Based at an elevation of 2540m (8333ft) above sea level in the North of Ecuador, Otavalo is surrounded by beautiful green valleys and the imposing Imbabura Volcano, which can be seen in all its grandeur looming in the distance. Otavalo is famous for its artisanal markets, known locally as Plaza de los Ponchos, and the Centenario Market. These mesmerising markets draw visitors from all over the world, and with their electric colours and hand made delights, it is not difficult to see why. Head there on a Saturday to see them in all their glory and get lost in a treasure trove of wonders, all made by local indigenous communities using traditional methods.
Bus from Quito:
Most people travel from Quito to Otavalo by public bus. The journey takes 2 hours and costs around $2-$3 (€2-3). Head to Quito’s northern bus terminal, the Carcelen bus terminal, and look for a Cooperativa Otavalo or Cooperativa Los Lagos bus. You should find them fairly easily, if not, just ask someone for buses going to Otavalo.
Bus from the Colombia / Ecuador border:
If you are coming from Colombia, you will need to take a taxi from the Ecuadorian border to Tulcan, which takes around 15 minutes and costs $4 (€3). From here you will need to take a bus to Otavalo which takes 3 hours. Tickets should cost no more than $4 (€3). Sometimes the bus will drop you off just outside of the main centre of Otavalo, but it is an easy walk into town from the drop off point, so no need to worry. Use Maps.me if you are unsure. If you have the time, Otavalo and the markets are definitely worth a visit, but maybe try and leave it towards the end of your trip, so you can stock up on lots of goodies and do not have to carry them around with you!
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: Travel on a Friday and stay in Otavalo for the night, so you can get up bright and early and head to the markets before the hordes of tourists arrive on the 9am buses.
Most areas of Otavalo can be explored on foot, or there are plenty of taxis driving around if you did want to go further afield. Make sure the meter is on or negotiate a price before you jump in. Fares start at $2 (€1.70).
The Otavalo markets are famous in Ecuador. They open at 7am and continue on until 6pm, every day. However, the main ‘Market day’ is on Saturday when it is at its busiest, followed closely by Wednesday. Traditional communities gather to sell their handmade goods comprising of textiles, ceramics, woods, leather and so much more. There are plenty of stalls selling delicious delights to eat, as well as stunning hand-woven cloths and beautiful jewellery. You can find a local menu (menu del dia) serving a three-course lunch for as little as $2.50 (€2).
There is a livestock market which runs from the early hours of Saturday morning (6am) until midday. All kind of animals are sold here, including kittens and puppies. It is quite an experience, prepare for lots of commotion and bargaining tactics. Whilst it can be overwhelming at first, it is an incredible sight to witness. Based just outside the centre of Otavalo by the Yana Yacu pools. You can walk here or take a taxi for $1 (€0.90).
Cotacachi is located just outside of Otavalo (5 miles) down the Pan American highway; plenty of taxis will take you there. The town and surrounding communities have one of the highest concentrations of indigenous people in Ecuador, who are so friendly and welcoming. Head to the crater lake of Cuicocha which is located 10 minutes by taxi from Cotacachi. 600 meters up and 600 meters down, the hike is stunning, very well sign posted and well maintained. The views are incredible and at points you feel like you are in a magical mystical flower paradise.
El Tio Hostal (pictured above) is based 6km from Otavalo in a small town called Iluman, which is ideal for those looking to switch off and relax. Whilst I did not stay here, two very dear friends I made on the trip did, and they could not recommend it enough!
Built with all original materials and next to Tio’s (owner) family house, this place is authentic and idyllic. It feels like more of a homestay than a hostel. It is surrounded by nature and upon arrival you will be greeted by cows, cats, chickens, dogs, guinea pigs and more. The cost of a private rooms is only $10 (€9) with a beautiful central campfire to interact with other guests. If you want to explore, there is plenty of nature to get lost in – lush green valleys and waterfalls and only a short walk to the handful of local restaurants. A whole fish with rice and salad only costs $2.50 (€2) each!
Hostal Riviera Sucre is based only 2 streets from the central markets, so it is perfectly located. Whilst a little more expensive than most hostels, it is worth it and the delicious breakfast options actually work out as a super cheap addition. There are no dormitories, but there are options of double bedrooms or a family room which sleep 5 – so you could bunk in with you friends and split the price. With a stunning courtyard garden, lots of light and space and amazing staff, it is a great accommodation option. Price range depending on the room, but budget around $20 (€17) per person per night.
The food at the Otavalo markets is in abundance; there is SO much on offer...
Street and local Food:
- Fried freshwater fish (mostly trout); hornando or roasted pig (displayed as a whole pig), often served with potatoes, corn and salad, fried plantain; hundreds of different fresh fruit and vegetables; meaty stews; freshly baked breads (not the stale bread you often find in the bakeries) and then lots of fresh coconut cut right in front of you and freshly squeezed orange juice - a perfect way to quench your bargain hunting thirst!
- Options include: fruit, bread, grilled plantain, guaba (which looks like sugar snap peas and you can eat the sweet membrane inside - don’t eat the seeds though as apparently they are poisonous!) and sugared peanuts!
** Heading south? Why not check out our travel guides on Mindo, Cuenca, The Secret Garden Cotopaxi and Vilcabamba; two of these places offer some of the BEST and most UNIQUE hostels in Ecuador!