3 Best Things to Do in Otavalo, Ecuador
Otavalo is a famous market town in the north of Ecuador sitting 2500 meters above sea level surrounded by lush green hills. We've created a travel guide on the best three things to do in Otavalo including the Saturday market, Laguna Cuicocha hike, and Peguche waterfall.
Before traveling to Otavalo, our first destination in Ecuador after crossing borders from Colombia, we had heard many stories saying that Otavalo is the must-visit place in Ecuador famous for the traditional market, breathtaking Andes Mountains, paramo landscape, caldera lakes, waterfalls and volcanoes surrounding the town.
Then, we heard stories about Otavalos, the indigenous population of proud people who still respect their customs and traditions.
But when you travel for a longer time, you hear stories like this quite often, set your expectations high only to find out later that the place is not that great as you've been told. But we were not disappointed by Otavalo at all.
We spent here three nights and had enough time to see and do all the best things Otavalo and its surroundings has to offer.
As we crossed borders from Colombia, we experienced a cultural shock in Otavalo as we arrived in almost the most indigenous part of South America.
Otavalo is nearly 40 000 town, but most of the inhabitants still wear traditional dress, hats, and men wear long braided hairs - it is so authentic - much more authentic than the traditional market, that we could have walked in the Otavalo's streets all day long only to watch people and their colorful appearance.
Apart from people watching, and enjoying perfect sunsets from our room, we had enough time to explore the market, hike to Laguna Cuicocha and walk to Peguche Waterfall - these were for us the best things to do in Otavalo!
The traditional and largest indigenous market in South America is the top attraction and the main reason to visit Otavalo.
There are a few things to know before your visit, though. You need to set your expectations, especially if this will be your first-time trip to a South American market, to get the most of your trip.
First, for the past several years this has been a tourist market. If you are expecting a completely authentic experience, you won't find it here, and you might be disappointed. What you will find here is a huge selection of handicrafts, arts, ponchos, shawls, sweaters, and other products, with great price tags.
Bear in mind, that little of the products are now hand made even though the sellers will tell you the opposite. On the other hand, products sold on the market are colorful and pretty, and there is nothing wrong with buying them, only make sure you know what you pay for.
Second, and this is good news, unlike some other markets in Ecuador, this one is open every day so you can arrive any day of the week, and don't have to schedule your visit on a specific day.
However, and now here comes the most important part, on Saturday, the market spreads out from the main square called Plaza de Ponchos to nearby streets and occupies the whole central part of the town. You can easily walk several blocks from the main square and still find stalls and vendors. The market and especially indigenous people of Otavalo are incredibly photogenic, so it is worth it to walk around with a camera in hand (take photos respectfully and ask first for permission) even when you do not want to buy anything.
And one more thing. The prices are very flexible, haggling is expected, and if you know a little bit of Spanish, it can be fun and you might develop your bargaining skills.
One of the best places to spend some relaxing time in Otavalo, if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the town is Peguche Waterfall.
The waterfall is only 45 minutes walk from the town center, so there is no need to catch a taxi or bus to get there if you want to stretch your legs a bit, but there is an option to take public transport in case you don't feel like walking, the bus ride costs $0.30. These impressive falls are located in a beautiful setting and just a short walk from the entrance where you need to write down your name in a book and pay a voluntary entrance fee (it is customary to pay $1 or $2). From the gate, the well-maintained trail will take you through eucalyptus tree forest to the falls.
Upon reaching the falls, you can first walk to the viewpoint on the left side, then come back, cross a small bridge, and take the path on your right for the best and closer view. If you want to get a picture in front of the waterfall, be prepared that you'll get wet. You might notice a couple of wooden houses next to the waterfall - there is a small artisan museum.
But that's not all, and here comes the best part. There is one more path on the right side when facing the waterfall. Via this path, you can climb above the waterfall where you will find a small cave. You can crawl through a low and narrow dark passage to emerge in a stunning cave with yet another waterfall.
On the way back it is possible to return to the entrance via a different trail which you will see on your left. First, you will see a concrete pool where you can take a refreshing dip and then cross a high suspension bridge and carry on to the exit.
The hike around Cuicocha Lake, one of the most beautiful crater lakes in the area, was our favorite hike near Otavalo, but there are many more trails to explore in case trekking and admiring the hilly landscape is your thing.
If you are visiting the town and want to explore Otavalo beyond the market Cuicocha Lake would be your best choice.
The word ‘cuicocha’ means in indigenous Kichwa language lake of guinea pigs, because of the shape of the islands in the middle of the lake. Well, maybe if you have a more vivid imagination that we have, you'll find it there.
The trek starts above 3 000 meters, and the highest point on the trail is 3 512 meters.
The trail is easily accessible from Otavalo and moderately difficult. All you need to do is catch a bus from the bus terminal to Cotacachi ($0.35), and then take a taxi to the Cuicocha Crater Lake ($5-6), you can also hail a taxi in Otavalo, but that would cost you more. Before you go hiking, tell the taxi driver to pick you up after the hike. To give you an idea of how much time you need, the whole loop around the caldera took us approximately 5 hours, but we took many pictures, stopped often and enjoyed the sunny day and amazing views. It's 14 km, so if you are fairly fit, you can do it in 3 hours.
If you would like to get closer to the water surface, there is a possibility to rent a boat, but we believe that views are better from the rim above than from the water surface, but this is absolutely an option for those who cannot or don't want to walk the whole circuit.
If you do not have enough of paramo landscape, we feel you. We were absolutely stunned by paramo in Colombia where we trekked in Los Nevados National Park, so hiking to Lagunas de Mojanda is another way how to spend your day in Otavalo actively.
Day Tour from Quito
If you are short on time, but still want to visit Otavalo, its market and see the surrounding Andes Mountains, you can join a guided day-tour from Quito.
It is a popular way for all travelers who hadn't planned their Ecuador itinerary that far north.
HOW TO GET TO OTAVALO
Getting to Otavalo is quite easy as frequent buses leave the town throughout the day to the capital city of Quito, you don't need to buy a ticket in advance, it is enough to show up at the bus terminal.
If you are traveling to any other destination past Quito, you will have to change buses and in most cases bus terminals as well. If you are traveling to Otavalo after border crossing from Colombia, your first destination behind borders will be a small town Tulcan from where you need to take a direct bus to Otavalo.
You can read a full post on how to cross borders from Colombia to Ecuador or vice-versa here.
We felt safe in Otavalo during the day and were not afraid to carry our camera in hand.
At night, it's still safe to walk and enjoy the atmosphere, but we would keep valuables in the hotel room. When visiting the local market, look out for pickpockets.
WHERE TO STAY IN OTAVALO
There is quite many hostels and hotels in Otavalo, but they fill up quickly, especially on Friday, one night before the main market day, and on Saturday as well, so when visiting the city during these days, reserve your room in advance to secure the best rate.
Budget | Hostal La Rosa Otavalo - The location is great, only two blocks from the main square, the staff friendly, the rooms are big and clean.
Mid-range | Hotel El Indio Inn - Perfect location for exploring all major sights, hot shower, clean rooms, and helpful staff.
Luxury | Dona Esther Otavalo - A charming hotel in the center of Otavalo, good breakfast and tasty food, excellent clean rooms, and a roof garden with amazing views.
Alternatively, search for your accommodation via Hostelworld.
TRAVEL INSURANCE - SIMPLE & FLEXIBLE
We never leave our home without travel insurance which is designed to help cover your expenses if something goes wrong on your trip. World Nomads Travel Insurance has been designed by travelers for travelers, to cover your trip essentials.
Travel smarter and safer!