This Otavalo Ecuador Travel Guide and Video includes:
1. Otavalo Top 10 Things to Do
2. Otavalo Accommodations
3. Best Otavalo Restaurants
4. Best Otavalo Nightlife
5. Otavalo Money Saving Tips
6. Otavalo Safety and Health Risks
7. Otavalo Livability Factors
8. Otavalo Cost of Living
9. Final Thoughts on Otavalo
Update: March 6, 2018, by Dan of Vagabond Buddha. This site contains affiliate links. If you use the links to buy something, you pay nothing extra, but we make a small commission.
I heard about Otavalo, Ecuador from Will, one of my American real estate investor friends. Will is one of the few people I know personally who has traveled to more countries than I. So when he speaks about the charms of a country, I listen. I met Will many moons ago when I moved from California to Arizona to buy and sell homes. During that time, I made enough money flipping houses that I was finally able to go to college. I continued flipping houses during engineering and law school. I met Will on a real estate deal and we really hit it off. We both love to travel internationally and to buy real estate cheap. So we never run out of things to talk about.
Will told me about the beautiful green rolling hills, the bubbling lake filled volcanoes, the cheap prices, and the warm-hearted people of Ecuador. So after 6 weeks in Columbia, Qiang Hui and I headed south and crossed into Ecuador to see this magical place. As usual, Will was right about everything.
We flew from Santa Marta, Colombia, to Pasto Colombia, and took a chicken bus to the Ecuadorian border. We saved about $500 on our flights by flying to Pasto and walking over the border instead of flying over the border to Quito. Plus we were able to see the Las Lajas Sanctuary near the border crossing. Go to the border at 7 am, otherwise, you will spend the whole day in line.
After we crossed the border into Ecuador, we took a taxi ($5 USD) to the Tulcan Autobus Terminal (Terminal Terrestre). The bus from Tulcan to Otavalo was $8 per person and the bus took about 4 hours to get to Otavalo. There are buses headed to Otavalo about every 30 minutes. Make sure to clear immigration early so you can see the landscape between Tulcan and Otavalo. This will be the most beautiful bus ride you ever take. Sit at a window that opens because you won’t want any glass between the landscape and your camera lens.
If you are just in Quito for 3-5 days, I recommend taking one of the GetYourGuide (Otavalo) or Viator (Otavalo) tours. They will pick you up from Quito and drop you off in Quito after a full day of exploring Otavalo. They also have multi-day tours if time permits. If you have even more time, I suggest taking a week or two exploring both Otavalo and Quito.
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Otavalo Top 10 Things to Do
I have put these top 10 in order of my favorites. If time is an issue for you, I would visit them in this order. The various GetYourGuide or Viator Tours will offer assorted combinations of these recommendations.
Old Town (Otavalo): From the Plaza de los Ponchos (Saturday Market Plaza), walk southwest on Calle Sucre towards Simon Bolivar Plaza (Park). Once at Simon Bolivar Park, after enjoying the scenery, then walk from the northeast corner of Simon Bolivar Park back towards Plaza de los Ponchos along Calle Bolivar. After one block, take a right and go two blocks to see Iglesia San Jordan Church. Then head back to Calle Bolivar and continue to Plaza de los Ponchos. This walk will give you a pretty good feel for this charming Old Town.
Simon Bolivar Park: Like all towns in Ecuador, there is a central park where everyone goes to eat street food and people watch. Many of these central parks are named after the revolutionary, Simon Bolivar, who helped free much South America from Spain. I visited one of the largest memorials and final resting place of Simon Bolivar in my Santa Marta Colombia Travel Guide and Video. While in Simon Bolivar park in Otavalo, make sure to walk into the surrounding buildings to get a feel for colonial architecture and life. You can’t miss this the Otavalo City Hall and the Santuario del Senor de las Angustias Catholic Church Make sure to go back at sunset and take pictures as the city lights replace the sun.
Saturday Market: Make sure to be in Otavalo for the Saturday Market. We arrived on a Sunday, but thankfully, we stayed after the following Saturday. So we got to see the Saturday Market. We were amazed at the size of the market. On most days the market is centered on Plaza de los Ponchos, with very little spill over into the surrounding streets. But on Saturday, it seems like 30-40% of Otavalo is filled with booths of people selling arts and crafts. It is so full, cars can drive in the market area. I was also surprised that most of the arts and crafts sold are made in Ecuador. A good portion is slowly transforming to copies made in China, but Ecuadorian arts and crafts are still the majority. When I read this is the largest crafts market in South America, I was going to call bullshit. But now I see it could be the largest. I am not really a consumer, so I only bought a hat. As year-round travelers, who don’t go home after a month or two, we just don’t have room in our luggage. We loved seeing all the colors being sold by the original people of Ecuador.
Cotacachi: This is a smaller but possibly even more charming version of Otavalo. Grab a taxi from Otavalo to Cotacachi for $5 or a local bus for 50 cents. It is about 20 minutes by Taxi. Cotacachi is known regionally for leather. If it can be made of leather, there is a good chance you will find it in Cotacachi. Walk along Leather Street (Calle 10 de Agosto) in Cotacachi, and stop along the way if you please. There are restaurants, art galleries, bars, coffee houses, and leather shops. When you see Simon Bolivar street, head northeast two blocks until you reach Parque Abdon Calderon. When you turn onto Simon Bolivar from Leather Street, you will start to see colonial-era buildings. The area around Parque Abdon Calderon is gorgeous. The large church on the square is called Cathedral La Matiz, go inside if it is open. Finally, visit the Museo de las Culturas. If you are facing the church, the Museo de las Culturas is on the left side of the church. It is free and has a nice random sampling of history, clothes, and culture of the original people in the area.
Laguna Cuicocha: This is a crater lake in the middle of an active volcano. This is a good place to visit in combination with Cotacachi Town. We took a taxi to Laguna Cuicocha for $10 USD from Otavalo. While there, we took a boat ride on the lake for $3.50 USD per person. The boat ride took us around the islands in the middle of that lake that are slowly rising from pressure below. He also showed us sulfur bubbles rising from the bottom of the lake from the pressure below. Statistically, you know that it is unlikely that the crater will erupt while you are in the lake, but you are still present to the fear. You can also hike around the lake which we are told takes about 2 hours. From the boat dock, we hiked just far enough counter-clockwise to get some great pictures of the lake. Next, we took a taxi to Cotacachi for $5 USD.
Candor Park: Next, grab a taxi to the Condor Park in Otavalo. This is a predatory bird sanctuary. They have many species there that are recuperating from various injuries. They have the American Eagle, the Ecuador Condor, and many hawks and owls. It was amazing to see these birds so close yet free to fly away whenever they are ready. The sanctuary is high in the mountains above Otavalo, so the view is spectacular. You watch these majestic birds spread their wings and fly during an exhibition. A taxi is cost $4 USD each way, and the entrance ticket was $3.75 USD per person. There is an exhibition at 11:30 AM and 3:30 PM daily. When you are heading back to Otavalo, share a taxi with others to save money and make a new friend. The sanctuary staff will call a taxi for you since there is no cell service that high up the mountain. Also, there is a nice cafe there so you can enjoy the view with some hot organic tea and a snack, before heading back to Otavalo.
Otavalo People: The indigenous people of Otavalo have survived despite difficult periods of Inca and Spanish invasions. Their population decreased from about 200,000 to 30,000 due to the introduction of European diseases and deathly labor camps run by the Catholic Church. Their population is stable now and they have one of the highest standards of living among the indigenous people of South America. They are easily recognized by their traditional clothing. It is fun to just walk around town and see them enjoying their lives. Saturday market is a great place to see them making and selling crafts.
Street Art and Flowers: Like most of Ecuador, there is some really beautiful street art all around Otavalo and very colorful flowers. When the two are near each other, it can be a spectacular sight. Just go for long walks around town and take pictures when you see beautiful flowers or street art.
Peguche Waterfall: These waterfalls are a short taxi ride from Otavalo and you can be in and out in under 2 hours. The taxi was $3 USD each way. There is also a nice short hike here and some nice scenery.
Laguna Mojanda: These are three lakes about 40 minutes away from Otavalo by Taxi. No buses go here. We were able to hire a taxi to take us there and back. We paid $30 including everything, going there and back to Otavalo, for 3 hours. That gave us about 1.5 hours to hike around and take pictures. We read online to go early in the morning to avoid the fog that moves over the lake in the afternoon. We had a late start so we only had about 40 minutes before the fog covered the lakes and we headed home. So take the advice and go early. The lakes are at about 3700 meters elevation. Dress appropriately for the colder weather at this elevation. The drive was some of the best scenery imaginable. Since we left early, we had time to ask the driver to stop along the way so we could take photos.
Best Otavalo Accommodations
Almost everything interesting in Old Town Otavalo is within 1 kilometers of this park (Simon Bolivar Park). So book within 8 blocks so you are not walking too far at night or paying for taxis. Everyone seems to have a different style and comfort level so I won’t try to convince you where to stay. Here are four great choices!
- Luxury Hotel ($60 night: High Quality, Best Location, and Otavalo Styles)
- Character and Quality ($25, nice place for the money, location, location, location)
- Clean Hostel ($12 night, the best location, clean, nice, accommodations)
- Apartment Where We Stayed: ($17 night, 2 bedrooms, kitchen, living room)
Once you have selected where you want to stay, then use HotelsCombined to find the agency offering the lowest booking price for that property. Just insert the property name and dates and it will return the name of the agency offering the lowest nightly rate for that property.
Best Otavalo Restaurants
We weren’t really that impressed with the food we were served in restaurants in Otavalo. The good news was that we had a fully equipped kitchen and I love to cook healthy food. Here are a few of the restaurants where we had some fairly decent, though not spectacular, meals.
La Cosecha Coffee: This is a high-quality coffee shop that has decent sandwiches and pastries. The problem is, the prices are about the same as you would expect to pay in the USA or Europe. But sometimes you just need your fix from home.
Balcon de Imbabura: This Mexican place is one door north of the above coffee shop. They have both meat and vegetarian options and they both serve breakfast lunch and dinner. The food is decent and the prices are only a little higher than a normal Ecuadorian restaurant. They also have beer and cocktails and a view overlooking the Saturday market. They have a balcony on the second floor.
Restaurant Buena Vista: This is western style food. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner and their prices are about 30% higher than local Ecuadorian food.
Street Food: We ate in several local food restaurants while we were in Otavalo. The meals are fairly cheap in local restaurants. Breakfast is about $3 USD, lunch is about $3.50 USD, and Dinner is about $7 USD. I don’t really have any I want to recommend. The local food in restaurants is not really any better than the local street food. You can get nice street food in Otavalo for $1 to $3 USD. We never got sick either, so why pay $7 for dinner when you can pay $2.50 USD? My only local food tip is to try the Locro de Papa. It is a potato soup and I loved it. I never really got a bad bowl of the stuff, whether I ate it in restaurants or street food. Try the food carts in Plaza de los Ponchos.
Best Otavalo Nightlife
Otavalo has a small town nightlife. If you are looking for a crazy nightlife, this may not be the best place for you. For that, check out Quito or Guayaquil. But here are a few places where you can go out at night and people watch.
Simon Bolivar Park: Locals go to the town square and people watch. Grab an ice cream and sit on a bench at the town square and watch the sunset. The characters walking around this town plaza are fun to watch.
Cava Caran: Try the craft beers and burgers.
Amauta Pena Bar: Catch some live music played by a local indigenous band.
Walking: Just walk around Old Town and if you hear some music, follow your ears. This doesn’t work every night, but it is worth a try.
Otavalo Money Saving Tricks
SIM Card: Turn off your cell phone and pull out your home SIM card before boarding your flight. When you land, buy an Ecuador SIM card for $5 and add 2GB of internet data for $15 USD for a month. If you ROAM with your home cell phone you will get screwed. You will need to unlock your phone before leaving your home country.
Transportation: I already explained how to get to Otavalo by bus from Columbia. Most people travel to Otavalo from Quito. The Taxis are cheap in Quito and Uber is also available there. To get to Otavalo from Quito, take a taxi to Terminal Norte Carcelén in the north of Quito. From there, you can catch a bus heading to Otavalo every hour or so.
Onward Flights: Some airlines won’t let you board your flight to Ecuador unless you have proof of a ticket leaving Ecuador. This can be a problem if you buy one-way tickets like I do. Onward Flight Tip: Book a ticket on Orbitz leaving Ecuador. They will let you cancel the ticket if you do it within 24 hours. Book right before jumping on your flight and cancel when you land.
Otavalo Safety and Health Risks
Ecuador feels really safe to us. Of course, we spent 6 weeks in Colombia before coming to Ecuador so maybe our expectations are a bit skewed. We felt safe riding in Taxis and walking around Otavalo at night. I honestly felt just as safe here as I do in the average neighborhood in the USA.
You should check the Center for Disease Control (CDC) before boarding your flight to Ecuador and make sure you are up to date on all of the recommended vaccinations. The vaccinations they recommend will vary depending on where you are going in Ecuador. In particular, if you should see if you need a yellow fever shot. That shot must be administered 10 days before you head to high-risk areas.
Otavalo Livability Factors
Walkability: Otavalo Old Town is a perfectly walkable town in the general sense. It is only when you exit the Old Town area that we jumped in a taxi. As usual, no matter where you are in the world, don’t walk down empty dark streets at night. In general stay out of situations where you are isolated.
Internet: We stayed in a 2 bedroom apartment and the Internet was great until around 4pm. When people came home from work at 5pm and jumped online, the Internet was unworkable. I just started waking at 4am to get my online work down before the locals were up in the morning.
Food Costs (Grocery): You can save money in Otavalo by cooking at home, no doubt. Food costs from the grocery store are about 35% cheaper than the USA. That is why I rent an apartment when I travel.
Weather: The weather in Otavalo is cold to cool, but hardly ever warm or hot. (+5C to +16C/+41F to 61F). There is a chance of rain most of the year, but it never seems severe enough to change plans if you have an umbrella or a raincoat. It reminded me of Portland, Oregon in that way. Otavalo is at 2500 meters (8200 feet) above sea level. That is why it remains so cool even though it is at the Equator. Always wear sunblock 30+ even when it is overcast. Wear sunblock and a hat even when you intend to only walk on the shady side of the street. A combination of being at the equator and so far above sea level is very dangerous to exposed skin.
Otavalo Cost of Living
Below is the estimated cost of living one month in Otavalo as a temporary visitor. Many of the costs could be reduced greatly as a long-term visitor. For example, we saw 1 bedroom furnished apartments for $250.00 per month.
|Cost of Living, Otavalo, Ecuador ($USD)|
|1 Bedroom Apt||$25.00||0||14||30|
|High End Restaurant||$12.00||1||4||8|
For more information about how the above “Cost of Living Monthly Multiplier” works, please visit the bottom of this page at Vagabond Buddha. It does not include alcohol, excursions, or extras, and it is for one person.
Final Thoughts on Otavalo
I really loved Otavalo. The beautiful green rolling hills and warm-hearted people really won me over. People always laugh at me because I say that I love everywhere. It is true that I love this amazing planet, but very few places have such a great combination of people and nature. I suppose I am more of a city person, but when you experience such a beautiful place out in the middle of nowhere, and the people have such a great attitude, the country life becomes very tempting. Now we are headed to Quito, the capital of Ecuador.
The world is your home. What time will you be home for dinner?
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