live chickens and birds packed tightly into crates. It’s all over by 10am so you need to get there early.

Animal market, Otavalo

On Sunday I visited the Parque Cóndor a few kilometres outside the town. It’s a sanctuary and rehabilitation centre for rescued birds of prey. I’ve been to a few aviaries before, but it was an amazing experience to get so close to such huge birds as Andean condors and Harris Hawks. 

Andean condor

At 11.30 there was a flight exhibition in which the handlers brought out several birds and provided information about them, before allowing some of them to fly off against the stunning Andean landscape. It was the highlight of my stay in Otavalo.

Harris hawk

On Monday I caught a bus to the village of Cotacachi at the foot of the volcano with the same name. From there I hired a taxi to take me up to the national park where I hiked a spectacular four and a half hour trail around Laguna de Cuicocha. The path goes up and down, climbing quite high in places, but with great views. Sadly, Imbabura still remained hidden by clouds.

Laguna de Cuicocha

I spent my last night in a local homestay programme outside Otavalo wth Milton and Estela. The plan was to help the family on the farm, but they had more pressing issues. Milton’s brother was getting married at the weekend and they needed to buy some supplies, so I was invited on the shopping trip to buy huge sacks of rice, flour and corn. There are no caterers or wedding planners here. The women do it all themselves. I asked how many they would be cooking for. “About a thousand,” they replied coolly. 

Estela sifting through corn seeds

The next morning I accompanied Estela into the corn fields to collect the seed pods which would be dried in the sun over several months before being used to plant next season’s crop in October. I then spent an hour helping remove the seeds from the pods. It was a bit like shelling peas and it took me back years to when, as a kid, I used to help my mum in the kitchen. As we led the cows to pasture in the morning, the clouds lifted, the sun came out and I got my first brilliant view of Imbabura. It was the perfect end to my time in Otavalo.

Countryside around Otavalo

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I'm British, lived in London most of my life, but am currently travelling the world.

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