Updated May 15th, 2018.
Otavalo is a tiny, but bustling, little town nestled into the hills above Quito, making it an easy weekend diversion from the city. On Saturdays, the town transforms into an enormous marketplace dotted with tiny stalls stuffed to the brim with (mostly) handcrafted goods.
Otavalo is home to South America’s largest handicraft market.
The town itself isn’t much, and the market is decidedly the main attraction. If you are, like any seasoned backpacker, used to haggling in dingy stalls elsewhere, be prepared for something entirely different. The Saturday market is incredibly organized – in fact the entire shebang is laid out on a grid. And while it is clearly oriented towards tourists, there is no denying the utter joy of sifting through the towering stacks of gorgeous woven scarves. My best recommendation is to breeze through the entire market to take in the whole vibrant scene before haggling at all.
Wading through the colors and noise of a marketplace is always intoxicating and Otavalo is no exception. The vendors are mostly indigenous craftsmen and women who live in the surrounding towns and wear traditional wide brimmed hats, white blouses and ponchos. The best finds are woven scarves, large white hammocks, classic backpacker bracelets and purses, jewelry made from local nuts and seedpods, and if you are lucky there are beautiful alpaca rugs and sweaters (personally I’m a fan of the carved wooden gourds for some inexplicable reason).
Places to Stay:
- Hostal Chasqui: Close to the center of town, yet just enough removed from the hustle and bustle to offer tranquility and stellar mountain views. When you’re all shopped out retire back to this cozy hostel and kick back in a hammock on the roof top terrace. Friendly owners, great value, and facilities like laundry and kitchen.
- Otavalo Prince: Smack dab in the center of town, this place is simple yet perfectly practical. Breakfast on the rooftop terrace is the most note worthy perk. Enjoy stellar views, warm cups of coffee, and fire side conversations.
Things to Do:
- Enjoy the Plaza de Ponchos at dusk: Walking throughout the town at the end of the day is enchanting as everyone closes shop for the day and the town grows quiet.
- Haggle in the market on a weekday: If you’re in the mood for a more adventurous outing, I would suggest avoiding the weekend. Weekday markets are less overwhelmed by other tourists, which provides a keen advantage when haggling. It also means that getting off the beaten track is easier, since there are fewer tours preventing you from perusing the town at your own pace.
Beautiful necklaces on sale for less than 3 dollars.
- Take photographs: With such a sea of colorful goods, its hard not to take stunning shots.
- Explore local cathedrals: As with most small South American towns, it is advised to wear modest clothing, especially if you plan on peeking in to a place that is considered sacred.
- Get outside and go exploring: Otavalo offers plenty of reasons to feel the sun on your face, nearby hiking and biking to nearby waterfalls, lakes, and hot springs.
- Stop in to local panderias: Bakeries are plentiful throughout this small town, and the sweet breads are a steal at around 25 cents a pop.
From Quito the trip could not be easier. At the central bus station you can pick up a ticket for just a few dollars that will take you directly to Otavalo. The bus winds up the hills for about two hours, which makes for great window-gazing.
Where to Go Next:
Head for the hills! Otavalo is between Cotacachi and Cayambe two mountains that make for fantastic adventures. Or if you plan on heading north to Colombia, stay the night in Ibarra and then book it to Ipiales the next morning.
Written by: Catherine Oldershaw, a passionate advocate of the importance of travel. Not one to hush her traveler spirit Catherine’s first trip to South America landed her in Ecuador, but she longs to return and explore more. In addition to writing her many talents include; photography, graphic design, and an uncanny ability to make the perfect pancake.