Otavalo, Ecuador

After haggling with the police I headed a few hours down the road to Otavalo, a pretty little town set amidst several volcanoes. Along the way the bus got pulled over at a police checkpoint. A lot of people dutifully got off and had their bags searched. I wasn’t about to go through that again, so I just sat there hoping they’d forget about me. They came on and checked my passport, but my bag was forgotten about in the shuffle, thank goodness. I’m going to have to split this country if these searches keep happening – it’s intimidating and imposing. But I think it’s probably only near the border – there has been a lot of guerrilla activity in that area in the last few years. Rick (the guy I walked around San Agustín with) said it was unusual for this not to have happened to me in Colombia – apparently his buses were frequently pulled over.

Back on our way and we dropped in altitude, thereby raising the temperature. Thank gawd – that border town I stayed in the first night was freeeezing. But as in La Ceiba, the bus went flying by my destination. Odd, since Otavalo is the biggest town around. I’m thinking oh, there must be a bus station outside of town, I’ll just wait. But after several more kilometres, I go up and ask the conductor, “I’m going to Otavalo, wasn’t that Otavalo back there?” No, he says, it’s coming up. Huh, there sure were a lot of signs for Otavalo. Maybe there are two of them?! Then I start asking other passengers – “Otavalo? It’s way back there!” This conductor was on crack. He kept insisting it was in front of us. Finally he dropped me in the middle of the highway, and I flagged down another bus going back to Otavalo. I think this country is testing me.

I decided to try one of the hostels listed in hosteltrail.com, my new favorite site. This place wasn’t listed in my guidebook, but I was glad I took the chance. Check it out – my own private room with TV including bathroom with hot water, good quality bed, windows on both walls, free laundry, use of kitchen, etc – $7/night. Wow! I’m loving Ecuador already. The sun was in “golden hour”, and the hostel has a 360 degree view over the town. Absolutely gorgeous.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into things having only been in Ecuador for 48 hours, but already I notice differences from Colombia – the vibe seems to be much mellower. Take the garbage trucks – in Colombia, they incessantly clang a loud bell telling you to bring out your garbage as it rolls down the street. Here, the sound is akin to glass harps. It’s beautiful – I went chasing for blocks after the music, only to discover it was coming from the garbage truck! There is a lot less honking, and generally people are relaxed and chill. It reminds me of crossing into Belize from Guatemala – releasing the pressure. I may revise my opinion tomorrow when I roll into Quito, but for the moment I have a great opinion of the country.

Otavalo doesn’t have colonial charm, instead it’s a modern, functional town. It’s most famous for it’s indigenous market which is biggest on Saturdays, and apparently one of the most important in South America. I’m not actually bummed I’ll miss the Saturday market, because I’m getting to see the town at it’s most real, before the hordes of tourists and vendors descend. I’m getting the benefit of the tourist infrastructure without the tourists themselves. And let me just say how happy I am to be back in a tourist town. Strange thing to say, right? While I’m all for getting off the beaten path, there’s a reason tourists don’t go to many of the places I’ve been! And this town seems to have struck a nice balance – menus in English, yummy gringo food, but the prices are still quite cheap and the locals aren’t jaded. There is a pie shop, heaven! Apple, blackberry, strawberry, real home-baked pies. Lots of pizza restaurants. There are also a ton of internet cafes here, as there were in that border town. This is a Good Sign. A lot of places advertising WiFi – rubbing it in, since I don’t have that ability anymore. A lot of  people switch to English as I talk with them, which rarely happened in Colombia. Interesting. Don’t worry, I won’t use it as a crutch. Actually the Spanish I’ve heard so far is fairly comprehensible.

I wandered around the market this morning and it was so calm and peaceful, no yelling or commotion. The markets in Colombia are crazy (which can be fun in it’s own way, for sure) – bullhorns, shouting, cajoling – but this was the opposite. The indigenous people that sell their handicrafts in the market and by my estimate make up about 1/4 of the town (with many more living in the surrounding area) are Kichwa, and they are gorgeous. Like other Andean peoples, they have high cheekbones, flawless caramel skin, jet black hair all the way down their backs (both men and women, usually worn in braids) and wear traditional clothes.. the women with fantastic gold necklaces, while the men sport Sam Spade fedoras. The babies always strapped to mom’s back as she works all day.  I wanted to take everyone’s photo, but I don’t yet know how to do that without treating them like animals in a zoo. Perhaps in the future – for now there is Google Images. But it’s fantastic to be immersed like this – I haven’t experienced this concentration of indigenous people since Guatemala.

Apparently Otavalo is also unique because the indigenous here have done quite well for themselves, and own many of the businesses in town (whereas indigenous people are typically relegated to second-class status). They are cunning businesspeople, and can be found selling their weavings the world over. Weavings were originally done on a backstrap loom – a laborious process that required up to a month to produce a single blanket or poncho. The Spanish introduced the treadle loom, turning weeks into hours. Today, the electric loom has turned hours into minutes and enabled mass production. The quality is not the same, but the good news is that most of the businesses are still family-run, with profits going directly into the community rather than into multi-national corporations.

Like Panama and El Salvador, Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar for it’s currency. Except the coins, which are a mixture of U.S. coins and Ecuador-minted coins – but of course they look nothing like each other! Interestingly, they use a lot of Sacagawea dollar coins. It’s weird to be using dollars again – I hadn’t seen one in so long. And my head is still on Colombian pesos, which are counted in the thousands (1 USD = 2,053 pesos). So I’m re-adjusting my Spanish math language.

After a great breakfast (granola and yogurt with great coffee, ahhh) and wandering around the market, I borrowed a bicycle from the hostel and set out for the day’s adventure. Biking 5 km uphill on a pitted cobblestone road following an old railway track got the blood pumping. I arrived at Condor Park but missed seeing the magnificent birds by 10 minutes. No worries, I continued down the other side of the ridge to tranquil San Pablo lake, overshadowed by the massive Imbabura volcano. It was a beautiful day, perfect temperature, sunny and bright. The streams running from the lake are impossibly clean and clear, and the villages surrounding were calm and peaceful. I followed signs for Peguche waterfall. It’s not super tall, but very powerful – I couldn’t get any closer than about 40′ without getting soaked.

Then I happened upon a simple indigenous museum/gallery/crafts shop/house in the woods. Dude comes out and convinces me to give him $2 for showing me around… ok I say, but isn’t it about to rain? Judging by the clouds, it’s fixin’ to be a mighty storm. No way, he says, not going to rain – and I believe him, I mean he’s the nature man, practically a shaman, right? Sure enough we begin our walk and the clouds open up. He’s not bothered at all, meanwhile the gringo is shivering while trying to pay attention to whatever he’s going on about. I start to realize this is all set up for tourists. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for modern indigenous people embracing their history and defending their culture, I have the utmost respect. But this place was clearly catering to new-age suckers. He showed me a large warm rock with steam rising from it that contains “energy” which he demonstrated by placing both hands on it and vibrating his body. I would call that “fumarole energy”, especially since he had just shown me a hot spring nearby.. the whole area is volcanic. They had an “astronomical observatory” consisting of rocks placed in a circle with a dot of paint on each one. Maybe it was an astrological observatory, not astronomical. Oh, he was pushing “traditional” board games that would tell your horoscope, too. Interesting aside – passing an avocado tree, he mentioned that the Incas believed that avocados were aphrodisiacs, and as such, didn’t let children eat them until they were 18. Everything was said with a perfectly straight face.

The hostel manager later told me about some of the cleanses the indigenous around here can do for you. In the egg cleanse, they pass an egg over your body, and it absorbs your negative energy. I hope they at least mumble some jumble along with it. In another, they rub a live guinea pig over your body, then slice it open, and wherever it’s diseased, you are too. For example, if it’s liver is bad, then yours is too. I really don’t want to know what the next step is. She did one in which they spray aguardiente (alcohol) from their mouth through a flame and onto you. Sounds like “world’s stupidist tricks”, not a cleansing. There’s another one in which they pour aguardiente over your head and you have to leave the sticky mess on for 24 hours. I ran into this one in Bali.. there, they call the cleanse “Let’s Make Fun of the Tourist”.

The first three photos are from Pasto, the last town I stayed at in Colombia. The rest are from Otavalo.
UPDATE: Added six more photos (at the bottom) after returning to Otavalo with Elo on 7/18.


Written by in: Ecuador | Tags: , ,


  • Eddie says:

    Hey Josh
    Glad that Ecuador has now shown you its up-side (I am planning to follow our garbage truck around on Fri)– and a more varied diet.
    Not sure if it is a browser upgrade for me, or if you changed something at your end, but I really like the slide show in addition to the captioned stills in your photo section.
    We send you love and wishes for more good coffee down the road.

  • Rocío says:

    Oh my god! I have laughed my head off so hard that my mum and sisters came to see what was going on… (they had a good laugh also when i could cath my breath again, stop giggling and translate).
    Mum said You should try the guinea pig ‘trick’ once. Will take bad things off you straight away! He he he… :p

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