Located in the Andean highlands in northern Ecuador, the town of Otavalo is known for one of the most important markets in the region; an outdoor market that’s the largest on the continent and one that’s been going strong for centuries.
Come on a Saturday and the centre of town transforms into a throbbing extravaganza of people and multi-colour, with seemingly endless stalls branching in all directions from Plaza de los Ponchos.
Hoards of tourists swarm the market on Saturday mornings, especially day-trippers from Quito, but if you want to avoid the visitor crowds – do what we did. Spend Friday night in Otavalo.
This way you can leisurely stroll the town and explore its many stores, cafes and restaurants, plus check out the permanent market in the main square. Here you’ll see vintage wares, handbags, runners, trinkets, jewellery and alpaca wool scarves, throws, beanies, jumpers, gloves and much more. The prices are reasonable, too.
Once you have that out of the way, get up the following morning before the busloads arrive at 9am and see the rest of the market that spills into all the streets around the square.
Aside from the usual garb, you can’t help but notice there’s a whole lot rubbish in there, as well. Stuff you may see in average souvenir stores, much of it imported from abroad. Fridge magnets, fluro dream catchers, plastic toys, you name it.
Sidestep all of that and focus on what a lot of the villagers have come to trade at the market. Fresh produce. Many vendors don traditional outfits, something that adds to the vibrant market, so if you like your people shots, do it discreetly or simply ask. As much as I love my people shots, I also wouldn’t want a camera pointed at me in my workplace.
Food at Otavalo Market is very abundant – from freshly baked breads to breakfast bolón, soups, grilled plantain, freshwater fish, and for the pork lover – hornados. It really is difficult to miss those whole roast pigs.
Wondering what those green pods are? That’s guaba, a snack you see almost everywhere in these parts when they’re in season. You simply split the pod open to reveal seeds encased in a sweet, creamy membrane that you eat. You don’t eat the seeds as they’re toxic, apparently.
Not too far from the main square is Mercado Municipio, a smaller set-up that has more of a local focus. No trinkets, souvenirs, textiles and handicrafts here.
Expect to see a lot of fresh produce, household goods, a little ordinary clothing, and if you head inside, fresh meats and a wet market. You may even notice you’re the only gringo around.
Facing the street are a couple of food stations grilling up marinated meats and offal, and maybe some kind of cauldron bubbling with a meaty stew.
Mora – blackberries.
Hornados vendor at Mercado Municipio.
Snails with salt & lime.
Heading away from the bustle of the markets reveals commercial streets lined with all that you’d expect from a Latino town.
If you’re into your street food, you can start by seeking out someone selling espumilla. This ubiquitous confectionary is basically egg whites whipped with copious amounts of sugar, some colouring and maybe even some fruit. Grab a cone and get a sugar high!
If savoury is more your thing, follow the locals and buy a small bag of boiled snails tossed with salt and chopped lime. Simply suck them out and toss the shell. Easy!
Maybe some grilled chicken feet with potatoes is more your thing, or balls of fried dough doused in sugar. You can’t leave Otavalo without trying the sugared peanuts. They’re sold everywhere, and make the perfect snack.
For the best coffee in Otavalo, look no further than La Cosecha. Stepping into the beautifully designed space immediately sets the tone for what you’re in for. Relaxation, good, simple food and excellent coffee. Plus a bit of wifi action for those of us that need to connect.
They do hot and cold sandwiches, a huge range of tea, plus hot chocolate and beer – even scarves and bespoke fair trade jewellery. They do some nice bagels for breakfast, too.
They may not be your typical Ecuadorian prices, but when it comes to quality ciabatta sandwiches like The Bravo – bacon, turkey, tomato, smoked provolone, pesto mayo – it’s worth the $7.
Do yourself a favour and try the magic bar – shredded coconut, walnuts, chocolate, condensed milk and biscuit crumbs. A sweet tooth’s dream.
La Cosecha, Calle Modesto Jaramillo
Tourist-centric restaurants don’t generally interest this pair, but we were glad we dropped into Mi Otavalito as the trout we had ended up being the best we’d tried anywhere in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.
National and International dishes grace the menu, plus some very tempting pork baked in a wood-fire oven.
I wasn’t totally wrapped with the ceviche Mi Otavalo (5), namely from the thickened sour and sweet sauce it waded in. Something that was akin to processed salad dressing from the supermarket.
The trout, however, is a whole different story. We adored it.
Trucha en salsa de mariscos (10) was to-die-for flavoursome, grilled to perfection and topped with a dreamy sauce with squid, octopus and shrimp.
Trucha a Mi Otavalito (pictured; 9.5) is equally as delicious – a simpler sauce of shrimp and garlic.
Mi Otavalito, Calle Sucre 11-19
Buses leave from Terminal Terrestre Carcelon in Quito every 20 minutes and cost $2.50 per person. Travel time is 2 hours.
To get to Terminal Terrestre Carcelon from the Quito’s old town, a taxi will be around $10. Be sure that it’s a registered taxi, not an unmarked one.