By Marc Booysen
Ecuador is a country with many choices
Ecuador, despite its small size, is one of the most biodiverse countries in Latin America. Just think of the Andes, Amazon, Galapagos and the coastal regions. Not to mention the cloud forests. Ecuador has it all. So, you will find it difficult to see everything if you spend two weeks traveling this beautiful country. With a tight schedule, you may need to make some hard choices on where you should go with your meager time. So if you are a person that enjoys adventure, and discovering new cultures, then head to Otavalo. Otavalo is a one and a half hour journey north of Quito and lies between green farmlands, towering volcanoes, and crater lagoons. I love to visit this region and always leave with a feeling that I need to return and explore more. So here goes, my top 5 reasons why you should visit Otavalo in Ecuador.
Reason #1: You love to hike around beautiful lagoons
You will find two of Ecuador’s most beautiful lagoons within a 30 minute drive from Otavalo. Thanks to the past volcanic activity of Lagunas de Mojandas and Laguna de Cuicocha, you will discover pristine wildernesses rich in flora and fauna. Cuicocha has a warmer climate and a large variety of colorful wild flowers like orchids can be found on the rim of the crater. Located at a higher altitude, the hills and ridges of Lagunas de Mojandas are filled with spiky alpine shrubs common to alpine regions. You will enjoy hiking around these lagoons. It is quiet, with nothing to hear except the lapping of the water on the shoreline and the calling of the birds.
Reason #2: You want to climb a volcano in Ecuador
Like me, if you are a mountaineer, then Otavalo will not disappoint you. High volcanoes dominate the town on all sides and none are more prominent than Imbaburra. From San Pablo, one can get great views of Imabaurra across the lake and access is reasonably easy. The climb to the summit (4630m) takes a full day of hiking (and a bit of easy scrambling).
A slightly bigger peak is the striking Volcán Cotacachi located near Laguna de Cuicocha. Its summit pierces the sky at almost 4950m in altitude and is often capped in snow. Volcán Cotacachi is a challenging peak and is recommended for mountaineers with technical climbing experience.
If your heart is set on climbing a volcano in Ecuador but you lack climbing experience, then try Volcán Fuya Fuya. You start the ascent from Lagunas de Mojandas at 3800m and walk for two hours to the summit on a safe path. From the summit at 4200m, you can see as far as Cotopaxi in the south.
Reason #3: You enjoy cultural interactions
Over half the population of Otavalo is Quichua and they follow customs that have been passed down from their ancestors. They are internationally known for their folk music and their hand woven textile crafts. The Quichua are a proud nation and you will easily identify them as they are always resplendent in their traditional attire. In Otavalo and Cotacachi, they organize themselves into communities where they can preserve their heritage for future generations. Spend a day or two visiting these communities and their warmth and friendliness will touch you. Interesting customs which you can learn is their use of plants for medicinal purposes and their cleansing ceremonies using el cuy (or guinea pig). Don’t ask me to explain – its best you find this one out for yourself 🙂
Reason #4: You appreciate arts and crafts
Of course you have heard about the Otavalo market. Who hasn’t? This market has put the Otavalo region on the map and is one of the biggest in South America. But have you heard of Peguche? In this neighborhood, the locals weave rugs, jerseys, scarves and other items using only handmade techniques. Weavers can take up to one month working eight hours each day to make a single rug. They hand wash the wool and alpaca hair in the local rivers and then dye the fabric with natural berries and flower petals. Take the time and watch them work and you will develop a deep appreciation for their art and ingenuity.
Reason #5: You want to savor a local delicacy
In Otavalo, the local delicacy is fritada! It is the traditional dish of the region and my personal favorite. The locals make fritada by cooking chunks of pork in a big brass pan with water and various spices. Once the pork has absorbed all the water, it basically fries in its own fat leaving it crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. In Otavalo, fritada is served with tostado (toasted corn), slices of avocado, platana, corn and fresh salsa. This dish will satisfy the biggest and most discerning of appetites!
Another interesting dish or should I say ceremony is the Pachamanka and dates back to the Incan times. The locals cook meat or chicken with organic vegetables in a pit filled with hot volcanic rocks. They cover the pit with large leaves, and layer it with earth. The food cooks for around 40 minutes while much dancing and celebration goes on. No oils or fats are added so the food tastes natural. It is quite something to partake in and an experience that you will never forget.
So there you have it – my 5 top reasons why you should visit Otavalo in Ecuador. You won’t leave disappointed. The natural beauty of the region and the people will satiate you appetite for adventure and culture. Trust me 😉