When you take the two-hour bus ride from Quito to the town of Otavalo, make sure you have plenty of extra room in your bag. Even if you’re not a hardened shopper, you’re sure to buy something at Otavalo’s famous market — and probably a lot more than you were anticipating.
Otavalo’s indigenous population, the Otavalos, are renowned for their handicrafts. The local artisans, most of whom still wear distinctive traditional clothing, are craftspeople of the highest level, making and selling textiles, ceramics, wooden carvings, jewelry, leather items and much, much more. This rich market tradition stretches back for hundreds of years, when traders from across the region would gather to sell their wares at this very same location.
Saturday and Wednesday are the main market days. Some tourists, however, prefer to visit outside these main days, when there are fewer vendors but things are far less chaotic (and you’ll still find a huge array of stalls to explore).
If you can tolerate the often poor conditions and the lack of animal rights, it’s also worth visiting the Mercado de Animales. This livestock market takes place every Saturday from 6 a.m. to midday. It’s a heady experience, with a wide variety of animals — cows, pigs, horses, chickens, guinea pigs, ducks, rabbits and more — brought to market.
Stay in Otavalo for a few days and you’ll have time to explore the surrounding area with its lakes, mountains, waterfalls and indigenous villages. Peguche Waterfall is a popular spot just outside of town, as is San Pablo Lake, one of the most visited lakes in Ecuador (rent a kayak if you want to head out on the water).
If you’d like to learn more about the area and its indigenous traditions, don’t miss the Museo del Pueblo Kichwa, a short walk outside of town. The museum is housed in the old San Pedro textile factory, in which indigenous craftsmen were once forced to labor in oppressive conditions. Today it’s a living museum run by the indigenous community, where you can watch local artisans weaving their traditional textiles.
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