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Wander around Otavalo’s famous indigenous markets, where you will venture into the packed stalls displaying an endless variety of exotic handicrafts and woven goods made by local artisans. Men from the indigenous community can be recognized by their long ponytails and authentic attire whilst women have their hair braided and wear distinct white blouses with long black skirts and bright layered necklaces. On the other end of the spectrum, Otavalo has its fair share of natural wonders likely to tickle your adventurous side.
While the town of Otavalo may not be as overtly enticing as Quito, a traditional charm lingers here and steeps visitors in its distinct mountain flavour. The elevation and isolation have kept the population mostly indigenous, and you’re sure to see plenty of their unique attire along the local streets. If you’re looking for souvenirs, you can have your pick from the overflowing market passageways that boast handmade clothing, jewellery and kitchen utensils, among many other wares.
Otavalo is nestled in the Avenida de los Volcanes, a chain of 70 volcanoes stretching 186 miles along the back of the Andes Mountain Range in northern Ecuador. You’re sure to get a closer look at these smoking giants (27 are still active) on your way to and from Otavalo.
Despite the late popularity of its handiwork among outsiders, Otavalo has had a history of exploitation and struggle that has only recently been improved upon. The pre-Columbian Otavalan people settled in this beautiful valley and harvested many crops from its rich volcanic soil. With the arrival of the Incas in the 1400s came an obligatory tribute to the empire, though it was not nearly as oppressive as the Spanish colonial rule. Textile factories buzzed with indigenous industry until Ecuador’s independence in 1830, when free Otavalans could make their skilled weavings for themselves instead of a foreign overseer. Today, its locals are the most prosperous indígenas of Ecuador. Supplementing the market income is its agricultural economy, offering potatoes, quinoa, beans, cherries, and corn.
There are many enticing things to see and do in and around Otavalo: book a home-stay with a native family, take a drive to the nearby San Pablo or Cuicocha lakes for sweeping mountain vistas, get drenched in the Peguche Waterfall or take a relaxing dip in volcanic hot springs. Learn more about Otavalo’s textile history at the Kichwa Museum or continue your zealous love of mementos in the nearby artist villages.
While the world-class market is available all year round, a particularly memorable time to visit Otavalo would be in early September for Fiesta del Yamor, a harvest festival going back to Inca times. The best corn was ground up and fermented into chicha yamor, a potent beer made from seven varieties of corn. Nowadays, instead of offering chicha to the sun god, it is shared with friends and family during a holiday that has come to represent Otavalo as a community.
You’re sure to be enchanted by this small but unique mountain town that keeps alive the skilled traditions of the past.