The pretty little town of Otavalo, just a couple of hours north of Quito on the bus, is most visited for its legendary market but there’s lots more to explore within the colorful settlement and its surrounding areas. Here are seven good reasons why you should visit Otavalo (including the market that everyone talks about).
1. Get an eyeful of condors
Even if bird watching isn’t your thing, you’ll still be blown away by the sight of majestic Andean condors serenely gliding through the sky against a picture perfect backdrop of volcanoes and valleys. Situated up on the hill of Pucara Alto just four kilometers outside of Otavalo, Parque Cóndor (a Dutch-owned foundation) helps rehabilitate these and other birds of prey (eagles, owls and hawks) that have been found injured or rescued from illegal captivity. Be sure to catch one of the flight demonstrations that take place every day at 11.30am and 3.30pm.
2. Everyone loves a good waterfall
Everyone loves a good waterfall and Otavalo’s Peguche waterfall won’t disappoint. If you’re in the mood for a hike, you can walk there from the town in around 45 minutes along the picturesque old railway tracks and woodlands (or save your energy for swimming and hop in a taxi). The falls reach a height of 18 meters and are surrounded by lush greenery. You can take the plunge and cool off (warning: the water is icy cold) or there are paths up both sides of the falls that reach a wooden bridge that arches over the top of the cascade (good Instagram ops). There are also some cool caves to explore. The indigenous locals believe the waterfalls and surrounding area have religious significance and they bathe there during certain festivals to bring themselves good luck so maybe you should take a dip in the spiritual waters after all.
3. Visit the magic tree
El Lechero isn’t just any old tree. It’s a mythical, knobbly old tree believed to have magical healing powers. It’s also a scenic spot for a picnic and offers great views of Otavalo. It’s a steep four-kilometer walk from the town (or a short taxi ride). To get there by foot, head south up Piedrahita from the town and follow the arrows. Once you’ve passed the sweet-smelling eucalyptus grove, you’ll see a sign for a restaurant, and up above it, a lonesome tree and some amazing views that made the trek up there worthwhile.
4. Yes, the market really is worth it
Otavalo’s famous market really does live up to the hype. It’s a feast for the senses, full of color, smells (some good some bad) and sounds. Plaza de Ponchos is the heart of the crafty area and is filled with stalls selling not only hand knitted alpaca wool ponchos, but also colorful rugs, tapestries, blankets, sweaters, scarves, hats and other woolly souvenirs, as well as hammocks, artwork and accessories crafted from the local tagua nut. There’s also a fresh produce market where you can get your exotic local fruits and spices and lots of street food stalls serving up homemade chicken soup from bubbling vats, crispy whole fried fish and scraps of suckling pig, washed down with a glass of chicha (if you dare — this fermented corn drink is an acquired taste). While there’s a market every day, Saturday is official market day when the stalls multiply, and there’s a live animal market, where you’ll witness exchanges of llamas for cows and clucking chickens and chickadees for sale. Go prepared to bargain a bit, especially if you’re buying more than one thing, and watch out for pickpockets!
5. Hike around Cuicocha Lake
The Otavalo region is touted for its beautiful lakes (formed from craters) but one of the most beautiful, and closest to the town, is the Cuicocha Lake beneath the Cotocachi Mountain, just 16km from Otavalo. The sparkling, crystal-clear lake was formed some 3,000 years ago from a collapsed crater that was covered with snow that subsequently melted. The name Cuicocha comes from the word cuy for guinea pig as the Incas believed one of the islands in the middle of the lake resembled a guinea pig. If you want to go see for yourself, you can take a little boat trip out into the lake or hike around it, which takes around 4 hours if you do the entire circuit. The lake is part of the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve and costs around $1 to visit the lake and more if you want to visit the other areas too. There’s no direct public transportation from Otavalo so it’s best to hire a taxi (and pay the driver to wait for you).
6. Pig out on fruit pie
Otavalo may only be a small town but it’s home to some of the best pies in South America. The Pie Shop as it’s so fittingly named may not look like much from the outside with it’s faded pink washed façade but this tiny, unassuming shop serves up classic fruit pies just like your Grandma used to make, only better. And you’re spoilt for a choice with 10 or more flavors to choose from, including everyone’s favorite apple and blueberry as well as pineapple and other more exotic local fruits. It’s conveniently located on the main market square, Plaza de Ponchos (Salinas 5–15).
7. There’s a hip little craft beer bar in town
Otavalo isn’t all markets, mountains and lakes, there’s also some tasty local craft beer to be drunk thanks to Cava Caran (Modesto Jaramillo y Salinas) whose secret to making great cerveza lies in the fresh natural water that comes from the region’s underground springs. The brewery and beer bar attracts locals and tourists alike to its intimate little venue decked out with cool murals. Aside from serving great ale, their mountainous plate of nachos is a must try.
Got any other tips for Otavalo to share? Tell us in our comments section below.