For $2, I took a bus 2.5 hours north of Quito to spend a week hanging out (and getting over my altitude sickness) in the town of Otavalo, located at an altitude of 2565m in the Northern Andes. I wasn’t going to lose any altitude in a hurry! Buses go about every 20 minutes so as soon as I had bought my ticket and lugged my pack to the kerb, it was already time to board the just-arrived bus and head back over the equator 90km to the north.
Buses in Ecuador are brightly coloured and unlike Mexico where religious sentiment is usually displayed on the front dash and the divider between the driver and the passengers, in Ecuador it’s emblazoned across the windscreen – generally in orange or red 60pt font. What did surprise me was the amount of dust! There seems to be a lot of excavation going on – in fact one valley we travelled through had 3/4 of the cutting in the hillside covered in what looked to be a green polymer. Presumably to stop further erosion…
Otavalo lies in a valley and is surrounded by is home to a world-famous Saturday market, and Otavaleños are famous for their handcrafts – predominantly weaving and textiles. Most of the locals dress traditionally – men in felt hats (in a plastic bag when it rains), white mid-calf length cotton pants, blue or black ponchos and a long ponytail or single plait. Women also wear their hair in a single plait, wrapped in colourful material at the top and then left loose at the bottom. They wear frilly, embroidered white blouses, long black skirts, sometimes headscarves and gold layered necklaces.
Like in Oaxaca, the main town of Otavalo is surrounded by different communities – each with their own special craft or activity. I took a tour where we visited several different communities which was a great way to learn more about this area. We visited community of San Rafael, at the edge of San Pablo lake. Around the lake grows the ´totora´ plant, a reed used by the talented community to make mats, baskets and different types of handicrafts.
The community of Cotacachi is famous for its leatherwork, where for hundreds of years they have been making leather products. It took me a hour to walk down Leather Street – a distance of about 6 blocks with leather shops shoulder to shoulder. So many wallets, bags, jackets and boots made out of the softest leather. If only I wasn’t backpacking!
We took a boat ride around the islands (lava domes) in Cuicocha Lake, which I found is actually a volcanic crater. Nothing lives in the lake as it is highly alkaline, smelling strongly of sulphur, and with bubbles constantly ascending from the bottom of the lake.
Being so high in the Andes, I have got the feeling that I could just jump up and touch clouds here, they float just above you like wispy banners. Strangely it is also not as cold as I expected, I have been wearing just a t-shirt most days, but the locals wear wool, fleece and many many layers. A friend here told me the longer you spend here, the colder you will become – like acclimatising in reverse. It’s also pretty easy to return at the end of the day with a nice tan as you are closer to the sun. I am happy I decided to spend a week here instead of just coming for the market on Saturday. It’s allowed me to get to know the area a little bit, and to enjoy the hospitality and warmth of Otavalo.