Upon arriving into the bustling town of Otavalo, we were immediately thrilled to see so many locals dressed in traditional costume ... this was the vibrant indigenous culture of Ecuador we had been hoping to see!
Otavalo is a small town nestled amidst extinct volcanoes, towering mountains and sparkling lakes, 2 hours north of Quito. It is the thriving commercial centre for a multitude of nearby villages and is home to one of the best indigenous markets in South America.
We arrived into Otavalo a few days before the Saturday market, having read about a range of other attractions and activities. Over the next couple of days we spent time exploring the surrounding area, including hikes to Cascada de Peguche (Peguche Waterfall) and El Lechero, a tree revered by locals for its healing powers with great views over Laguna de San Pablo (San Pablo Lake) and nearby villages.
We also paid a visit to Parque Condor, a sanctuary for the rehabilitation of a variety of birds including owls, eagles, hawks, falcons and of course the endangered condor.
The park was set high in the hills behind Otavalo overlooking the valley. It was the perfect place to see these beautiful birds spread their wings and catch a ride on the swirling thermal currents during the daily exhibition.
Although we wouldn’t normally attend zoos or support the capture and enclosure of animals, we were impressed with the rehabilitation work Parque Condor undertakes and the generous sized aviaries for the birds. Never before have we had the opportunity to see such magnificent birds so closely and we were surprised by how much we enjoyed it.
Without a doubt the highlight of our visit, and main reason we came to Otavalo in the first place, was the Saturday market. Each weekend the city streets around Plaza de Ponchos are closed to traffic as locals from the nearby indigenous villages make the trip into town to sell their wares, stock up on supplies and catch up with friends.
The stalls sell a wide range of artisan handicrafts, clothing, hammocks, weavings, carvings, jewelry and ceramics. This part of the market has become quite a tourist trap in recent years, with busloads of gringos from Quito descending by mid morning to buy souvenirs.
For me the highlight was getting up early and wandering through the ‘authentic’ market, where local villagers were selling their harvest from woven baskets and hessian bags on the sidewalk.
As much as I wanted to photograph their character filled faces and ethnic costumes up close, the locals are quite shy and resist having their picture taken, so I needed to be discreet and was careful to respect their wishes.
Where we stayed
While in Otavalo we based ourselves at the Flying Donkey Hostal, which was located a block away from the central plaza and a short walking distance to the Saturday market. The hostal was comfortable and secure with hot water, decent wifi, kitchen facilities and a rooftop terrace. It was uniquely decorated with vintage quirky finds and handmade furniture. The manager, Paul, lives onsite and was always friendly and helpful with information on activities in the surrounding area.