Otavalo in Ecuador is a pretty little town, a couple of hours bus ride north of Quito. It’s largely famous for its market, which, to be honest, didn’t totally blow us away. It was very nice and all, but it wasn’t exactly a reason to visit this particular town over many others in Ecuador and South America which also have very nice markets.
That said, we did end up spending nearly two weeks in the picturesque little town of Otavalo. Part of that was due to the fabulous view our room came with (more on that later), and part of that was because we found so much to fill our time with exploring.
Here’s a run down of why you need to spend more than a day or two in Otavalo, Ecuador and everything you can do here!
What to Do in Otavalo, Ecuador
1. Visit Peguche Waterfall
Waterfalls! One of our favourite natural phenomenon. After sunsets perhaps. And beaches. Ok, so we like a lot of natural stuff.
Anyway, Otavalo is home to a fantastic waterfall, about a forty-five minute walk from the town along the old railway tracks. It’s worth the walk, but you can also grab a taxi if you’re feeling time pressed.
The waterfall is set in an area of religious significance to the local people, and there is a lovely path to the falls from the car park, through picturesque woodland.
The falls themselves are 18 metres high, and very photogenic. Plus, handy for cooling off it’s a hot day. You can climb up both sides of the falls via trails for different perspectives, plus there is a series of caves behind the falls that you can explore. Plenty to do, and entry is free, with a donation box at the entrance to contribute towards upkeep.
2. Go to the Otavalo Condor Park
Up on the hills about 4km outside of town is the Parque Cóndor, or Condor Park. Offering a spectacular view of the surrounding volcanoes and valleys, this Park is also home to a number of spectacular raptors and other eye catching birds, all of whom, as far as we could understand, had been rescued from illegal captivity or trafficking, or were recovering from injury.
The highlight of the visit is without doubt the twice daily raptor display, at 11.30 and 15.30, where you will see these massive birds wheeling and soaring above the valleys below, as well as right over your head. Truly impressive stuff, and well worth the entrance fee.
Getting to the Condor Park is easiest by taxi, and should cost around 4USD. More information, including up to date opening times and days, (in Spanish, Google Translate is your friend) can be found at their webpage.
3. Hike around Cuicocha Lake
There’s no shortage of beautiful crater lakes in the Otavalo region, but perhaps the most beautiful, and also the most easily accessible, is the Cuicocha crater lake under Cotocachi mountain.
This is a relatively simple bus / taxi ride from Otavalo, and is very much worth it. The lake is a gorgeous blue colour, with an island in the middle said to resemble a guinea pig. Hence the name of the lake.
You can either just look at the lake from the informative visitor centre, or you can hike around it, which takes around four hours, depending on fitness, and offers spectacular views.
4. Peer at El Lechero, the sacred tree of Otavalo
Not too far from the Condor Park is a sacred tree, known as El Lechero. This tree is part of local mythology, believed to house the soul of a cursed lover, who fell in love with a chap from a rival family. His fate wasn’t exactly wonderful either, as he was turned into the nearby San Pablo lake.
Tragic lovers tales aside, the tree is in a wonderfully photogenic location, and is clearly very old. You can either get here from Otavalo by taxi, or you can walk here from the Condor Park in around half an hour. It’s not exactly well signposted, so you might be better off asking for directions on your way.
5. Eat the Best Pie in South America
If there was going to be one reason to visit Otavalo, it should be the pie shop. Home to, without doubt, the best pies in South America. And I’m not talking savoury pie here, no, I’m talking classic fruit pies, ranging from blueberry to apple to pineapple and beyond. Sometimes there are as many as twelve flavours to choose from.
We visited here on multiple occasions, with a number of American friends, who all stated that this shop was home to the best American style pie they’d had outside of the States. I can certainly say it was the best damn pie we’d eaten in a long time. It’s right on the main market square, Plaza de Ponchos, and is called “The Pie Shop”. Obviously.
6. Walk around the Laguna de Mojanda
Up in the hills to the south of Otavalo town are a series of beautifully coloured crater lakes, which are lovely to wander around. At least, this is what we were told by our hostel owner. When we visited the cloud was firmly on the deck, and I suspect the magical colours of the lakes were not in full effect.
Still, if you have better luck with the weather, I am told that the three lakes are truly gorgeous, offering different colours as a result of their chemical composition. You can hire a four wheel drive pickup taxi to take you up to the lakes. It’s about a 45 minute – 1 hour drive each way, and the whole journey is likely to be 3 – 4 hours. Arrange the price with the driver beforehand. A guideline price of 25USD for taxi hire is standard – go in a group to spread the cost between you.
7. Visit the Otavalo Market
Ok, so I know I said the Otavalo market wasn’t reason in itself to visit Otavalo, but it’s still worth a bit of a wander, particularly the live animal version on a Saturday morning. There’s plenty of *stuff* to see, from presumably authentic local artefacts, to entirely authentic Angry Birds hats. I’m still waiting for the day I actually see someone wearing one. Anyway, the market. Go to it.
Practicalities for visiting Otavalo, Ecuador
Getting there and away
Otavalo is easy to reach from Quito, you just grab a bus from the north bus terminal. It takes 2-3 hours depending on traffic and road works, and will cost in the region of 5USD per person. If you’re driving, then you just follow the Pan-American Highway north until you get there.
Otavalo does have bus connections with a number of towns, but you’ll probably find you’ll have to go via Quito to get anywhere south of the capital.
Where to stay
We found a little hostel called Hostal Chasqui, set a bit back from the market and downtown, and offering spectacular views across the town from the roof top terrace. Particularly special was the welcome from the owner Roberto, who spent half an hour with us (and every new arrival!), explaining the sights of the town via a hand-drawn map and the view from the roof top terrace.
We were particularly spoilt with our room – being given the roof top room with panoramic view of six volcanoes was too tempting, and we ended up spending two weeks here. It costs in the region of 12-15 USD per person for a room with private bathroom and hot water, which also includes free WiFi, use of the kitchen, the DVD library, and even free self-service laundry, plus sunset views like the one below. Highly recommended.
Eating in Otavalo
There were a good selection of places to eat in Otavalo, from the aforementioned Pie Shop through to street vendors and reasonably priced cafes and restaurants. The further away from the town market one gets, the better value the food becomes.
We found a place at the southern end of the main street (Bolivar) that served up cheap seafood with rice, encebollado (fish soup usually served with fried banana and popcorn) and a soft drink for around 3USD for example.
Safety in Otavalo
We felt safe in Otavalo, happy to use our cameras and generally carry them in public places. The hostel owner said it was a generally safe town, but he advised us to take a taxi to the Condor Park rather than walk the 4km as this wasn’t thought to be quite as safe. Still, overall, basic safety precautions like being wary of pickpockets, particularly in crowded market spaces and on public transport should be enough overall.
Further Reading for your visit to Otavalo, Ecuador
We decided that we weren’t going to take a Lonely Planet to Ecuador with us, on the basis that every other country we’ve ever travelled to has had them falling off the book swop shelves off the first hostel we walked into. And also, because the internet, right? Who needs guidebooks!
It turns out, us. Also, I don’t know what’s up with travellers in Ecuador, but the only copies of any guidebooks we ever found on the hostel swap shelves were from the 1970’s. Whilst this was very enlightening stuff, it wasn’t entirely relevant to our trip.
So if you are going to Ecuador, we’d recommend stocking up on an actual guide book, printed on real paper. Or on e-ink, whichever works. We like the Lonely Planet. You might want something else. You should also check out our other content on Ecuador and the Galapagos, to help you plan the rest of your trip.
Other than that, the WikiVoyage entry for Otavalo has some information, although not much more than you’ll find here. For hotels, if Hostal Chasqui doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, here are some more ideas.
And that’s it for Otavalo! Have you visited and fallen in love with this little town in the Ecuadorean Andes? Let us know your favourite sights, places to eat and places to stay in the comments below!