Situated in the northern highlands of Ecuador, in the Imbabura Province, is the region of Otavalo and the indigenous Otavalo town – one of the best cultural and natural hot spots in the country, and perhaps the most important mainland attraction after the Amazon rainforest. There are many countless surprises the Awakening Valley has to offer: beautiful lakes, Indian villages, high peaks and natural reserves all amidst the backdrop of the most breathtaking Andean scenery. The spring-like climate found there making it an ideal destination all year round.
Perhaps what the Otavalo region is best known for is the extraordinary textiles and handicrafts of its Otavalo Market—the oldest and largest Indian handicrafts market in all South America—famous for its typical leather, wood, weaving and dough markets. Saturday is the biggest and most ideal market day for both visitors and locals alike, where you will find the many produce markets and the locally-produced handicrafts and quality textiles the region is so famous for. Andean pipe music, endless rows of colorful textiles, herbal remedies and wall hangings, tropical fruits and cuyes (roasted guinea pig—an Ecuadorian delicacy) all spill from the main square across the town. As the locals do business much the way their ancestors did, this makes for an authentic experience of traditional Ecuadorian culture and Andes traditions. It is largely due to this economic success that Latin America’s most prosperous and possibly most famous indigenous group, the Otavaleños, easily recognizable still today for their distinctive dress (intricately-embroidered blouses and beads; calf-length trousers and ponchos), have managed to preserve their centuries-old traditions. But the Otavaleños are rumored to have been a talented and successful people even as far back as before the Inca invasion.
Outside in the countryside of the larger Imbabura region, where the true Andean scenery comes alive, great opportunities for exploration and activity abound, including horseback riding, mountain biking, climbing, trekking, hiking, sailing, a visit to a hacienda or an Indian village. The majority of the Otavaleños live in some 75 different communities outside Otavalo, many of which sell their own crafts such as the Peguche Indian community that still weaves on the traditional back-strap loom, a true art form, or the artisan centers of Cotacachi, famous for its quality leather goods, and San Antonio de Ibarra for its woodcarvings.
A visit to San Pablo Lake is a must. This beautifully lush alternative surrounded by water, mountains and the Imbabura volcano is just ten minutes south of Otavalo. Spend time on the water, or take to Imbabura’s slopes. Indigenous and mestizo populations can be found around the lake, in addition to excellent restaurants and hotels.
A popular visit is Laguna Cuicocha, a stunning crater lake situated at the foot of Cotacachi Volcano. Hike the 1.9 mile wide brim (about a 3-4 hour hike) or take a boat around the 3 verdant domes emerging from its depths, formed some 3,000 years ago.