From the Quito airport, we hopped in a cab to the Carcelén bus terminal, which services destinations north of the capital city. Once there, Adam and I were shocked by the line to purchase tickets to Otavalo. At the front of the very, very long line there was pushing, shoving, and shouting to get to the ticket counter. One of the locals told us this was a typical scene on a Friday night because weekend trips to the Saturday market are popular. We decided we should stand in line politely and took a hike to the back of the line where we were informed wait times were 2 hours (assuming you could maintain your position once you got closer to the ticket counter). However, after about ten minutes at the back we were greeted with a much more appealing option: take a colectivo and leave immediately. done deal.
On the cozy (16 people filling 10 seats), two-hour ride, we learned that this weekend happened to also be the festival of San Pedro: towns around Otavalo would be having parades and dancing and other festivities all day Saturday, making Otavalo an even busier hub than usual.
We arrived about 8pm and it turned out that most restaurants were either closed or closing, which is how we first found ourselves eating at the night market. We were both happily surprised to learn that each of our dinners (rice, potatoes, eggs, salad, salsa) each cost just one dollar. Yes, $1. This was particularly shocking considering we had just come from $7-9 a plate street food in the Galápagos AND the food in Otavalo was GOOD- flavorful and filling. As accompaniments we also got corn and cheese in a bag, a purple drink called coloda morada (made from fruit, spices, and purple corn flour), and an empanada for dessert because we noticed that most of the locals were doing the same. We weren´t disappointed with our choices.
On to the Saturday market..
It was kind of like a festival all on its own with hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors selling everything from paintings to incense burners, and wool blankets to high heels. Name almost anything and it could probably be found at the market. We were overwhelmed with colors, sounds, smells (good and bad), but it was definitely something to witness and the artisan products were the highlights.
Alas, all the shopping helped us work up an appetite so we opted for the street food again, which was abundant around the market. We discovered and ate grilled plantains, a plateful of roast chicken with sides ($1.50), famous turtle shaped bread loaves, and some intriguing fried dough balls with sugar poured on top. Not to mention a bowl full of ceviche (not made with seafood) for 80 cents, which we highly recommend. Again the street food didn´t disappoint.
While we were walking around all morning we were shocked yet again by the height of many of the natives, some of whom were no taller than Adam´s elbows. We marveled over this while enjoying an Ecuadorian coffee (grown in the Intag region of Ecuador) and a delicious bar of Ecuadorian chocolate made by Hoja Verde (I highly recommend!!)
The rest of the day was spent wandering the market and plotting our next day´s adventure to the Laguna de Cuicocha, and of course we returned to the night market for dinner where we indulged in the ¨dollar menu¨ again. A local beverage called morocho, which is made from a type of corn that shares the name, milk, and sugar, was also available to try. And yes, we made the requisite stop at the panaderia/pasteleria for some dessert too.
Sunday began with a brisk walk to the church where it happened to be communion Sunday; we got to celebrate first communion Ecuadorian style. It is pretty much the same as in the US, but with more chatting and picture taking during the mass. Afterwards it was time to head to Laguna Cuicocha for a hike around this lake which was once used by the indigenous people for religious rituals and is still considered a sacred lake by some of the locals. It is also significant that the lake, which was formed by the collapse of a volcanic crater, sits at the base of the volcano Cotacachi. As the legend goes, this mountain is also known as Maria Isabel Nieves Cotacachi and is the spouse of Taita Imbabura or Manuel Imbabura, another one of the area´s mountains. All of the surrounding hills are said to be the daughters and sons of these two mountains.
The hike around the lake on the Sendero Los Orquideas (orchid path) provided awesome views and helped us to come up with our own explanation of the short stature of the natives (no offense to any Ecuadorians). As it turned out, hiking at altitude (the path starts at 3,100 meters and reaches 3,500 meters at its highest point) was easier when we were lower to the ground, at least for us Illinois prairie dogs. Our hypothesis is that the short stature of the Andean people is an adaptation to the altitude, but we´re no scientists. (For other more scientific theories see Three High Altitude Peoples).
After many stops to enjoy the scenery and to catch our breath, we made it around the lake path just under the suggested 4 hour time frame. If you have some extra time in Otavalo region, we recommend this beautiful hike. If hiking doesn´t sound appealing, there is also a boat ride available around the lake and a few information centers about the lake and the surrounding Cotacachi Coyapas Ecological Reserve.
The weekend ended with a snapshot of the dancing and parading of the San Pedro festival in the town of Cotacachi before we muscled our way onto the bus back to Otavalo and enjoyed another round of delicious street food.