My friend and I decided to take advantage of a holliday in Ecuador and get away from Quito’s ever-bustling streets. After comparing the prices and activities of different nearby sites, we settled on a small overnight trip to Otavalo.
Otavalo, a quaint city only about 2-3 hours outside of Quito, is one of the most common parts of the Ecuadorian experience. It is easily accessible by hopping on a bus at Quito’s Terminal Terestre Carcelen, which is in the north side of the city. The terminal is about 20 minutes away by cab and the ride costs around $8-$10 from La Mariscal. Alternatively, you can get there by taking the Trole or Metro bus lines for around 20-30 cents (although plan to spend about an hour on the bus line). The ticket from Quito to Otavalo is only $2.50 each way, which is why it was an appealing choice for our weekend trip. Its close proximity to the capital also makes it a popular day/weekend trip before or after many people’s Galapagos Experience Program.
Its indigenous atmosphere also helps make it a popular place for visitors. Like many places in the world, the city has adapted some modern features and boasts a renovated town center. However, approximately half of the town’s population consists of the indigenous Otavaleno people, so it is common to see traditional clothes and crafts on the streets. After stepping out of Otavalo’s bus terminal, we were surrounded by flowing traditional white blouses fighting for space with lines of sleek blue streetlights.
Because we were so close, we decided to stop by the famous markets before checking in at the hostel. The large market is probably one of Otavalo’s most famous attractions and is what most people think of when they picture the town. Many people go there just to hunt through the maze of vendors and find the best deals.
There, you can find blocks stuffed with artisanal crafts to bring home to your friends and family. Some interesting items include colorful hammocks (which can be as cheap as $12!), alpaca sweaters, and decorative backpacks. Years ago in colonial times, much of the population was pressured into working in textile workshops. Because of this, Otavalo still has some of the most beautiful textiles around and the weaving community is strong. And for those who love music, you can take your pick in the wide selection of charangos, a small Andean string instrument similar to a ukulele.
The market runs all week, but is the biggest on Saturdays, making it a popular day for tourists. On Saturdays, vendors usually begin setting up around 6 A.M. However, the market runs throughout the day, so don’t feel pressured to get up at the crack of dawn for a shot at the best items.
After weaving through the lines of artisanal crafts, we took a taxi up to the hostel, Hosteria Rose Cottage. This fairy-tale-like hostel featured a variety of fun amenities, such as a tennis court, a T.V. room, and a Jacuzzi (for $3 per use). My friend and I opted to relax for a little bit by sitting on the child-like swings and rocking ourselves to sleep on the hammocks. There was a large sitting area on the edge of hill, giving visitors an astonishing view of the mountains while they read a book or talked to other visitors.
Through word-of-mouth, we heard about an hour-long walk that looped back to the hostel and provided great views of a nearby lake and chapel. We decided that this would be a refreshing way to stretch our legs after being so stagnant on the bus and hammocks.
We were greeted by a large view of one of the famous Mojanda Lakes right after the first cobblestone hill. These set is comprised of three large lagoons: Carichocha (male lake), Huarmicocha (female lake), and Yanacocha (blood lake).
Like many other attractions in Ecuador, these sites are steeped in legend. It said that Carichocha Lake and Huarmicocha Lake were created as a result of a love affair between an Incan prince and princess. According to the story, the couple fell in love but was forbidden to marry. Together, they created a large crater, which in turn created the two bodies of water.
The nearby Yanacocha Lake also has an interesting background. Years ago, it was the location of a long bloody massacre between the indigenous people and the Incan armies. Before the Incan took over the area in the 15th century, many different linguistic groups inhabited the area. Fortresses around a nearby volcano were shown to support this story.
Though these attractions may not be as famous as the Otavalo market, many visitors choose to spend a few nights camping out next to the water. For those who choose to do this, it is important to bring warm clothes, cozy sleeping bags, and a sturdy tent; at 3,800 meters above sea level, the area around the lakes can get very cold at night.
Although we had a stunning look at the lakes from our short little walk, many people choose to get a better view by climbing the nearby Fuya Fuya Mountain. The whole trail is about 1.92 km long and takes hikers up 1,750 feet. It is known to be dotted with cactus plants and tall grass. Once at the top, successful hikers are offered a look at both the Mojanda Lakes and nearby volcanoes. However, don’t be daunted by the walk; the trail is not known to be difficult and takes about two hours to complete. Helpful signs line the trail so you don’t get lost.
After exploring the area around the hostel, we headed back to hit the hammocks again. A friendly traveler from the United Kingdom was also taking the time to relax and he told us about other attractions that he had visited in Otavalo.
One of his favorite destinations was the Condor Park. It is only about 2 kilometers outside of Otavalo’s town center and sits at the top of a large hill. This park allows visitors to see a huge variety of birds such as condors (of course!), eagles, owls, hawks, and falcons. There are also daily flight demonstrations at 11:30 A.M. and 2:30 P.M.
Because the Condor Park did not take him long to explore, he went to a roam around a market soon afterwards. However, unlike the one in Otavalo’s town center, this one is not stuffed with artisanal crafts and alpaca sweaters. Instead, this is a market filled with animals. Visitors can weave in and out of the stalls of unusual ware for a chance to purchase creatures such as cats, guinea pigs, and chickens. There are cages of cats and boxes of dogs scattered around in staggering numbers. Generally, the stalls are separated by animal species so it’s easy for visitors to find the kind they want to purchase. Many of these animals are sold for cooking purposes while others are sold as domestic pets. Similar to the artisanal craft market, this market starts at around 6 A.M. However, it may be better to come here just to browse and soak in the unique atmosphere; taking an animal back on the bus might be a bit difficult!
The next morning we decided that the far view of the Mojanda Lakes was not enough, so we took a 15-minute taxi ride to get an up-close look. Because we hadn’t taken the altitude into consideration we wore very thin jackets and were very cold! If you go, the taxi will take you so high that you won’t know if the wet droplets are made of rain or parts of the surrounding clouds.
Despite the freezing temperature and the moist air, we were glad that we took the time to ride up the mountain. The lake was huge and surrounded by an ethereal mist. All around the water, people huddled in tiny tents and clutched warm drinks. We were exceptionally lucky because we got there just when a large cloud was making its way over the water. Although relaxing on the hammocks had been the best way to enjoy the fresh country air, visiting this lake was the highlight of our trip.
For anyone who’s looking to get a quick look at Ecuador’s countryside before or after their Galapagos Experience program, a visit to Otavalo is the way to do it. And the Mojando Lakes, Condor Park, artisan markets, and animal markets only make up a small portion of the available activities. With more time, watch gallons of water cascade down from a tall waterfall and discover the mysteries of a sacred tree called El Lechero. Otavalo is jam-packed with fun things to do, and its close proximity to Quito makes it perfect for a weekend trip! Just make sure to save some space in your backpack-you’re sure to come back with souvenirs to remind yourself of this quaint little town!