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Feast Your Eyes on Otavalo – Our Favorite Non-Climbing Part of Ecuador

Two mountaineers navigating a glacier on a Gasherbrum II Expedition
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Climbing in another country is a rewarding experience that allows you to access terrain and views that you won’t see at home. Another great part of climbing in another country is experiencing the native culture of that land.

One of the best parts about Alpenglow’s Ecuador Climbing trip is our visit to Otavalo, a small town about 36 miles northeast of Quito. After our summit of Cotopaxi, we like to rest and enjoy the colorful culture of Ecuador and have found that there is no better place to do that than in Otavalo. Mountain peaks, including Imbabura, Cotocachi, and the Mojanda Volcanoes, surround this town of about 90,000 residents. Otavalo is probably best known as the home of South America’s largest street market, where you can buy anything from handmade silver jewelry to beautiful woven blankets.

The Otavalo Market is attractive to visitors for both its great shopping and its cultural significance. Saturday is the most popular day for both locals and tourists alike to visit the market. This market is centered around ‘Poncho Plaza’ but extends up and down Salinas street and all intersecting streets for several blocks in each direction. All day long, Andean music and Quichua (Kichwa), the native language that is derived from the Incan tongue, drift across the streets. A maze of colored textiles swallow the area between Quito and Calderón and Bolívar and 31 de Octubre. The Otavalo market is a fascinating way to experience traditional Ecuadorian culture and traditions of the Andes. You can spot the locals by  colorful embroidery on the women’s white blouses and wool skirts that overlay white underskirts. The men often braid their hair and wear stark white shirts, and Otavalo’s children wear brightly colored shawls, with both white and dark layers beneath, often topped with a “Panama hat.”

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The Otavaleno are famous for weaving textiles, and they bring their products to the market to sell. At the market, you will primarily find Ecuadorian indigenous art products, dominated by colorful, woven wool. Tablecloths, blankets, hats, wood carvings, leather goods, and more line the market’s ninety mushroom-shaped concrete umbrellas and benches that were designed and built by Dutch architect Tonny Zwollo. One third of Otavalo is full of stalls selling musical instruments, clothes, purses, spices, raw food, and wool spools. Bargaining is accepted, but as most prices are a bargain anyway, getting the price down is not as integral to the market experience as at Asia’s bazaars.

Food is a hallmark of Ecuadorian culture (as it is for all cultures when traveling) and we focus on meals and snacks throughout our trip. In Otavalo, you will find restaurants with national and international cuisine all over town. Adventurous diners may want to try one of the many food stalls around the handicraft market. You can also sample the traditional roast guinea-pig (“cuy asado”) there. It’s delicious, but you might have to eat a few pigs, as they don’t have much meat on their bones.

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Interestingly enough, Otavalo is an area that used to be principally made up of farming communities due to the rich volcanic soils in the area. As tourism boomed, the town began to focus heavily on the making of handicrafts, which now make up the Saturday market. A proud culture, native Otavaleno have become so good at their crafts that they have started selling their products worldwide, often traveling to distant towns and countries to sell their famous Otavaleno wool, leather goods, and clothes.

Alpenglow’s visit to the market is one of our favorite parts of our trip and we are always excited to return and share the experience with new climbers. Our hotel in Otavalo, the Ali Shungu Mountaintop Lodge, is highly ranked and offers amazing sunrise and sunset mountain views. After our summit of Cotopaxi, we strive to relax and truly enjoy the fruits of our labor. We gladly plan a day to relish in the native people of Ecuador, all while enjoying the noise, smells, and tastes of the Otavalo Saturday market.

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