Every city in Ecuador has a small indigenous population…but in Otavalo they aren’t at the fringe, they are at its heart. The Otavalos are an industrious group of skilled craftsmen and savvy business people. They have managed to keep their traditions of weaving, painting, and carving, and ditch the middleman to garealize the full potential of their success. They sell their crafts around the globe and earned a fame that draws visitors from all corners. We walked around this bustling little city of women in colorful embroidered blouses and men with long black braids and pristine white pants, feeling like we stepped into a world not commonly found…a modern indigenous city.
Plaza de Ponchos Market
Plaza de Ponchos is the heart of town and the market where hundreds of vendors gather each morning to sell their crafts. We stayed at a guest house overlooking the plaza to watch this world evolve throughout the day—from an open square to a tented city and back again by nightfall. We must have seen thousands of items—musical instruments, leather goods, tagua nut jewelry, hand-painted ceramics, fake shrunken heads, you name it—move from truck to perfectly displayed table. (It seemed like such a shame to pack it all up eight hours later!) The market is every day of the week, though Saturday is the biggest and includes a livestock market, while Wednesday is when the top artisans come to personally represent their booths.
Biking to Ilumàn
Most people just come to Otavalo for a day’s shopping trip but they’re missing out on some charming villages, beautiful valleys, and mega volcanoes. We rented bikes and rode to Peguche for its lovely waterfall and Andean instrument workshop and through the countryside to the town of Ilumàn. Ilumàn is home to over 100 shamans and one of the country’s main associations of traditional healers. We stopped at a few shaman workshops, gathering info for curiosity sake and also a possible cleansin…but for $100, we decided we’d rather not strip to our skivvies and have an old guy beat us with bundles of herbs.
Cuicocha Crater Lake
Volcanoes, craters, teal lakes, islands…these are all dreamy things, especially when you pack them into one location. Cuicocha is the best of all worlds and the “Lagoon of the Gods” captivated us for a five-hour hike. The view was so good upon our arrival I wasn’t sure it was worth walking the 14-kilometer rim just to see it from different angles…especially when the morning started windy and rainy. I’ll credit Mike for motivating me through the fog, because the sun came out and we had gorgeous ever-changing views, plus rainbowsf.
24 de Mayo Market
We went to the super-authentic 24 de Mayo Market for lunch and grazed our way through the steaming food stalls. (Germaphobes, this is probably not the place for you, but go in with an open mind and a strong stomach and you’ll find great meals and plenty of local color.) Vendors freshen their display and greet you as you pass by, musicians go from stall to stall serenading diners, and little kids play at the feet of their chef mamas, making 24 de Mayo our favorite market in Ecuador.
If just visit the famous Plaza de Ponchos, Otavalo can seem very touristy…but roam the streets, hop on a bike, and hike a volcano and this incredibly unique region will have you braiding your hair in support of the Otavalos.