Home to one of South America’s best markets, and surrounded by open countryside and towering mountains, Otavalo is a must-visit town in Ecuador.
The highland town of Otavalo is best known for its famous traditional market where, for hundreds of years, people have come from all over the Andes to trade and pick up locally produced goods such as pottery, garments, fruits and spices. Today, the sprawling array of vendors, stands, and merchants are as much for the benefit of visiting tourists as for the indigenous Andean population, though it's just as colourful and hectic as ever!
This rich creative heritage is owed to the indigenous locals of Otavalo, who have been skilled craftspeople for hundreds of years – even before the arrival of the Incas. And this craftsmanship is not just concentrated in the main town of Otavalo, but spreads out around nearby villages too: such as Cotacachi, known for its leather products, and Peguche, a hub for handwoven textiles. Visit Otavalo and these surrounding communities to explore workshops and see the experts at work; it’s a fascinating insight into these ancient handicraft traditions.
Outside of Otavalo, you’ll find rolling hills, lush forests, waterfalls, world-class haciendas, and plenty of activity offerings too. The expansive though rugged terrain of the region is wonderfully scenic, with picturesque lakes making way for sharp cliffs and volcanic peaks – including the 4,630m-high Imbabura Volcano. The wider province of Imbabura in which Otavalo sits is also known for the range of working haciendas and horse ranches which punctuate the landscape; we highly recommend staying a few days to get a full and authentic experience of this wild and beautiful place.
The street market of Otavalo is possibly the most famous in South America, a bustling bazaar spilling out from the Plaza de los Ponchos that has been a focal point for merchants and buyers alike over many hundreds of years. Whether on the hunt for a bargain or not, the visual spectacle that is Otavalo Market is worth a visit for the photo opportunities alone; note that the biggest market days are Saturday and Wednesday, but is open every day of the week.
The blissful still waters of Laguna Cuicocha paints a picture of pure, natural serenity. The dark blue lagoon is fed by both fresh and thermal heated water, creating a welcoming habitat for many aquatic species and marine plants. The views of the lake are stunning, and to hike around the shore is a real joy, making Laguna Cuicocha an absolute must during any visit to the region.
Highland horseback riding
What better way to explore this picturesque part of the country than during a relaxing horseback ride? Horse riding is a long tradition in Ecuador, reserved not just for the working haciendas of the Highlands but a recreational pastime enjoyed by many.