Otavalo and Surrounds

So day 2 in Quito except that day was not going to be spent in Quito.  Instead, we were heading north to the Otavalo market, Cuicocha Lake, the town of Cotacachi, Cascada de Peguche waterfall and the Quitsato Ecuador Site (another line of the equator).

Jamie and Angela met me at my hotel at 8:30 a.m. and we were off in brilliant sunshine once again.  Once out of the city, we headed north on the Pan American Highway and were able to have a pretty good view of the Cotopaxi volcano to the south of Quito because of the clear skies.

Roadside rose and flower stand

As we continued north, the drive took us through the town of Tapacundo, famous for its long stem roses and abundant flowers.  In fact, we passed row upon row of greenhouses where all of these brilliant flowers are grown and shipped all over the world.  We also passed more vendors than I could count selling 3 dozen roses for $5.  And these were not flimsy little roses.  Rather, the rose blooms were huge and in the most beautiful shades of red.

The trip north also saw a change in landscape with the sides of the hills becoming drier and filled with an abundance of agave plants and eucalyptus trees (imported from Australia to help with erosion).

Now Ecuador is filled with volcanoes.  In fact, there are 84 volcanoes in the country (which is the size of Colorado) so as we drove, Angela was constantly pointing out a volcano here and a volcano there.

Unfortunately, as we drove north, the clouds rolled in and obscured my view of Cayambe Volcano and the magnificent Cotacachi Volcano, but from what I was told, it is rare when they are not obscured by clouds.

We passed by San Pablo Lake and reached Otavelo around 10:00ish.  Now Otavalo is famous throughout Ecuador for its market and in particular, its Saturday market run by the indigenous Otavelo people.  Everything is for sale here from fruits and veggies to tapestries, woolens, handicrafts and, of course, the cheap knock off chatzkies. The market also includes an animal market, which is run very early in the morning and usually winds up by 8 so I would miss out on that.

Otavalo Market

After we parked the car, we started in the produce section, which was not as large as I expected.  Maybe 2 blocks long.  But what it lacked in size was more than made up for in terms of quality and choice.  There were a myriad of grains, peppers, fruits, corn and on and on.  The sellers and buyers were mostly locals with the women dressed in long skirts, lots of jewelry (in particular gold) and head coverings, which often was something as simply as a scarf laid flat on the woman’s head.

Otavalo Market
Otavalo Market

Now one thing I immediately noticed was that the streets were surprisingly empty, which Angela attributed to the continuing downturn in tourism coupled with the continuing pandemic.  So sad.

Otavalo Market
Otavalo Market

Anyway, we wandered the produce section before doubling back and plunging head first into the handicrafts area.  There were paintings, carvings, jewelry to name just some of the highlights.  We ended up stopping at one stall where a gentleman showed us his oil and water colour paintings on leather canvas.  I found one that I really liked featuring an Andean night sky so with that purchase under my belt we moved on to a store adjacent to the market where the woman proprietor and her family are famous for their tagua nut (aka vegetarian ivory) jewelry.   I was able to see the various stages of the nut and then the resulting ivory colored nut that is dyed brilliant shades of the rainbow.  The jewelry really was unique and simply gorgeous.

Tagua nut phases of production

After the jewelry stop (and purchase), we went hunting through the handicraft section for my one “must have” purchase … a Christmas ornament.  Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.  Not a one in site, but we did come across a young fellow selling beautiful indigenous carvings that were painted in intricate detail so the push over that I am, I bought one of those as well.

We continued to wander up and down the aisles past stalls to the  polite and never in your face calls from vendors until we had enough and decided it was time to head to our second stop of the day, Cuicocha Lake, (guinea pig lake).

The lake is actually a crater lake that was formed when the Cotacachi Volcano erupted 3,100 years ago. The lake features two volcanic islands in the middle, which are shaped like guinea pigs hence the name.

Cuicocha Lake with two volcanic islands

Now, I did not realize I was in for a fifteen minute hike straight up to the lovely elevation of 3,100 meters (approximately 10,172 feet).  So it was a great relief after huffing and puffing up the staircase (with my mask on) that we reached to viewpoint and the absolutely spectacular site of the lake.

Bathing ritual site at Cuicocha Lake
At Cuicocha Lake

We spent a bit of time taking in the view before wandering down to another viewpoint, past a ritual bathing site to the Pachamama stone ritual site.  Now Pachamama means “mother earth” and she is revered in the Andean countries for what she allows to grow in the Andean region.  Pachamama is everything in this part of the world.

Pachamama ritual stone offering site

So after taking in the views and paying tribute to Pachamama, we hiked back down to the car (yay for hikes down) and drove back through the many little villages we had passed on the way up to the lake to the town of Cotacachi, our next stop.

Cotacachi is known for its leather goods and the shops did not disappoint.  There were beautiful handcrafted purses, wallets and jackets.  After finding a gorgeous leather wallet, we decided to stop for lunch at a little sandwich shop.

Once seated and having placed our orders, Angela pulled out some local fruit for me to try.  First up was taxo, a slightly bitter oblong shaped yellow fruit you squeezed to remove the fruit.  It was OK, but not a favorite.  Second was a naranjilla, an orange coloured fruit that looked slightly like a passion fruit, but tasted far more bitter.  Again, not a favorite.  Third was a tree tomato, which was in a word AWFUL.  Finally there was the standout: the granadilla, which also looked a bit like passion fruit.  It was terrific.

And lunch was also terrific.  A chicken sandwich on homemade bread, with a slightly spicy sauce on the chicken coupled with lettuce and tomatoes.  Simple, but absolutely dynamite.  We topped off lunch with gelato (I had kiwi) before we walked back to the car.  On the way to the car we stopped in one more shop, and I actually found a Christmas ornament.  A hollowed out nut with a nativity scene.  It was OK, but not really what I was looking for.  However, I purchased the ornament to be safe and hoped I would find something more to my liking.

We then drove to the town of Peguche, which is famous for its weavers.  Unfortunately, traditional hand weaving is giving way to machine weaving, with only 30 master hand weavers left in Ecuador.  It is tedious and labor intensive work, and we were going to  visit one of the last remaining workshops.

Cuicocha Lake with two volcanic islands

A quick 20 minutes later and we were in Peguche.  We parked the car across from the very quaint  Iglesia de Peguche and walked inside the shop.  The daughter of the master weaver greeted us and took us downstairs where we were given a lesson in spinning wool into yarn and then a demo of blackstrap weaving (strap around the back, sit on the floor and weave away) as well as the more modern loom weaving.

Blackstrap weaver
The llama ornament

After the demo, we were free to wander around the shop and … guess what I found?  A hand made llama ornament made of … lllama wool.  It even has red and green braiding for the harness.  Perfecto!  In addition, I added to my sweater collection with a handmade llama and alpaca wool sweater.

We then hopped back in the car for the quick 5 minute drive down the road to the Cascada de Peguche aka the Peguche waterfall.  The twenty minute hike to the waterfall took us through 100 year old eucalyptus trees along a dirt trail.  The aroma from the trees almost made me forget that we were hiking UP, but fortunately the up portion was short lived.

Cascade de Peguche

The waterfall is about 18 meters high and is important to the Inti Raymi indigenous people who perform purification rituals at the site each June.  The site was actually really peaceful, with only a handful of locals wandering the path.

After reaching the waterfall, we hiked down a set of stairs and crossed a bride to get a better look at the falls.  We then doubled back and picked up a stone path that took us back out of the park.  It was a lovely little side trip in the cool forest air.

Quitsato “Middle of the Word”
Quitsato Middle of the World sundial

Our last stop of the day was a visit to the “ Quitsato”, Middle of the World site.  We were given a quick geography lesson about the equator by one of the local guides and shown the enormous sundial (which unfortunately was not operational due to the lack of sun).  And as with the day before, I stood with one foot in the north and one in the south hemisphere.

As we walked out the site, we ended up tasting some lovely liqueurs and agave butter.  Yummy.  I ended up purchasing the agave butter (similar to honey) and some bamboo liqueur (very unique flavor) before hopping back in the car.

Now one thing that Angela insisted we do was stop at a shop to try bizcochos, a bread like biscuit that the area is famous for.  In fact, every other shop we passed advertised bizcochos.  So we took a quick trip across the street to a little shop that was continuing to make bizcochos by hand in a wood fired oven.

Oven with Bizcochos

In short order we were served three bizcochos from the warm oven, which we topped with a stringy cheese and a dulce de leche.  I know this sounds odd, but the combo was perfection.

And with that, a very, very long day was done (except for the 2 hour drive back to Quito).  Tomorrow I am off to the Mindo Cloud Forest to do a little zip lining and take in the hummingbirds and butterflies in the area.  Can’t wait!


Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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