Otavalo and surrounds

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Heading into our Galapagos adventure, we had lots of ideas on what to do and where to go afterwards – too many, really! Do we go to the coast for a while (and if so, where?), do we do the Quilotoa Loop and if so for how many days, and what about Cuenca and Banos and the Amazon? No matter what we would come up with, we decided that a relatively quiet period immediately after the tour was in order. The tour ended on Friday morning in Quito and the famous weekly Otavalo markets were on a Saturday, so it was easy to opt for a few days in Otavalo to visit the markets and the surrounding area.

Located just a couple of hours north of Quito by bus, Otavalo looked a bit dusty and drab from afar but we soon came to enjoy its laidback atmosphere. It is totally different from the dirty, rushed and faintly dangerous feeling of Quito, with an easy to navigate grid of roads centred on the central market square. It is the market that gives Otavalo its fame: for centuries the Indigenous communities in surrounding villages have come here to sell their wares, and the market is now one of the most well-known in Latin America. We arrived to check it out, and yes, perhaps to buy a thing or two!

First up on Saturday morning, however, was a quick visit to the Animal Market. Set up on the outskirts of town, it is exactly what it sounds like: a place where animals are bought and sold. We arrived late around 9am (it is largely over by 10am), but it was still buzzing with hundreds of people offering their pigs, piglets, chicks, ducks, sheep, cows, rabbits, goats, guinea pigs and more. We took up a perch overlooking the market and simply watched the action, discovering that pigs can get quite loud and aggressive when annoyed! Unless you’re in the market for some fresh additions to your paddock there isn’t much more to do here, but it was an interesting and amusing diversion.

Back to the main market, and time to shop. We didn’t have too much in mind when browsing, but before too long we’d each purchased gloves and beanies in preparation for the Inca Trail, Kristen had found an embroidered belt and a nice bracelet, and we’d picked up quite a few gifts for people back home. As we already had backpacks that were straining at the seams, before we left Otavalo we also found a colourful large woven bag for carrying our overflow, and we have certainly put that to good use since 🙂

After a couple of hours we’d done all the shopping we needed, and in one sense we’d achieved what we came to Otavalo to do. But we’d booked a couple of days here and simply enjoyed relaxing around the town, discovering one nice restaurant in a nearby guesthouse that was worth returning to. One other special mission was to deliver a letter that was “posted” at the mailbox on Floreana Island in the Galapagos. The way the system works is that if you are going to be in the area of an addressee soon, then you take the letter from the box on Floreana and personally deliver it to them. Unfortunately there was no one home when we went there, but we still managed to hand-deliver the mail!

We also crystalised our plans for the next few weeks while in Otavalo, deciding that we wouldn’t rush around Ecuador too much. We planned and booked a week at the Black Sheep Inn high in the Ecuadorean Andes so we could go trekking at altitude, followed by a week in the slightly tropical holiday town of Banos. But as we were quite taken with the Otavalo area, we decided first to move just a few kilometres away and stay in the nearby town of Cotacachi for a while.

Cotacachi is delightful and completely relaxing, and we were surprised to discover that it is a popular destination for American expats. In fact that was a key revelation of our time in Ecuador: it’s surprising just how many Americans are opting to leave home and resettle in Central and South America. Cotacachi was where we first noticed it, but subsequently we met a number of expats who now live in Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Colombia, and of course Ecuador. The reasons behind their moves were often quite similar: a disillusionment with where the US is now and where it’s heading, combined with the much higher standard of living that can be sustained “down south”. Apparently the trend began decades ago into Mexico and Central America, but as those places have become more popular (and therefore more expensive) people are now looking further south. The most disappointing aspect of this trend, from our point of view, is that apparently a number of the newer migrants into the Cotacachi area choose to live in gated communities.

If true that it’s a shame, because we found the locals in Cotacachi extremely friendly and hospitable. The town is ordered and clean, and our guesthouse (Hostal La Cuadra) was very friendly and homely. The main business of the town is leather, with the local product famous for its quality and softness, and we spent some time wandering “leather street” checking out the wares on offer. The whole atmosphere of the area was thoroughly engaging. It was somewhere we would feel like embracing, not shutting out, if we lived there…

Cotacachi was also where we first tried to exercise at high altitude. Laguna Cuicocha is nearby, a large crater lake with a walking trail around most of the perimeter. The trail starts at 3200m above sea level and rises to more than 3400m, so we thought it would be a good place to start getting acclimatised prior to walking the Inca Trail. The first hour was challenging, to say the least! For a while we couldn’t walk much more than a dozen metres before having to stop to catch our breath, and I particularly needed frequent sitdowns to rest my rapidly racing heart. But we did the right thing and took it slow, and after a couple of hours we were moving much more easily. As a first attempt I think we got it just right, walking for about three and a half hours before resting for lunch. There was a good sense of achievement that we’d done it without any real altitude sickness kicking in, and that boded well for the Trail! As a walk it was pretty enough but not remarkable, though some sections had sweeping views of the valleys around Otavalo and Cotacachi.

Overall the Otavalo/Cotacachi region is well worth visiting, especially if you want to buy nice goods at the market or do some trekking. There are a number of walks in the area, as well as waterfalls and forest zones, and we’d certainly explore those further if we ever get back there.

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