Otavalo: Culture and Volcanoes

Otavalo market

After breakfast in Tumbaco and our welcome meeting Leo our guide introduced us to Wilson who would be our driver for the first week of this trip. As our group was fairly small with just 8 travellers, our comfortable 17-ish seater mini bus enabled plenty of room to spread around.

Our destination was north towards the little Andean town of Otavalo. We left Tumbaco and soon we were driving through diverse craggy mountainous landscapes. It wasn’t long before we stopped en-route to try something new! These were chirimoyas or commonly known as ‘custard apples’ which had a sweet apple custard like flavour.

Getting to Otavalo involved crossing the equator line and this was marked by a small attraction called Quitsato Sundial. We were given an interesting presentation of the tilt of the Earth, the equinox and the solstice lines and the way of viewing the world in two halves.


Quitsato Sundial

The equator passes through 13 countries around the world which are: Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Sao Tome & Principe, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Maldives, Indonesia and Kiribati.

Me with one foot in the north hemisphere and one in the south

This the official point of the middle of the Earth with co-ordinates 00-00-00 (or thereabouts).

We continued towards Otavalo, travelling via the E35, Ecuador’s section of the 8,000 mile Pan American Highway, the worlds longest road which extends for 30,000 km from Alaska to Ushuaia. Chris and I have travelled along sections of this previously, for example driving between Guatemala City and Antigua in Guatemala.

Otavalo

We arrived in sunny Otavalo just before lunchtime and had an hour to look around the town and its colourful market. My new friend Aimee and I wandered around the market stalls which were fairly quiet as this time coincided with Ecuador’s opening match of the world cup!

Otavalo market

Otavalo has around 50,000 inhabitants so is a reasonably sized town and is famous for its textiles and large population of indigenous people.

Otavalo market
Vegan cerviche

Soon it was time to meet up for lunch which took place in a small traditional restaurant. Other than breakfast and the occasional lunch, meals were not included as part of the tour. However we enjoyed a set meal for US$8 each which included a starter, main, dessert and glass of fresh melon juice.

Vegan Ecuadorian main meal

4 of the 8 of us opted for the vegan set meal which consisted of a ceviche starter and a main which included potato fritters and mashed corn, a customary Andean recipe. Ceviche is a traditional South American dish which is served cold and usually consists of raw fish that has been marinaded in lime juice and other spices.

Otavalo is set in a beautiful landscape surrounded by magnificent volcanoes. Above is our bus which parked to enable us to take photographs of the scenery while en-route to our next destination.

During the afternoon of the first day in Otavalo we visited the Parque Condor rescue centre. Our guide made a point of explaining that the primary purpose is that this is a rescue centre and not a tourist attraction. However they did provide an educational demonstration to showcase some of the rescue birds.

Eagle
Owl

Parque Condor has a dramatic setting at the top of a hill overlooking the spectacular surrounding Cotacatchi volcanoes. At this time of the year the weather in the Otavalo region of Ecuador has a fairly set daily pattern. This means sun in the mornings and at some point after lunch the dark clouds appear and the thunder starts. It doesn’t always rain but the thunder is constantly rumbling over the Andes.

Hotel Indio Inn

We had two nights in the Hotel Indio Inn while in Otavalo which had two lovely light and airy courtyards which were surrounded by our rooms. The hotel was centrally located and close to the restaurants and shops of the town.

Trying different types of food and drinks are very much part of the culture and experience of travel and I was fortunate to enjoy these in abundance as part of this trip, particularly while in Otavalo. We had dinner in ‘El Arbol’ (which means The Tree) and were given a welcome drink which was served warm and consisted of a local sugar cane liquor and cinnamon. I enjoyed a wonderful main dish of Ecuadorean stew with fish and king prawns served in a thick peanut sauce.

Laguna Cuicocha

For our second day in the Otavalo region we were driven from the hotel for about 30 minutes to Laguna Cuicocha where we walked around part of this impressive crater mirror lake at the foot of the Cotacachi Volcano.

Leo introduced us to Claudia who was our guide for the volcano hike. We began the trail with a steep climb at an elevation of around 3100 meters. We took it slowly as this did make us catch our breath a bit! The trail levelled off once the lake came into view.

Laguna Cuicocha

Claudia was knowledgeable and took time to explain the names and details of the flora and fauna that surrounds the lake including the many different orchids and also explained the blueberries! There are two types: one is deadly poisonous and must be avoided at all costs whereas the other is safe to eat!

The Laguna Cuicocha has an altitude of around 3000 meters and if you wished to circumnavigate the entire lake it would take about 5 hours to trek the 8.4 miles.

Laguna Cuicocha

Once we had completed our short trek around part of the lake we had a bonus boat trip on the still and calm waters of the lake!

The Cuicocha lake is a volcano caldera which was originally filled with water from the melting of glaciers from the Cotacachi volcano.

Bubbles

Our small boat stopped near to one of the islands in the middle of the lake where in the crystal clear water we could see small bubbles of volcanic gasses continually rising from the bed of the lake.

Fresh quinoa plant growing
Dried quinoa

From the lake we were driven by Wilson for about 30 minutes to Chilcapamba to Wanita’s place for lunch. Wanita runs a local community organic farm. Wanita gave us a demonstration of quinoa grinding and also showed us nearby purple and green quinoa plants growing.

Different types of local corn
Wanita

Wanita about to start serving bowls of traditional quinoa soup. There were dishes of corn and lupid seeds to snack on together with a spicy dip which we found to be a regular addition to our Ecuadorian meals. Eating lupin seeds was a new and quite tasty experience!

Quinoa with blueberries and vegetables

We all sat around a long table for 10 (together with Leo and Wilson) and were served plates of fabulous organic local dishes as grown locally and from which we served ourselves. The above dish of quinoa was served with blueberries – they must have been the safe and edible local variety as we all survived for the rest of the afternoon šŸ™‚

Mixed vegetables

Other dishes included fried plantain, local potatoes, chicken, avocado etc all served with fresh juice – what a wonderful feast! The juice was typical each day as we were given a different and fresh and tasty local juice with each meal and with the organic veg starting to feel very healthy! The whole experience with Wanita was enjoyable, authentic and delicious.

After lunch Wanita gave us a tour of her varied and well stocked garden. She explained and allowed us to smell samples of a huge variety of fresh herbs and spices such as lemongrass and mint.

Wanita’s garden
Rainy Cotacachi

As we left Wanita’s the afternoon clouds had intensified, the thunder had gathered pace and we were soon driving through a hail storm. The roads soon became rivers and by the time we arrived in Cotacachi it was still pouring. The plan had been to spend an hour exploring this small town with its many leather, chocolate and coffee shops ie shops selling packets of locally produced coffee.

Local indigenous people are gentle and honest and as a result Cotacachi is popular as an ex-pat destination for retirees who feel safe living there.

Cotacachi

At a point the rain seemed to ease off we all followed Leo in a line and swiftly walked along the main street while trying to duck under shop canopies. The rain became heavier and we found ourselves sheltering in a chocolate shop šŸ™‚

Pan pipes

Our final stop of the day was a visit to a village called Peguche where we visited an indigenous Andean family with their tropical garden and little workshop who demonstrated how they make and play panpipes.

The whole family played just for us which was so sweet and we all really appreciated it.

As we had all enjoyed such an amazing lunch at Wanita’s, Leo took us a a local pie shop tonight where I had a slice of pineapple pie with chocolate ice cream!

What a wonderful, diverse and interesting time we had in Otavalo! The tour group had quickly gelled together and the trip had got off to a fabulous start. The following morning we set off towards the cloud forests of Mindo.

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